Notes and Narratives
Edited By Una Hunt and Mary Pierse
‘Claude de France’: Debussy’s Great War of 1915
In August 1915, exactly one year after the start of the conflict, Debussy signed his Sonata for Cello and Piano – the first of his intended six sonatas for various instruments – Claude Debussy, musicien français. In Bertrand Dermoncourt’s L’univers de l’opéra, the opening lines of the entry on Debussy read:
He who became, by some regrettable nationalistic twist, known as ‘Claude of France’—as if his music embodied the national cultural identity—was in many respects an atypical artist in the French musical landscape of his time.1
These two statements evoke an apparent contradiction in the last creative phase of this fascinating composer: how his yearning to contribute in a meaningful way to the war effort ended up with the composition of works whose features, both formal and stylistic, display the sort of modernism that was castigated in nationalist discourses. Concurrently and paradoxically, Debussy’s correspondence testifies to his leaning towards the more extreme form of nationalism, while the writings he collected early in 1914 (under the title Monsieur Croche antidilettante) underline his obsession with setting himself apart from his compatriots. Just as his very personal take on French musical tradition produced mixed reactions in 1915, posterity judged his anti-boches ramblings quite severely until a clearer understanding of his idiosyncrasies came to light in more recent years.2 Ironically, in a curious twist of fate, Maurice Ravel’s moral issues with post-1918 patriotism had been slated by none other than Erik Satie, ← 177 | 178 → who famously...
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