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The Reception of Debussy
in the Stockholm Press up to 1926

Anders Edling

[1]

Claude Debussy is widely recognized as one of the key figures of modernism in 20th-century Western art music, with many threads connecting him to new music throughout the century. How was his music perceived when it first was performed in our country, in his own time? Is there a straight line from lack of appreciation to fuller understanding among critics and audiences? The present article addresses this issue on basis of a survey of Debussy reception in the Stockholm newspapers from the very first reviews to the reactions on the Swedish premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1926.

Before Debussy’s name appeared in the Swedish press, there had already been two encounters worth mentioning between him and Swedish musical life. The first was a personal contact with one of the many Swedish-Parisian singers of the late 1800s, Esther Sidner-Gadelius. She had experienced a considerable success in France as Miriam in Massenet’s Marie Magdeleine, and this composer had dedicated one of his songs to her, Départ. The contact between Esther Sidner-Gadelius and Debussy is documented in a letter that he wrote to her to set a rehearsal time before a performance of Grieg songs at the Société Nationale de Musique in January 1894. The letters from Debussy to her are said to have been preserved by her family but have not been possible to retrieve; however, one of them was reproduced in the journal Musikrevy in 1962.

Five years later, in 1899, the next known connection between Debussy and Sweden took place, in that his String Quartet was performed at one of the gatherings of the Mazer Quartet Society (‘Mazerska kvartettsällskapet’) in Stockholm. No press comments about the performance have been found.

The latter of these two ‘precocious’ contacts – both occurring before the composer’s international breakthrough with Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 – shows that there were Swedish musicians who were interested in the new French music and who were also aware of Debussy’s existence. One of the most active persons in these circles was Karl Valentin, a professor at the conservatory in Stockholm and secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Valentin showed his commitment to the new French music by accompanying the singer Wilhelm Klein at the piano in two scenes from Pelléas et Mélisande at the Medborgarskolan in Stockholm in October 1903, as music illustrations at a lecture on Maeterlinck given by Sven Söderman (see below). After this performance, Debussy’s music probably received its first Swedish press comment, when the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet described it as ‘completely in the style of the play – mysterious, monotonous, discreet, but sometimes with a sharp outbreak’ (SvD 13.10.1903). As a music critic, Valentin had entered into a controversy with his colleague Wilhelm Peterson-Berger on the subject of French music, following a visit by Camille Saint-Saëns to Stockholm a few years earlier, in 1897. The influential critic and composer Peterson-Berger was to launch repeated attacks on French music, including Debussy (however, he would sometimes soften the tone and find positive sides).

It was not until 1906 that Debussy’s music was presented to a regular Swedish concert audience. On January 17 the Brussels Quartet, which had already inspired much admiration on previous Scandinavian tours, played the Debussy String Quartet in Stockholm. The work was quite well received, although among the press it was judged to be ‘hyper-modern’ or ‘ultra modern’. An anonymous critic in Dagens Nyheter wrote that ‘the musical web [...] is so complex that after a single listen one gets the impression of an incessant search, without the composer actually managing to get hold of something that has spiritual ‘Wucht’ [= force]’ (DN 17.1.1906). Eugène Fahlstedt in Svenska Dagbladet emphasizes the difference between César Franck, heir to the German tradition, and Debussy, who wants to be ‘a small Columbus on an expedition, searching after unprecedented achievements in harmony’.

In this review, Fahlstedt also claims that Debussy seeks to ‘bring more wealth into harmony by deliberately introducing some of the higher of the harmonics, which resound, though unperceived, in every produced note. It is the 7th, 9th, 13th harmonic, etc., that he physically brings into the game.’ (SvD 18.1.1906) This acoustic ‘explanation’ of the whole-tone scale was obviously influenced by a German authority. In the fifth edition of his Musik-Lexikon, published a year earlier, Hugo Riemann had written: ‘D.s Kompositionen interessieren durch den Versuch, die Harmonie durch bewusste Einführung hoherer primären Obertöne (des 7., 11., 13.; vgl. Klang) zu bereichern.’ (Riemann 1905) This concept was probably spread in Germany at the time, but it seems to have been more or less ignored in France.[1] It is repeated in the anonymous article on Debussy in the encyclopaedia Nordisk familjebok, very probably also written by Fahlstedt, who was one of the co-authors of this encyclopaedia (Fahlstedt 1906).

On November 24, 1906, the Royal Opera Orchestra performs the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, conducted by Armas Järnefelt. Again, the introduction of harmonics is a major issue for the critics. Some of them praise the work, the signature ‘O.S.’ in Aftonbladet, however, writes that Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre was the ‘most original and also the most brilliant [genialaste]’ piece of music of this concert. Maybe it is not too bold to assume that the question of Debussy’s genius or lack of genius was discussed at the time, and that the reviewer took a position in this discussion (AB 25.11.1906).

[2]

The Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune was taken up again a year later, when the violinist and conductor Paul Viardot visited Stockholm. He had been there many times from 1880 and onwards, and he had Swedish friends (among them Valentin). This time the aim of his journey was to prepare a book on Nordic music (Viardot 1908), and he also used the occasion to give an orchestral concert at the Royal Theatre on October 27 with new French music. The day before, Viardot had an article published in Svenska Dagbladet (25.10.1926), where he explained this initiative:

Audiences who happily go to the Opera to hear French [dramatic] works there, have not fully been able to keep abreast of important developments, which have taken place in France thanks to the new school, a school whose extreme wing may go beyond Strauss in boldness and advanced tendencies.

Press reactions to this second performance of Debussy’s Prélude were not very strong; of the major newspapers, only Aftonbladet (s. ‘O.S.’) dwelt longer at this work (AB 28.10.1907). ‘Our Germanic temperament ... is not suited for the right appreciation of the spiritual manifestations in music of the Roman race,’ the critic claimed, and further, after speaking about the German influence on French music:

But Debussy, Francophiles will exclaim! Experiments – interesting, it is true, but of such a nature that the composer’s own countrymen consider them too daring to be more generally accepted.

In the coming years a few piano pieces and songs by Debussy appear in the Stockholm repertoire. One could see this as an initial adjustment period. Two foreign pianists, Belgian Théodore Ysaye and American Harold Bauer, both played Jardins sous la pluie in 1909. But only after the premiere of the cantata La Damoiselle élue at the Royal Theatre on November 26, 1910 do reviews of some length appear in the press. The conductor on this occasion was Italian-born Tullio Voghera.[2] Another musician with a Latin heritage, Olallo Morales,[3] writes the most substantial review (DN 27.11.1910). According to him, the cantata shows ‘the features that later on appear more distinctly in this brilliant innovator, impressionist and symbolist, whose greatest fault is to have had a too rapid success, raising suspicions about the content of the art direction to which he has given the impulse’. Morales himself was one of those musicians who contributed practically to the knowledge of Debussy in Sweden.

[3]

During the 1910s the music of Debussy became a small but regular part of Stockholm musical life. His String Quartet was performed by a Swedish ensemble, the Kjellström Quartet. Its leader, Sven Kjellström, was well acquainted with Paris as a music town, on the terms of being a violinist in the Colonne Orchestra. Among the critics who commented on their first performance of the Quartet in Stockholm, there were two younger composers, Ture Rangström and Sigurd von Koch. Their reviews reveal the massive admiration that young musicians could feel about this work, and they also bear witness to a great success. Rangström (StD 8.11.1911) talks about

this marvellous musical web of ecstatic dream and vision – shimmering, fluttering like a dream’s visions of an infinitely distant world of beauty. [...] This intimate splendour of tone and colour, sweet, celestial, as the Quartet’s Andante, exotic, whimsical as it is in the infinitely virtuosic Scherzo, must, with its fine and yet penetrating individuality, captivate and infatuate. The name Debussy has long been a modern and horrifying slogan for our music audiences – Tuesday’s enraptured crowd of listeners can now judge its meaning.

von Koch’s description (AT 8.11.1911) expresses the same degree of fascination and also appears to be somewhat coloured by the Swedish reception of Baudelaire and the ‘decadent’ French literary school:

The Debussy quartet [...] undoubtedly captivates through its harmonies, which bloom in unknown worlds where neither tonal system or sound concepts exist, and with their motives that grow from the soil as toxic, beautiful plants from an ever-fertile ground. It is an extremely sophisticated music, which one wants to enjoy with care – like morphine.

At this time, Swedish pianists began to play Debussy in public. They limited themselves for a long time to early works, such as the two Arabesques and Clair de lune. The first time a Swedish pianist gave a performance of one of Debussy’s mature works was March 17, 1915, when Anna Ulmgren, who had studied in Paris, played Reflets dans l’eau, La Danse de Puck, La Cathédrale engloutie and Jardins sous la pluie.

Debussy gained official recognition in 1910, when he was elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (at the same time as his countryman Vincent d’Indy). This was probably a controversial decision during a period when the leading Swedish music magazine, Svensk musiktidning, would hardly mention his music without adding adjectives such as ‘discordant’ or ‘mindless’.

[4]

In preparation for the Stockholm audience before the lavish production of Henri Rabaud’s comic opera Mârouf in 1915, Olallo Morales wrote an overview of the new French music for Svenska Dagbladet in two articles entitled ‘French musical renaissance’ (SvD 10.11.1915, 15.11.1915). The first one was dedicated to César Franck and his followers, the second to ‘Impressionists’ and especially Debussy. It is the first detailed text about him that was published in Sweden.

Morales begins by noting that Debussy is not unknown to the Swedes – ‘the String Quartet, op. 10, more piquant than profound, is played frequently, and his songs and piano pieces are not rare guests in the concert hall’. Morales further notes that it is only Pelléas et Mélisande that is missing in order to have a complete picture of the composer, whom he characterizes as follows:

No one can stay indifferent to this typically French artist, whose subdued language caresses the ear with strange-sounding intonations, even if at first one does not understand its meaning. But if one listens to this mysterious whisper, words and sentences soon will shape, speaking about a surreal twilight world, where nymphs and fauns hover in an opal-colored haze, saturated with intoxicating scents and essences.

Morales devotes much space to the words of Romain Rolland’s opinions on Debussy and concludes, before passing to Dukas and Ravel (the latter described as the ‘Messiah’ among young French composers), that Debussy’s later works are less interesting and that ‘Pelléas is already history, like its creator’. The article ends with a general criticism of the ‘aristocratic direction’ of French composers, which

addresses itself only to an exclusive circle, and leads away from the natural and necessary solidarity with the people. Only through the reconnection of this relationship, the artistic goal can be reached toward which the young French school is striving, a profoundly French music renaissance.

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s aversion to French music has often been mentioned. It was not without exception, however – he was very positive towards Fauré’s chamber music (DN 26.1.1919) and showed an interest in Ravel’s String Quartet (DN 12.1.1915) – but his attitude when reviewing Debussy works was hostile and sometimes a lot more ignorant than one would expect from a literate person, who also himself mastered the French language.[4] After the Stockholm premiere of La Mer on October 10, 1921, he wrote (DN 13.10.1921):

When the great line is missing, there is in Debussy’s presentation no appreciable difference between a sea and a chicken yard. The work is undoubtedly one of his weakest – in general, he makes a rather weak impression as an orchestral composer.

Following Debussy’s death in 1918, Peterson-Berger wrote one of the few major obituaries on him in the Swedish press, in which he characterizes the composer in a more nuanced way (Peterson-Berger 1918). Like so many critics before him, he refers to the Riemann conception of a technique of harmonics, which had made Swedish critics consider Debussy above all as a representative of a new composition theory, but he also notes the Russian and oriental influence on the composer, something that had not previously been mentioned by Swedish critics, the originality of Pelléas et Mélisande, and further

the taste with which he spreads the original, deep, glowing colour of his harmonies […] the artistic refinement, the sophisticated sensuality by which he appeals to the sense of sonority [klangsinne] and the imagination rather than to deep emotion and reflection.

Finally, he quotes Romain Rolland’s ironic words about Debussy as ‘le maître du bon goût’ and Richard Strauss as ‘le maître du mauvais goût’, and concludes: ‘But in all cases: – the master of good taste is a thousand times preferable to the one of bad taste.’

 Another obituary was published in the cultural magazine Forum. Its author was Georges Jean-Aubry, music writer and friend of Debussy and Ravel. It was not the only time he appeared in the Swedish press with articles on new French music, and he also gave lectures on this topic in Stockholm in 1920. In his obituary, he expresses in moderate and reflective terms his great admiration for Debussy, something that was normal for French music writing, but contrasted heavily with the views of the Swedish critics of that time.

At the time of Debussy’s death, there was an increasing interest among Stockholm music circles in his music and in the more recent French music in general. However, in Gothenburg, where the regular orchestral concerts began earlier than in Stockholm, the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune had been performed more often during the 1910’s than in the capital, and La Mer also had its Swedish premiere in Gothenburg in 1918, conducted by Carl Nielsen.

[5]

The greatest manifestation of Debussy’s music in Sweden in the 1920s was the Swedish premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande on January 18, 1926 at the Royal Theater, almost a quarter of a century after the first performance. The opera was sung in a Swedish translation made by its director Gustaf Bergman, and was conducted by Armas Järnefelt, who 20 years earlier had introduced Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune in Stockholm. It was not a success – the audience failed, and only three performances were given.

All the major newspapers were interested in this event, and the medley of their reactions give a sample map of the Swedish reception of Debussy. The day before the premiere the composer was introduced by Moses Pergament in a rather negative newspaper article (SvD 16.1.1926) where he described Debussy’s personality and work in purely national terms:

Debussy nourished a flaming hatred of Wagner and his supposedly ‘urdeutsch’ art. In the young Russian Mussorgsky […] he found the most appealing model for his own oppositional artistic activity. But unlike the altogether genuine musician Mussorgsky, who created by pure intuition, Debussy was aesthetically speculative. […] His achievements – the opposition to Wagner – had a national musical and historical impact, but his art as such bears the pale cast of the over-cultivated in its noble features. Therefore, it has had difficulties in asserting itself since the World War brought France and the rest of the world an appetite for a music of healthy and viable wills.

Like many colleagues, Pergament considers Debussy a harmonic theorist:

In Rameau’s doctrine of the harmonics he saw […] the theoretical path that would lead him to a new, national French music.

In his review (SvD 19.1.1926) Pergament develops the views earlier expressed in his presentation of the composer. He begins with a motto, taken from the libretto (‘Pelléas: Ah! Qu’il fait beau dans les ténèbres …’), and characterizes the work as follows:

The only one in this drama, in which the pulse sometimes beats so strongly that he perceives his own reality, is Golaud. All the others walk around like living shadows. And the music follows them as shadowy and unreal.

Peterson-Berger’s review (DN 19.1.1926) is consistent with that of Pergament:

Debussy is not relevant anymore and his music glides slowly into the music’s historic harbor, where all art that was only born out of today’s moods, discussions and art recipes, without the help of the large, strong wings of inspiration, eventually finds oblivion and peace.

The parallels with Wagner are drawn once again:

Wagner too had devised a system that he preached and believed to follow. But he failed, the inspiration welled out as from a volcano [...] Debussy, by contrast, succeeded too well in implementing his [system]. At least in this opera or music drama or what to call it. He has steadfastly refrained from all defined formations, all clear drawing of situations and characters, all melody formation with a living rhythm and a balanced structure. [...] When Debussy rebelled against Wagner, which was fair and justified, he thus threw out the baby with the bathwater. His music for ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’ is a kind of abortive half music – and he apparently wanted it.

An equally negative attitude gets a less thought-out expression from the critic in Stockholms Dagblad (19.1.1926):

It all seems, in its lack of inspiration, as a fatiguing nirvana music, which possibly some twenty years ago could have interested us. Now we have already heard so much of the newest creations of our time that ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’ hardly is able to make any strong impression.

The signature ‘G. A-rov’[5] is no more positive than the others about its aesthetics:

As a cultural phenomenon, as a milestone in bourgeois culture Maeterlinck-Debussy’s musical drama has a great importance, and as such it is justified to have it performed at the Opera. [...] This musical drama, which lacks the mass on the stage and which is nothing but an extremely concentrated declamatory oratory for 6 or 7 people, extended to 3½ hours, is fairly tedious and not very captivating. Opera audiences want something else.

Like the other reviewers, Julius Rabe in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (20.1.1926) emphasized that Pelléas et Mélisande had lost its topicality, even though he also stressed its qualities:

And when you now at long last get to hear this beautiful work, nuanced with such infinite tenderness, it can not be helped that you ask: what have we got to do with this? You give it your esteem – but it is as though all this work would be written for the inhabitants of another planet. For happy and refined idlings, who have unreasonably good time to take care of their so-called spiritual life, and whose rhythm of life just will not let itself be brought into line with our own.

However, Rabe also sees other elements in this music, and thus does not share the general focus on Debussy’s deliberate monotony and on his alleged application of a ready-made theory. Rabe also suggests an interpretative aspect of the performance in Stockholm, which might be an obstacle to a fair assessment of Pelléas et Mélisande:

Is it quite certain that the conductor Armas Järnefelt struck the right tone by putting all the emphasis on the subtle and lovely? Is there not quite a lot of temper and nervousness in this Debussy score, which is certainly not looking for great, dashing lines, but which not for a moment lets the music stand still but live and quiver from the first note to the last?

Peterson-Berger, Pergament and Rabe were all established critics, and they shared the German orientation that was traditional and general among Swedish musicians and music critics. But among the reviewers there were also a few more French-oriented persons, for whom Pelléas et Mélisande was not a shadow of the past but a work full of life. One of them, the writer Sven Söderman (son of the composer August Söderman), author of a book on Maeterlinck and speaker at the first presentation of Pelléas et Mélisande in Stockholm in 1903 (see beginning of this article), reviewed the opera in Aftonbladet (19.1.1926) and described it in a way that is far more similar to the general evaluation of the work today than are the comments of Peterson-Berger, Pergament and Rabe:

But Debussy has completely assimilated himself with the atmosphere and the mythical content of Maeterlinck’s drama, with its characters governed by fate. Exquisite colorist as he is, he achieves musical visions in which he paints a sudden light, a shadow that passes by, twilight which turns to night, the melancholy of darkness in large halls, deep parks and underground vaults, the silence which elongates and begins to speak. And he is not only a painter of moods. His music permeates the story, unites with the plot, attaches to the persons, follows their movements, enlightens their faces, their emotions, their subconscious, and conforms to their conversation. He makes no detailed descriptions, he is careful not to say everything, not to talk too long or too loud. With a few bars, sometimes only some chords, he creates an impressionistic setting.

[6]

To return to the question set out in the introduction of this article, a straight line from initial lack of appreciation to better understanding of Debussy’s music in Sweden is not a characteristic of the present source material. One can speak of such a ‘straight line’ from the first Debussy performances to the years around 1910 (cf. the appreciative texts by Rangström, von Koch and Morales) – but in the following period a new, critical tone is obvious. In his presentation of Debussy in 1926, Pergament mentions the ‘taste for a music of healthy and viable wills’ that in his view had rendered the composer generally uninteresting. As early as 1915 Debussy is characterized by Morales as ‘music history’.

Two elements in this change can be discerned.

The first is the brutality of the world war, which made it increasingly difficult to indulge in subtle and/or suggestive dream worlds. Such dream worlds were, in the perspective of that time, the framework for Debussy’s music – which is evident from the reviews quoted here.

The second is the critical evaluation of Debussy made by Romain Rolland, which was taken up with great interest by Swedish music critics. Rolland’s series of novels, Jean-Christophe, in which this critique is included, was translated into Swedish from 1913 to 1920, his Musiciens d’aujourd’hui was translated in 1919, and in-between (1915), he received the Nobel Prize in literature. The quoted texts by Peterson-Berger (Peterson-Berger 1918) and Morales (French music renaissance, 1915) contain references to Rolland, and also some others, not quoted here – an anonymous obituary (StD 2.4.1918), and Moses Pergament in the above-mentioned presentation of Pelléas (SvD 16.1.1926). There were two viewpoints of Rolland that were particularly raised by the Swedish critics: that Debussy’s music was strongly limited by its own sensuality, and that it was mainly a manifestation of a national spirit.

The idea of ‘the composer of harmonics’ also seems special to the Swedish Debussy reception. It may well have been the result of the writers quoting each other when describing a music that they could not quite grasp.

Towards the end of the 1920s, simultaneously with the not very successful premiere of Pelléas, Debussy’s orchestral works became more and more embedded in Stockholm repertoire, and with guest conductors such as Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet during the 1920s and 1930s, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Stockholm had a chance to cultivate its interpretation of these works. In other words, Debussy’s music had much more of a future in Stockholm than the two influential critics Peterson-Berger and Pergament could imagine in 1926.

 

This article was first published in French in Cahiers Debussy, no. 24 (2000), Paris, Centre de documentation Claude Debussy. Some minor adjustments have been made compared to that version of the text.

 

References

Literature

Debussy, Claude 1962: Letter to Esther Sidner-Gadelius, reproduced in Musikrevy 1962, p. 189.

Fahlstedt, Eugène 1906: ‘Claude Debussy’, in Nordisk familjebok, 2nd ed., vol. 5, Stockholm.

Peterson-Berger, Wilhelm 1918: ‘Claude Debussy’, in Saisonen 1918, pp. 449–450.

Riemann, Hugo 1905: ‘Claude Debussy’, in his Musik-Lexikon, 5th ed., Leipzig.

Viardot, Paul 1908: Rapport officiel sur la musique en Scandinavie, Paris.

Newspapers

Aftonbladet (AB) 1906, 1907, 1926

Aftontidningen (AT) 1911

Dagens Nyheter (DN) 1907, 1921, 1926

Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT) 1926

Social-Demokraten (Soc-Dem) 1926

Stockholms Dagblad (StD) 1911, 1926

Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) 1907, 1915, 1926

Notes

[1] The information about this view being ignored in France was given to the author by Debussy biographer François Lesure.

[2] Tullio Voghera (1879–1943) was a conductor educated in Italy, who was for some time the assistant of Toscanini in New York, and then settled in Sweden in 1910.

[3] Olallo Morales (1874–1957) was a Spanish-born Swedish conductor, composer and music critic.

[4] In a letter from Peterson-Berger to Paul Viardot (Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, shelfmark NAF 25874 fol 203-204), the writer apologizes for his bad French, which is however quite correct.

[5] Unidentified press cutting in the Musik- och teatermuseet in Stockholm, dossier on Debussy. The author is very probably Russian-Swedish journalist Grigorij Aleksandrov (1886–1938).

©Anders Edling, 2013

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