Debussy’s reception in England

In 1908-9, Claude Debussy made two appearances conducting his own works in England.  The Musical Times reported on the occasions.

The report on the first concert:

Nothing could have been heartier than the applause which greeted M. Claude Debussy as he stepped on to the platform at Queen’s Hall on February 1.  The warmth of the welcome which he received testified to the esteem in which he is held in this country.  The occasion was a concert of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, which thereby became invested with unusual interest.  That exquisite little tone-poem, “L’après-midi d’fun faune” was the first piece which M. Debussy conducted.  This characteristic work, which has become familiar to London and provincial concert-goers, received a delicate and impressive rendering under the baton of its composer.  As a conductor M. Debussy is undemonstrative; he has nothing to do with those gesture demonstrations adopted by some wielders of the baton, yet he gets what he wants from the players who interpret his music.

The novelty of the afternoon’s music was “La Mer”, three symphonic sketches for orchestra. …

So novel are the effects which M. Debussy obtains from his wonderful scheme of orchestral colour, so elusive is the music, so formless, and yet in a way so graphic, that it is difficult to express an opinion upon a work of this kind after a first hearing.  Such atmospheric strains, so unlike what one is accustomed to, must be listened to in a passive frame of mind, perchance in a darkened room.  There can be no question as to the cleverness of the music or its poetic import; the only thing is to get one’s ears educated, so to speak, in order to appreciate its strange idiom.  At the close of the performance the composer-conductor – who appeared in the unconventional garb of a lounge jacket, Why not? – was most enthusiastically recalled. (1)

The following year, Debussy returned to conduct his three Nocturnes (“Nuages”, “Fêtes”, and “Sirènes”) and L’apriès-midi d’fun faune.  This performance, however, was not without incident.  Sir Henry Woods had rehearsed the orchestra, and rehearsal had gone smoothly.  However, in the concert, the orchestra “fell apart” in the second Nocturne.  The Musical Times reported that “disaster seemed imminent, and M. Debussy was disposed to stop, but the band went on resolutely and happily recovered.” (2)  Henry Woods recalled:

In the second movement of the Nocturnes [“Fêtes”]… the times changes a good deal.  To the surprise of all of us, Debussy (who, quite candidly, was not a good conductor even of his own works) suddenly lost his head, and his beat!  Realizing what he had done, he evidently felt the best thing was to stop and begin the movement over again.  He tapped the desk, and tapped again.

Then the most extraordinary thing happened.  The orchestra refused to stop.  It really was an amazing situation.  Here was a famous composer directing a work of his own and, having got into difficulties, he was asking the orchestra to stop and was being met with refusal.  They obviously did not intend to stop; they knew that the audience would think that the fault was theirs.  Moreover, the work (which they liked immensely) was going beautifully and they meant to give a first-rate performance of it: which they proceeded to do and succeeded in doing.  I never knew them more unanimous. 

The audience by no means missed the fact that something had gone wrong because it was so evident that he had tried to stop the orchestra.  At the end, in truly English fashion, they recorded their appreciation to such an extent that he was compelled to repeat the movement.  This time nothing went wrong and the ovation was even greater than before.  Debussy was nonplussed and certainly did not understand the English mind; but I was proud of my orchestra that afternoon and had the satisfaction of seeing that he had been proud to conduct it. (3)

The Musical Times reported that:

The Debussy cult is making great progress in this country.  It has reached that interesting stage when many people who are really desperately bewildered, affect to perceive beauties and wonderful meanings that have probably entirely escaped the composer.  But there is no mistaking the depth and width of the influence Debussy is exerting on the art.  His music may be classed as nebulous, fragile, diaphanous, and so on, but one cannot resist the langour of the hazy atmosphere with which it envelops and mesmerises the listener.  What one appears to miss is the attribute and strength and grip and clearness of purpose.  It is nearly always veiled suggestion and an appeal to imaginativeness.  (4)

(1) Musical Times, 1908.  Cited in: Scholes, Percy (1947) The Mirror of Music.  London: Novello and Company, vol. 1,  p.449-450.
(2) Musical Times, April 1909.  Cited in: op. cit., p. 450.
(3) Sir Henry Wood, My Life of Music, p. 298.  Cited in: op. cit.
(4) Musical Times, April 1909.  Cited in: op. cit.