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Music Feature Print

A "Mighty Handful" of French Pianist-Composers, Their World, Their Pianos, Piano Music, and Playing Styles - Part II

June 15, 2012 - Williamsburg, MA:

Richard Wagner and France, and “wagnérisme” in France

In Europe in the late 19th century, when Paris was the cultural capital of the Western world, all musicians were under the spell of Wagner’s music, and all French composers were sensitive to it, some favorably at the outset, although it showed up less in their music for piano because Wagner didn’t write for that instrument, which lends itself less well than an orchestra to his style of “overblown Romanticism and ever-progressing chromatic harmonies,” as Jessica Duchen [Duchen, p. 29.] describes it, in any event. Chabrier, as assistant to Charles Lamoureux, conductor of the orchestra which to this day bears his name (It premièred Debussy’s Nocturnes in 1900 and 1901 and his La Mer in 1905.), helped introduce Wagner’s music to French audiences in the 1880s by presenting concert versions of and extracts from the operas. Many composers, Chabrier, Fauré, and Debussy among these five, were attracted to Wagner’s music and his aesthetic ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk [= total art work] because of their similarity to the ideas of the French and Belgian Symbolist poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Maeterlinck, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud [A few relevant poems are reproduced in Appendix E below.] and Symbolist painters such as Maurice Denis (who drew the covers for some of Debussy’s works), Paul Gauguin, and Odilon Redon, that promoted a fusion of the arts, particularly poetry, painting, and music. Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), who arrived in Paris in 1909 with his Ballets Russes, also subscribed to this aesthetic; he is reputed to have said: “Perfect ballet can only be created by the fusion of dancing, painting, and music.” His work, of which the 1912 ballet l’Après-midi d’un faune, set to Debussy’s 1894 Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, inspired by the poem of Mallarmé of the same title as the ballet, choreographed and danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, and featuring sets and costumes by the painter Léon Bakst, was perhaps its apotheosis, carrying this on into the early 20th century and up to WW I, which brought everything to an end. [Winnaretta Singer de Polignac was responsible for the transfer of the Ballets Russes to Monaco in 1922 through her nephew, Comte Pierre de Polignac, who became Prince Pierre de Monaco when he married Charlotte Grimaldi, the heiress to the throne, in 1920; Prince Rainier III, who married Grace Kelly, was their son.]

This interconnection among the arts was perhaps more prevalent during this Belle Époque and turn-of-the-century period preceding WW I than at any other time, and gave rise to the theory known as synaesthesia in which certain sounds represent specific colors and specific colors evoke certain sounds. In poetry, it was the vowels that evoked specific colors, although poets did not necessarily agree on which color each vowel evoked.  Poet René Ghil (1862-1925) laid out his science-based theory in his Traité du verbe in 1886 [See Appendix E.]. This theory is not totally unrelated to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk theory, but rather more specific, less grandiose, and with something of an attempted scientific basis. None of these composers sought to associate specific colors with certain sounds, although some later ones did. The concept nonetheless influenced some of their works, including some for the piano. It also had its equivalent in Austria with the Second Viennese School and its connections with the Blaue Reiter group of painters in southern Germany/Bavaria, also known as the German Expressionists; Arnold Schoenberg was a painter as well as a composer.

Richard Wagner (1813-83) was convinced in his early years that in order for his music and musical ideas to be accepted in his homeland they needed first to be accepted in France because Germans’ ideas of opera looked first to its models and those from Italy. To this end, he made at least ten trips to France between 1839 and 1867, two of them involving lengthy stays, his first of 2.75 years, his seventh 20 years later of 1.75; the purpose of his ninth in 1864 was to purchase a home in the south of France, but this was aborted by the death of his first wife Minna, and then in 1865 by the birth of his daughter Isolde to Cosima Lizst (then married to Hans von Bülow; their son Siegfried was born in 1867), who became his second wife in 1870. Saint-Saëns met him during one of these stays in 1859, when he played for him, at sight from the orchestral score, all of Tristan und Isolde (Hans van Bülow had earlier heard Saint-Saëns play all of Schumann’s symphonies in like manner, and told Wagner of Saint-Saëns’ prodigious sight-reading talent.).

From the beginning, Wagner sought to acquire supporters in order to have his works staged at the Opéra. He ultimately succeeded in attaining the former goal: two groups were formed: Le Petit Bayreuth (founded in 1876, year of the first Bayreuth Festival) and Bayreuth de Poche (founded in 1880), and a short-lived (1885-’88) journal, La Revue wagnérienne, was founded, but all much later as the dates show. The groups organized concerts, mostly in private homes, to present excerpts from Wagner’s operas; Chabrier, Fauré, and Saint-Saëns were among the musicians in several of those offered by Le Petit Bayreuth. They, along with Debussy, made pilgrimages to Bayreuth for festivals; the Comtesse Greffulhe and the Princesse de Polignac also made the pilgrimage several times, but the latter never worked to bring Wagner’s music to France as did the former. Meg de Saint-Marceaux went in 1871 in the company of Fauré, whose expenses she raised through a raffle held in her salon. The rules of the establishment made the attainment of his second goal extremely difficult: operas performed at the Opéra had to be in French, have a ballet at the opening of the second act, and their composers were not permitted to conduct the performances. Wagner had great difficulty finding someone to provide a satisfactory French libretto for his works, and refused to insert a perfunctory dance episode into his works because it would destroy their unity and integrity. The first opera to be successfully staged in the main hall of the Opéra was Lohengrin in 1891, eight years after Wagner’s death, although Tannhaüser had seen three disastrous performances there in March 1861 that were disrupted and jeered before Wagner withdrew it. A full production of any of his works was therefore essentially never presented in Paris during his lifetime. To a certain extent, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1894-’95, premièred 1902) represents the greatest imitation and incorporation of Wagner’s aesthetic principles into a work by any of these five composers, but it also deviates from them in many ways and is distinctly French. Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1886) also followed his principles, as did Fauré’s Pénélope, but with a twist, using leitmotifs for the characters in a work that remained closer to the French Baroque opera and cantata’s more declamatory traditions.

Most of the composers ultimately resisted the hegemony of the Austro-German tradition and the suppression of the French tradition that resulted from French composers’ emulation of it, and sought to bring French music back into the indigenous tradition as it had evolved from the Baroque era, but by applying some of these concepts to their compositions to bring them into the modern era. For example, Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie (Préludes I/10, 1910?) was inspired by the same Breton legend as Édouard Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys (1878, premièred in 1888), but he painted a miniature sound picture of a single element/moment in the style of the Baroque clavecinistes rather than telling the entire story in grandiose fashion as Lalo did following Wagner’s model of using national history, legends, and myths. In addition, many perceived Wagner’s strong anti-Semitism and Francophobia, which he often made little attempt to conceal, frequently making blatant statements and publishing writings that revealed them. The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 brought about a strong anti-German and anti-Wagner reaction in France, led by Saint-Saëns in the music world, that it took the better part of a decade to overcome, only succeeding later on the intellectual principle that the artistic work was independent of the man. Saint-Saëns revived his anti-German effort during WW I, when Debussy subscribed, going so far as to have “musicien français” appear beneath his name on published scores, and inscribed on his tombstone.

Heirs of the French Baroque clavecinistes

All five composers saw themselves as continuing the French musical tradition and adding some originality to it to move it forward into modern times, in evolutionary rather than revolutionary fashion. César Franck, on hearing six of Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques performed by Marie Poitevin in a concert of the S.N.M. on 9 April 1881, purportedly said: “Nous venons d’entendre quelque chose d’extraordinaire : une musique qui relie notre temps à celui de Couperin et de Rameau.” [We have just heard something extraordinary: music that links our time to that of Couperin and Rameau.] Saint-Saëns edited the complete Pièces de clavecin of Rameau for the publisher Durand in 1895, project to which Debussy also contributed beginning in 1905. Of the five, only Debussy considered himself a revolutionary, seeking to break with the past and create something totally new: contemporary pianist Marguerite Long, who knew all but Chabrier, said that he defined French music as “the incarnation of fantasy and sensibility.” [at the piano with Debussy, p. 29.] He sought to make musical works sonic representations of works of poetry or natural phenomena. Although he began under the influence of Wagner, he never really imitated any of Wagner’s forms.

In fact Fauré had created the intellectual and spiritual freedom and Ravel had laid the material musical groundwork for Debussy to be able to move the tradition more dramatically forward. The poet Tristan Klingsor (nom de plume of Léon Leclère, author of the texts in Ravel’s Shéhérézade) wrote in his essay in Emile Vuillermoz’ Maurice Ravel par quelques-uns de ses familiers (Paris, Éditions du Tambourinaire, 1939, p. 136): “Ravel n’a jamais été un révolutionnaire. Il est presque incroyable que les académiques n’aient pas senti combien il était classique.” [Ravel was never a revolutionary. It is almost unbelievable that the academics did not understand how much he was a traditionalist.] Fauré was probably the most classic of the five in the form and structure of his works, but his harmonies and modulations were quietly revolutionary, frequently incorporating the modes that he had learned at the École Niedermeyer, which placed strong emphasis on Medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony that the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum ignored, and were therefore essentially forgotten and unknown in the France of the time, turning the tradition in a new direction and opening it up for new pathways to be explored.

All five repeatedly insisted that their music should be played as written, without interpretation in the Romantic Austro-German style, and they indicated in their scores when they wanted some rubato. Debussy, sound painting concepts notwithstanding, spoke of imperceptible rubato that remains within the beat, sometimes referred to as tempo rubato. Louis (Ludwig) Spohr, in his Violinschule (Vienna, 1832, p. 199), described the execution of this thus: "Trage man so vor, dass den ersten Noten etwas längere Dauer, als ihr Werth verlnagt, gegeben, und der Zeitverlust durch schnelleres Abspeilen der folgenden wieder beyegebracht wird. Diese Vortragsweise nennt man tempo rubato." [One plays so that the first note is slightly longer, as if its value were lengthened, and the lost time is made up by playing the following notes faster. This way of playing is called tempo rubato.] They stressed that it was about the music, not about the emotions it inspired in the musician, like the music of the clavecinistes.

Saint-Saëns, who was the most Romantic of the five (although Fauré’s music shows some influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, perhaps the result of his instruction by Saint-Saëns as well as of his own inclinations) did not like the music of Debussy at all, and made numerous negative comments about it: legend has it that once, upon hearing that Debussy had an upset stomach [perhaps an early sign of the colorectal cancer that took his life?], he quipped: “He must have been eating his own music.” [Roy Howat, p. 352 (Chapt. 6, n. 13).]. Debussy thought Saint-Saëns’ music was ‘old-fashioned’ and somewhat frivolous; indeed, he did resist modernism fairly strenuously, perhaps not a surprise since he was the elder statesman of the group. This is the only major case of prolonged negativity amongst them, although the Debussy-Ravel Habanera incident in 1903 had some unpleasant moments, and they were eventually estranged for several years as the result of critics’ printed comments pitting them against each other; they apparently ultimately reconciled without ever again becoming as close as they had been initially.  Debussy had attended the première of Ravel’s two-movement Sites auriculaires for two pianos (1895 & ’97, pub. 1975) at an S.N.M. concert on 5 March 1898 in the Salle Pleyel, performed by Marthe Dron and Ricardo Viñes and, being impressed, asked Ravel for a copy of the score. Some years later, critic Pierre Lalo (son of the composer Édouard) noticed that a musical figure in Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade (Estampes/2, 1903), marked tempo de habanera, closely resembled one in Ravel’s Habanera (Sites auriculaires/1, November 1895) and accused Ravel of taking it from the Debussy work. Critics Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi and Jean Marnold defended Ravel’s originality and composer and critic Gaston Carraud [Both Fauré and Debussy also wrote extensive musical criticism.] said Debussy’s music resembled Ravel’s. Ravel had to take up the pen to establish the actual chronology in print and point out that his Jeux d’eau (1901) preceded Debussy’s similar Jardins sous la pluie (Estampes/3, 1903), but nevertheless the discussion continued for some years. When Ravel later orchestrated the Habanera and used it as a movement in his Rhapsodie espagnole (/3, 1907-’08), the published score included a statement indicating its origin and composition date. [This is set out in detail in Orenstein, pp. 31-33]. In 1909, Ravel made a duet arrangement of Debussy’s Nocturnes, and a two-piano one of his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1910, so he more or less buried his grudge.

French piano playing style: physical restraint, carezzando touch, and jeu perlé

Debussy was always said to have played like his idol, Chopin, with extreme dynamic nuance and skillful precision in a style sometimes referred to as the carezzando touch, in which the finger is placed on rather than above the key, near its center, and then slides towards and off its edge. Most American pianists play Chopin with too much emotive ebullience, effusion, and energy, and too loudly. Both he and Debussy are said to have rarely played above mf, but, of course, they were not playing in venues anything like the size of today’s concert halls, for which accommodations must be made; the problem is that many pianists do not scale back their concert hall volume when playing in smaller venues. Marguerite Long said that Debussy always played with the lid closed [at the piano with Debussy, p. 39.]. This may have been one of the ways by which he sought to make the instrument sound as if it had no hammers, as he said he aspired to do; it may also have been the result of his being accustomed to using uprights. Both Saint-Saëns and Fauré are said to have played in this same manner, and most of their music calls for this sort of treatment, but for them this may also be a carryover from organ playing – it doesn’t matter how hard you depress an organ key; the sound is the same because it is controlled by other features of the instrument such as stops and swell pedals; this cannot explain Debussy’s and Ravel’s style, however. By all accounts, Saint-Saëns was a prodigious pianist, and everyone who commented on his playing expressed astonishment at his ability to play so expressively in such a ramrod-straight position and with so little body movement.  The recordings he made, even when in his 80s, demonstrate a remarkable facility and virtuosity. Ravel was also said to have played with great physical restraint.

This style of piano playing is today referred to as the ‘French style;’ it is sometimes referred to as the “jeu perlé,” in which each note is crisp and pure like each pearl in a string. It is based on the way that Chopin played and taught, but also on the playing style of the Classical clavecinistes (that we now generally refer to as ‘Baroque,’ but the French do not use this term for them because their period was the ‘Classical’ one of Louis XIV and Louis XV). Harpsichords, like organs, make the same sound regardless of how you depress the keys because the strings are plucked, not struck, so nuances have to be obtained in a manner other than by force. It is characterized by delicacy, clarity, grace, precision, refinement, sophistication, articulation, an ordered sense of balance, color, a melodic tone, high technical accomplishment, and total emotional detachment, an avoidance of grandiose gestures. It is more intellectual than emotional; it values quality of tone over quantity, and the treatment of the instrument as a harmonic, not a percussive one. It is also marked by restraint of body movement, with the wrists and fingers doing the bulk of the work, forearms supporting these, and elbows held close to the sides, upper arms vertical, as Stamaty taught. There is no thrashing of the arms or banging of the hands on the keyboard. Chopin is reputed to have asked his pupils who withdrew their fingers from the keys, their hands from the keyboard abruptly and in an upward flourish: “Vous brûlez-vous ?” [“Did you burn yourself?”]. It’s a piano, not a hot kitchen stove! Further, it stresses strict adherence to the markings in the score, and as composers, Debussy and Ravel in particular, but also Chabrier, constantly stressed that their works should be performed thus. In performance, both eschewed showy virtuosity, although both, Ravel often deliberately, wrote works that required great technical skill to execute, Ravel’s overt while the virtuosity required to execute Debussy’s was often more concealed and subtle. This style was taught at the Conservatoire at least through the end of WW II.

The composers’ childhoods, education, early piano instruction, and parallels amongst them

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, but his parents were originally from Normandy; he was an only child, as was Chabrier. He had essentially no formal scholastic instruction. His first piano teacher was his widowed great-aunt Charlotte Masson, with whom he and his widowed mother lived, beginning when he was two and a half; he learned everything in the instruction book in a single month. His piano teacher from age 7 until he entered the Conservatoire at age 14 was Camille-Marie Stamaty (1811-70), a student of pianist-composer Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), contemporary and friend of Chopin and business colleague of Camille Pleyel, owner of the Pleyel piano company, son of its founder, composer Ignaz Pleyel. Kalkbrenner, and then Stamaty, taught crisp, clean, fine, piano playing that emphasized evenness of tone, independence and strength of the fingers, and minimal movement, preferably absolute immobility of the body and arms with elbows tucked into the body; Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69) was Saint-Saëns’ studio mate during those years, and thus acquired the same technique. Kalkbrenner devised a bar known as the “Guide-mains” that attached to the front of the case in front of the keyboard on which the forearm rested so that it did not move, confining all movement to the hands and fingers, and designed to help strengthen the wrist and fingers and increase each one’s independence. Stamaty was taught to play using this device and taught Saint-Saëns using it, and although Saint-Saëns taught the same method to his students including Fauré, he did not use the device, believing the same result could be obtained by less unpleasant means; Fauré helped pass the technique on to Ravel. Fauré was Ravel’s composition teacher, but one of his piano teachers was Émile Descombes (1829-1912), a colleague and friend of Antoine-François Marmontel (1816-98), who was not a product of the Kalkbrenner-Stamaty tradition, but did not stray far from it, since his teacher was Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann (1785-1853), a Conservatoire classmate and colleague of Kalkbrenner, son of the Parisian piano maker who built Saint-Saëns’ great-aunt Charlotte’s miniature piano on which he first learned to play. Descombes was an acquaintance of Chopin, and was also one of Erik Satie’s teachers.

Fauré was born in Pamiers, in the region of Foix, in southwestern France, in the Pyrénées just west of the French portion of Catalunia. He was essentially raised as an only child because his four brothers and only sister were considerably older than he and mostly away from home, either grown or in school. He had an initial basic schooling at the Montgauzy Teacher Training College in the town of Foix of which his father was head and where the family lived after he was 4, and where he also had music lessons from an unidentified teacher, at the small organ in the local church, but no piano lessons per se. His natural talent was noticed by the area’s député (the equivalent of a Member of the House of Representatives), who persuaded his parents that he should study in Paris, and perhaps persuaded Louis Niedermeyer to offer him the ¾ scholarship as a boarding student in his school that permitted him to enter it at the age of 9 in 1854, one of the school’s youngest students. He nonetheless remained attached to his native region throughout his life. Both Chabrier and Ravel also remained throughout their lives attached to their regions of birth, the Basque region and the Auvergne respectively. In all three cases, elements from their native regions appeared in some of their works. The bourrée is a traditional auvergnat dance, the rhythm of Chabrier’s last work, the Bourrée fantasque. Contrary to popular conception, Ravel’s family left the Basque region for Paris when he was three months old, but as an adult he had a home in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, across the inlet from his birthplace Ciboure, where he generally spent the summers, often with invited friends, and where some spent the WW I years. Both of them also spent the final years of their lives afflicted with diseases that impaired their mental faculties and prevented them from composing; both attended, in their final year, performances of their own works that they seemingly did not recognize. Fauré, like Beethoven almost exactly a century earlier, became increasingly deaf after 1900.

Debussy was born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, but the family moved to Paris when he was small. His first piano teacher was Mme Mauté de Fleurville, mother-in-law of the poet Paul Verlaine, whom he met at les mardis, the gatherings at the home of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and whose Art poétique had a strong influence on him (It focuses on the music of poetry.), as did Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences, which focuses on the interrelationships among the senses [Texts are found in Appendix E.]. Synesthesia appealed to Debussy. Verlaine was a close friend of Chabrier, who also frequented these gatherings. Mme Mauté was said to have been a student of Chopin; there is no documentary evidence to support this assertion and chronology makes it highly unlikely if not impossible. Nonetheless, her (mis?-)representation of herself as such was in part responsible for Debussy’s worship and emulation of Chopin: he is the sole composer of the five to have written full sets of Préludes and Études (the latter dedicated to Chopin, his only work dedicated to another composer), specifically following Chopin’s models, bringing the form into the 20th century by transforming it. The Préludes are at the same time musical poems, but what are often printed as their titles are in fact post-scripts, because they are printed after the music in the scores. He was also asked in 1915 by his publisher Durand to edit Chopin’s works, because the German editions were unavailable in France during WW I, and did so. At the Conservatoire, which he entered in 1872 at age 10, Debussy studied with Marmontel (See above.), who also taught legendary pianist Marguerite Long (1874-1966), good friend of Ravel, and author of three books: au piano avecRavel, Debussy, and Fauré. Ravel’s first piano teacher at age 7 was Henry Ghys; he moved on in 1888 to study with Émile Descombes, a pupil of Chopin who taught at the Conservatoire, which he entered in 1889 at age 14.

Chabrier’s piano instruction was, however, entirely outside this tradition. His first piano teachers were, successively, a pair of Spanish émigrés, Manuel Zaporta and Mateo Pitarch, who may have been the initial kindling of his interest in Spain and Spanish music. He was born in Ambert, a village in the Puy-de-Dôme region of the Auvergne, a region in central France. The family (His father was a lawyer.) moved to Clermont-Ferrand when he was 11, where he studied piano with Alexandre Tarnowski, a Polish refugee originally from Vilna, Lithuania, and went on to Paris when he was 16, where he studied with yet another refugee, Édouard Wolff (1816-80), from Warsaw, Poland, a friend of Chopin. Chabrier was also by all accounts a prodigious pianist, but his performance style was therefore entirely different from the French style. Francis Poulenc, who wrote a brief biography of Chabrier followed by some tribute texts, writes that “the demon of piano-playing was so strong in him that he drew sparks from the keyboard.” [Francis Poulenc, Emmanuel Chabrier, p. 24.].

He had a reputation, similar to that of Liszt, of rendering instruments unplayable, with broken strings and mechanisms: there are at least three written descriptions of such occasions, all involving performances of his own España (originally written for the piano, but never published in that version during Chabrier’s lifetime, soon orchestrated, premièred, and published in that form), a performance of which is also said to be the subject depicted in the famous caricature sketch of him at the keyboard by Édouard Detaille, reproduced on the cover of the 14 June 1887 issue of La Revue illustrée. Yvonne Tiénot [Yvonne Tiénot, Chabrier par lui-même et par ses intimes, Paris: Henri Lemoine et Cie., 1965, p. 46], quotes one of these, by Antoine Banès, from an article in Le Radical, 11 January 1911, also quoted elsewhere:

"Jamais je n’oubilerai le jour où, dans le cabinet des éditeurs Enoch et Costallat, il consentit à me jouer – à moi seul – cette superbe rhapsodie. Le combat fut terrible ; le piano succomba ! Les touches gémissaient, les cordes grinçaient, les pédales piaffaient, le bois éclatait, tandis que, le sourire aux lèvres, les tempes perlées de sueur, le maître, tel un taureau furieux lancé dans une arène ensoleillée, tapait follement des mains, des coudes, inlassables, faisait hurler de douleur, sous ses doigts malhabiles, le clavier anéanti. Ce fut comique et sublime. Après vingt-cinq années, il me semble être encore, muet d’émotion au fond de cet horrible cabinet sombre que la flamme géniale de Chabrier emplit pendant quelques instants de lumière et de beauté."  [“I shall never forget the day when, in the office of his publishers Énoch et Costallat, he consented to play for me – for me alone – this superb rhapsody. The contest was a terrible one; it was the piano that succumbed! The keys groaned, the strings twanged; the pedals bounced; the woodwork cracked while, with a smile on his lips, eyes sparkling and with beads of perspiration on his forehead, the master, like an infuriated bull let loose into the arena, attacked the instrument madly, with arms and elbows flying, until the keyboard, half demolished, groaned in agony under his clumsy fingers. It was both comic and sublime. After twenty-five years I can still see myself struck dumb with emotion in a corner of that horrible dark room which the flame of Chabrier’s genius filled for a few minutes with light and beauty.”]

The other reports are all of private performances, some in his own home – he lived in Montmartre all his married life, and frequently hosted groups of his painter and musician friends, including Manet and Renoir, both of whom played the piano – with windows open, that drew crowds in the street. Mme Renoir, also an accomplished amateur pianist, reported: “Then one day Chabrier came [to their home]; and he played his España for me. It sounded as if a hurricane had been let loose. He pounded and pounded the keyboard. It was summertime. The window was open. While he was playing I happened to look into the street. It was full of people, and they were listening, fascinated. […] Chabrier had broken several strings and put the piano out of action.” [Myers, pp. 28-29.]  His performance of others of his works, such as his Pièces pittoresques, may well have been more subtle and less exuberant, since they are more restrained. Curiously, he was physically perhaps the least suited to being a pianist, short, stocky, with short legs and arms, and plump wrists, hands and fingers. Ravel, Fauré, and Saint-Saëns were also all short, but only the latter was truly stocky, and that only in his late years; Ravel always remained quite thin and while Fauré took on some weight in his later years, he wasn’t heavy. All four had relatively small hands. Debussy was tall and had large hands and long fingers, and slender, though he, too, took on weight in his last years.

The pianist-composers’ careers as pianists, travels, and interests

Unlike Saint-Saëns, neither Chabrier, Debussy, or Ravel, ever performed locally or traveled widely as concertizing pianists: although they were all extremely accomplished ones, they preferred, like Chopin, to perform in more private settings. Fauré performed some in public in Paris, but did not travel extensively elsewhere to perform, although he played in Belgium three times: in 1888 when he played his violin sonata with Eugène Ysaÿe, in 1889 when he played his First Piano Quartet with Ysaÿe and his quartet partners, and in 1906 when he premièred his piano quintet with them, He played in England several times in 1882, 1894, 1898, 1908, and 1914, to promote his music; in Spain in 1909, where he played and stayed with Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909), Catalan pianist-composer earlier based in Paris, whom he had met in Zurich, Switzerland, where he spent the summers (he preferred Lugano…) for peace and quiet in order to compose, and who had arranged the concerts; and in Russia in 1910 where he played in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in Helsinki, Finland, in between. He traveled within France and several times to Venice, in 1891, 1915, and 1920, but mostly not to perform in public, although sometimes to conduct. Chabrier never performed in public in Paris, not even in the major salons, most of which were not yet going strong while he was alive. He performed impromptu in café and bar settings during his personal travels because he missed the ability to play at will in his own home and itched to get his fingers on the keys. His longest trip abroad was the four-month stay in Spain in the summer of 1882 – his Aubade (1883) and Habanera (1885) are the direct results of the stay. Like Saint-Saëns, he was attracted to and interested in the popular songs and dances and transcribed many of those he heard and saw. Debussy and Ravel toured more as conductors than as pianists, and when Ravel did play during tours, he performed mostly, probably exclusively his own works.

In some ways, the four more productive composers subdivide into two pairs: both Saint-Saëns and Fauré had long careers as organists at La Madeleine (Théodore Dubois, later head of the Conservatoire, served between them), but neither Debussy nor Ravel ever played the organ; this perhaps affected both pairs’ styles of playing and composition. In addition to the instructional and personal interconnections among them, there were also interconnections of musical interests and scholarship, most notably, their interest in the music of earlier periods in French music. All were also in awe of Franz Liszt: the score of his Études d’exécution transcendante was on the music stand of Ravel’s piano at his death; Debussy heard him, met him three times in Rome in 1886, hearing him play his own Au bord d’une source [Années de pèlerinage, 1ère année, Suisse, S. 160, 1855] on one occasion, and, with Paul Vidal, playing Chabrier’s Trois Valses romantiques for him on another. Saint-Saëns and Fauré met him and heard him play on several occasions in Paris, the former for the first time in 1852. They went together to visit him in Weimar in 1877 on the occasion of the première that Liszt arranged of the former’s Samson et Dalila, and again in Zurich in 1882, where Fauré showed him his Ballade (1879), which is similar in construction to Liszt’s Sonata in b (1852-53), albeit under half its length at 14 vs. 33.5 minutes, in a single movement, but slow-fast-slow instead of fast-slow-fast, and which Liszt gave up attempting to play part way through it saying he didn’t “have enough fingers.” Saint-Saëns also met him in Rome. Saint-Saëns played for him twice, including an occasion two months before his death when he requested that Saint-Saëns gather his friends and play Le Carnaval des animaux for him; he played a two-piano recital with Liszt in Weimar in 1870. Neither Chabrier nor Ravel seems ever to have met him or heard him play.

They were also generally in awe of Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) as well; Saint-Saëns was 14, Fauré 4, when he died. Some of them, especially the later two, did not necessarily use the forms preferred by those three composers, perhaps to some extent in fear of their works paling in comparison as well as their thought that the potentials of those forms had been exhausted. There are, however, echoes of Chopin, conscious or un-, that appear here and there in the works of all five, all of whom wrote waltzes, for example. The dance-rhythm suite tradition of the French Baroque, so popular with J.S. Bach, also had a strong influence on some of their works, more prominently with some of the five than with others, and each seemed to have his preferred dance rhythm: Debussy liked the Sarabande (Clair de lune, Suite bergamasque/3, is a sarabande rhythm and was originally titled thus; Hommage à Rameau, Images I/2, is also a sarabande; as a point of reference, the Aria of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations is a sarabande.), while Ravel favored the Menuet. None of the five ever used traditional Austro-German classical music forms such as the sonata in their piano compositions; Ravel came the closest with his Sonatine, but in spite of its name, it is not in true sonata form: it is more in the style of a Haydn sonata, and its three movements, really a Prelude, a Menuet, and a Toccata, are more like a Baroque suite. The younger pair showed an interest in other more exotic musical traditions unknown to the older pair until their late years because international communication and exposure progressed exponentially towards the end of the 19th century, by which time their styles were well established and they were less inclined to be experimental in their own compositions.

Foreign influences on the composers’ inspiration

Both Debussy and Ravel were intrigued and inspired by their contact at the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900 in Paris with the instruments, the musicians, the dancers, and the sounds of the Orient, including Chinese and Japanese strings and especially Javanese gamelan(g – a ‘g’ must be added to the spelling in French for the correct pronunciation to be preserved, since the ‘an’ spelling produces a nasal vowel, as in the word ‘dans’) first heard in 1889, with Balinese gamelan being introduced in 1900, which they consciously attempted to imitate using the sounds the piano could produce, but neither Chabrier, Fauré nor Saint-Saëns seem to have been tempted to imitate or incorporate these sounds, although they may have visited the Exposition(s) and heard them. Debussy’s Pagodes (Estampes/1) is the most overt attempt to evoke those sounds, but they also play a role in some of the sounds in works of these two that suggest water. The Exposition of 1889 (the one for which the Tour Eiffel was built) placed particular emphasis on foreign and exotic music. An entire book was written about it: Julien Tiersot, Musiques pittoresques; Promenades musicales à l’Exposition Universelle de 1889, Paris: Fischbacher, 1889, Pp. 120; the chapter on the Javanese music includes some comments by Saint-Saëns. Both Debussy and Ravel also liked Japanese and Chinese art and owned prints, Debussy’s collection being fairly large, and he also owned porcelain objects and lacquers, one of which, hung in his studio, inspired his Poissons d’or (Images II/3).

These Expositions, especially the 1900 one which Czar Alexander III (The bridge over the Seine that led to the site bears his name.) and his wife attended, were also the venue for the major introduction into Paris, and ultimately the Western world, of contemporary Russian music and musicians, which had begun with the Expositions of 1867 and 1878. Rimsky-Korsakov came to conduct during two concerts of Russian music, particularly of the “Five” or “Mighty Handful” composers, and Glazunov (also present to conduct his works), Glinka, Dargomijsky, Liadov, and Tchaikovsky, on 22 and 29 June; the programs also included some piano works and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. These five composers had already encountered some of this music, Debussy during his 1881 and 1882 visits to Moscow, and incorporated some of its features into their own, but their experiences in Exposition-sponsored concerts (There had been some in 1878 as well, conducted by Anton Rubenstein.) heightened their interest. Saint-Saëns, who was the most widely traveled French composer of his time, also visited and performed in St. Petersburg and Moscow in November 1875. He met some of these composers and brought back a score of Boris Godunov in January 1876, which eventually came into the hands of Debussy. He liked Russian music, except that of Mussorgsky, whom he apparently also disliked as a person, and both feelings were openly reciprocated. Chabrier was also attracted to Russian music, especially to Mussorgsky, as a result of his having encountered the aforementioned score of his Boris Godunov at the Conservatoire. Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is well known.  Both Debussy and Ravel also knew Russian émigrés living in Paris, including all those affiliated with the Ballets Russes. Not too much of this filtered down overtly into their piano music, but it contributed to the adventuresome harmonies of some of the works. Debussy was the one who most sought to make the piano imitate the sounds of other instruments in the orchestra.

All were also intrigued and influenced by Spanish music, an interest which swept and intrigued composers across Europe (See above.). Ravel was of Basque descent on his mother’s side, and she was very familiar with Spanish culture. Both Chabrier and Saint-Saëns had an interest in Spanish music and rhythms as well, and both traveled there and wrote Spanish-flavored works. Although Debussy never traveled there, he captured it well in several of his works, including La Soiréé dans Grenade (Estampes/2), La Sérénade interrompue (Préludes I/9, and La puerta del vino (Préludes II/3). Saint-Saëns incorporated perhaps the widest range of foreign airs and rhythms into his music of the five. He traveled frequently to northern Africa (He first visited Algeria in October 1873 and died in Algiers.) and was among the first composers to notate traditional native melodies. The French considered “l’Orient” (The word means: ‘the East.’) to include the Near East, northern and sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, and Japan, as well as even Spain because of the Moorish influences that remained from the seven centuries of the Moors’ occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, in short, anything that was outside the Western and Central European traditions, and therefore really a synonym in their minds of ‘exotic.’ Oriental music does not use harmony, and has melodies that use tones of dissimilar intervals that fall between those of the Western 12-tone scale and a far greater variety of rhythms than those common in Western music up to that time.  Thus, any composer seeking to evoke it or use one of its melodies is forced to alter and configure it to fit the Western system into which an exact transcription of it is impossible. Debussy was attracted to things English, and traveled to the Isle of Jersey and England, but this did not enter much into his music other than in titles. On the other hand, his Golllywog’s Cakewalk (Children’s Corner/6) is the most prominent use of a jazz rhythm in the piano music of all five; he also used these rhythms in Minstrels (Préludes I/10) and General Lavine – Eccentric (Préludes II/6). Chabrier perhaps traveled the least of the five, visiting only Munich, London, Holland, and Brussels besides Spain. Fauré was the least tempted of all by this exoticism and incorporated very little of it into his music.

Other sources of inspiration or origins of compositions

Several individual piano works of two of these composers were inspired by specific works of literature. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit was inspired by the work of the same title by Aloysius (nom de plume for Louis-Jacques-Napoléon) Bertrand (1807-41), the first book of prose poems ever published in French and a work much admired by the Symbolists, and its three movements are individual poems in it bearing the same titles, which are reproduced at the heads of the scores, although not always in recital programs or CD booklets as Ravel would have liked. His Noctuelles (Miroirs/1) was inspired by a line (“Les noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, cravater de vieilles poutres.” [= The owl moths leave the warehouses in an awkward flight to roost on old beams.] in the middle of a prose poem by its dedicatee, his close friend Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947), La petite gare aux ombres courtes [= The little railway station with short shadows] in his collection Poèmes (1902).  [Each of Miroirs’ five movements is dedicated to a different member of Les Apaches.] The epigraph of Jeux d’eau comes from the poem Fête d’eau by Henri de Régnier, which suggests that the poem may have been an inspiration for the work along with the Liszt pieces. Two of Debussy’s Préludes bear titles deriving from poems: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir comes from Baudelaire’s Harmonie du soir, stanza I, l. 3; and La Fille aux cheveux de lin derives from the poem of same title by Leconte de Lisle, also appearing in stanza I, l. 3. Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon is a repeated line in Baudelaire’s Le balcon, which Debussy also set as a mélodie. Both Baudelaire poems are in Les Fleurs du Mal. None of the piano works of Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, and Fauré were thus inspired. An interesting side note: Both Debussy and Ravel have works entitled Ondine (a water sprite), Préludes II/8 and Gaspard de la Nuit/1 respectively; one of their predecessors, virtuosic Czech pianist-composer who performed in Paris in 1843, was regarded as highly as Liszt, and taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and was director of the Russian Imperial Theater Music School for six years (1862-’68), Alexander Dreyschock (1818-69) also has an Ondine, in his Soirée d’hiver, Op. 92, Suite de 6 morceaux caractéristiques/5, marked Romance. Agitato; it is more Romantic in nature. He was renowned for his strong left hand, and wrote the first compositions for left hand alone. Fauré projected an opera based on the Ondine legend, for which a libretto was written, but no music.

The composition of three of Ravel’s works were determined not by inspiration but by obligation. 1) The first movement of the 1905 Sonatine was Ravel’s submission for a 1904 competition sponsored by the Weekly Critical Review (in spite of its title, a French language magazine) for a 75-bar first movement of a sonatina, but the magazine canceled the competition without awarding a prize because Ravel’s 77-bar work was the sole submission; Ravel decided to complete a traditional three-movement work with it, placing a “Mouvement de menuet” in its center enclosed by its Modéré and an Animé. 2) The Menuet sur the nom d’Haydn (meaning using the notes B-A-D-D-G, corresponding to the letters of the name as extended by parallel repetition throughout the alphabet and up the keyboard) was written for the centennial (1909) of that composer’s death, for a special issue of a Parisian magazine,La Revue Musicale de la S.I.M. (Société internationale de musicologie, not to be confused [as some do] with the S.M.I.). Debussy, Paul Dukas Reynaldo Hahn, Vincent d’Indy, and Charles-Marie Widor also contributed pieces using the same musical theme, Debussy’s entitled Hommage à Joseph Haydn. 3) The Prélude was composed as a Conservatoire sight-reading competition piece in 1913; Ravel dedicated it to the winner, Jeanne Leleu, age 15, a student of Marguerite Long, who had also been, three years earlier, a member of the duo that premièred Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye for piano four-hands. This does not make these pieces in any way inferior, of course; they are merely magnificent miniatures.

Some of the works of the other composers, besides the aforementioned Haydn tribute by Debussy, were also composed for occasions or publications. Saint-Saëns’ Thème varié, Op. 97 (1894) was composed as a Conservatoire test piece; No. 1 of Fauré’s Huit pieces brèves (1902) started its life that way: it was written for the Conservatoire contest in 1899, but was more fully developed later; and his sixth Impromptu, Op. 86 bis, is a 1913 transcription for piano of the Impromptu for harp, Op. 86, written for a Conservatoire contest in 1904. Chabrier’s Caprice (pub. 1897) was written as a Conservatoire sight reading test piece, as was Debussy’s Pièce pour piano, L. 108, also in 1904 like Fauré’s harp piece, and his D’un cahier d’esquisses was published in a magazine, likewise in 1904, although it was not composed for that purpose; he merely supplied it in response to a request from the publisher because it was completed.

Two miniature works by Ravel are the pastiches entitled À la manière de… 1) Borodine (a rapid waltz in Db) and 2) Chabrier (actually a treatment of Siebel’s “Flower Song” from Gounod’s Faust in the style of Chabrier). They were composed for a collection of pastiches assembled by Alfredo Casella and premièred in a recital of the S.M.I. in the Salle Pleyel on 10 December 1913 by Cassella, along with two of his own, the second an imitation of Ravel, based on his Valses nobles et sentimentales entitled Almanzor ou le marriage d’Adélaïde, thus mocking Ravel’s ballet version (See above.). The Valses… had also been premièred by its dedicatee Louis Aubert at an S.M.I. concert on 9 May 1911 in the Salle Gaveau, along with works by other members of the S.M.I., the names of the composers unannounced for the attendees to guess; the music was jeered and mercilessly picked apart and few guessed that Ravel was its composer, Satie being among those proposed. Pastiches and parodies were quite the fad in the period leading up to WW I: Debussy’s La plus que lente (1910) is a parody of a slow waltz, La Valse lente, that was fashionable in the cafés and hotel lobbies of Paris at the time. None of the other three composers wrote overt pastiches.

For part 3 of this 4-part article, click here.