À bientôt, M. Croche

Monsieur Croche? Who’s he?

In 1901 Debussy – always anxious to augment his sparse income – landed the job of music critic for the Parisian arts journal, La Revue Blanche. He used his articles not just to review the concerts he’d attended but also as a soapbox from which to express his (very Debussyan!) ideas on music. Fairly early on in the proceedings and in the spirit of Platonic dialogue, he introduced an alter-ego, a Monsieur Croche (une croche is a quaver/eighth note), Mr. Hyde to Debussy’s Dr. Jekyll (or perhaps that should be the other way round).

Anyway, below – courtesy of a translation by B. N. Langdon Davies –  is part of the record of the first meeting between composer and his imaginary acquaintance.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f9/Claude_Debussy_ca_1908%2C_foto_av_F%C3%A9lix_Nadar.jpg/570px-Claude_Debussy_ca_1908%2C_foto_av_F%C3%A9lix_Nadar.jpg

Monsieur Croche was a spare, wizened man and his gestures were obviously suited to the conduct of metaphysical discussions; his features are best pictured by recalling those of Tom Lane, the jockey, and M. Thiers, the politician. He spoke almost in a whisper and never laughed, occasionally enforcing his remarks with a quiet smile, which, beginning at his nose, wrinkled his whole face, like a pebble flung into still waters, and lasted for an intolerably long time.

He aroused my curiosity at once by his peculiar views on music. He spoke of an orchestral score as if it were a picture. He seldom used technical words, but the dimmed and slightly worn elegance of his rather unusual vocabulary seemed to ring like old coins. I remember a parallel he drew between Beethoven’s orchestration—which he visualized as a black-and-white formula resulting in an exquisite gradation of greys—and that of Wagner, a sort of many-coloured “make-up” spread almost uniformly, in which, he said, he could no longer distinguish the tone of a violin from that of a trombone.

Since his intolerable smile was especially evident when he talked of music, I suddenly decided to ask him what his profession might be. He replied in a voice that checked any attempt at comment: “Dilletante Hater.”

This week we look at the third of the late sonatas; the last of Debussy’s major compositions. It’s for the pretty traditional combination of violin and piano, but there tradition ends. It has been usual for critics/musicologists to be rather sniffy about this work (not helped by the composer’s own description of it as “an example of what a sick man can write during a war”) but opinions have changed…

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Discipline must be sought in freedom, and not within the formulas of an outworn philosophy only fit for the feeble minded. Give ear to no man’s counsel but listen to the wind which tells in passing the history of the world.

See you soon, Mister Quaver!

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