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A Morceau by Debussy - its strange history

by Richard Graves

Oddly, Debussy's Morceau de Concours goes unmentioned in the current Grove's list of the composer's works, despite the fact that it has been recorded several times. The shortest piano piece that Debussy wrote - a mere twenty-seven bars - it makes an ideal filler for a CD or LP. It also contrives to say an awful lot in just about forty seconds.

The title under which it is known suggests some sort of Conservatoire test-piece - the kind of thing most self-respecting French composers of the time were invited to produce. But this Morceau's origin is very different, the title not being Debussy's at all and its purpose far removed from academic application. The piece first appeared in the January, 1905 edition of the French magazine 'Musica'. This splendid periodical had begun publication in 1902, each number consisting of two parts. The literary section dealt with a variety of musical matters, with perhaps a special leaning towards opera. Articles about popular singers and composers were intermingled with occasional pieces of historical and ethnic musical interest. General gossip of a golden age of French artistic activity was also provided in abundance. Occasionally, too, the Editor published musical puzzles and word games to tantalise his readers. In addition to all this, each issue offered a 48-page musical supplement. Here were included pieces of several kinds, many specially written for the occasion by distinguished composers. The music covered a commendably wide range - valses and other dances, salon pieces and established classics as well as the work of prestigious living composers like Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, Massenet and Messager. Most of the items were for piano solo, but there were also songs and occasional items for violin and other instruments. In both the literary and musical sections, editorial policy displayed a commendable sympathy with contemporary and even avant-garde composers.

Debussy first contributed to the pages of 'Musica' in the May 1903 edition with the article Considérations sur le Prix de Rome au Point de Vue Musical. He had earlier won the Prix for his 'L'Enfant Prodigue' and betaken himself to the Villa Médici for the mandatory sojourn there. An editorial preamble to the article displays praiseworthy initiative. 'Musica', being an open forum, we have considered it piquant to invite M. Claude Debussy, the esteemed composer of PELLEAS ET MELISANDE .... to give us his personal opinion on this matter. And personal and piquant his words certainly were - not least about the culinary horrors awaiting unsuspecting prize-winners. I remember, Debussy wrote, still with some horror a certain dish pretentiously named 'Roba Dolce' in which a taste of paraffin, blending badly with the crème tournée, soured our youthful pride at being Prix de Rome.

It was, however, nearly two years later that Debussy first contributed to the music pages of 'Musica' - a piece published anonymously and without a specific title. It happened like this:

In the January 1905 edition, the Editor presented a competition for his readers with the assurance that to take part, It is necessary only to be a good musician, that is to say to possess a reasonably complete musical education tempered with sagacity and judgement. Flatteringly, he added, That is to say all readers of 'Musica' will be included. The music supplement for that month published six specially commissioned short pieces, each headed Morceau de Concours but without clue as to the composer's identity. Having been given the assurance that the pieces were all specially composed, readers were asked to identify who wrote which. To narrow the choice, the following list of possible options was given in alphabetical order: Rudolphe Berger, Alfred Bruneau, Cécile Chaminade, Gustave Charpentier, Claude Debussy, Théodore Dubois, Camille Erlanger, Louis Ganne, Xavier Leroux, Alfred Margis, Jules Massenet, André Messager, Ernest Reyer, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gaston Serpette, Claude Terrasse, Francis Thomé and Paul Wachs. It was a cunningly-contrived selection including some big Establishment names, one or two more daring ones, and a few (Ganne, Thomé and Wachs, for instance) primarily known for their lighter salon music.

Of the six competition items, four were single-pagers, one was a short song and the other a two-page violin piece. Readers were given until the end of February to brood over their answers which had to be sent to M. André Maurel at the magazine's Offices in the avenue de l'Opéra. The result of the competition was published in the April number. The first piano piece, an attractive item with a LH melody, turned out to be by Gaston Serpette - and I for one would not have guessed that in a thousand years! The second was by Camille Saint-Saëns, despite the fact that it is completely uninspiring and gives the impression of being written in about five minutes before breakfast on a cold winter morning - which it probably was. The elegant third piece was by Cécile Chaminade - and I like to think I might have identified that one. Jules Massenet contributed the song - amiable enough though it could have been by more or less anyone. Rudolphe Berger was responsible for the violin solo while - wait for it! - Morceau de Concours No. 6 was duly revealed as being by Claude Debussy. I think, too, (with hind-sight, of course) I would have twigged this - the music possesses a commendable soupçon of self-parody with its sleazy chords and suggestions of a slice of Cake-walk.

Interestingly, the Editor gave a breakdown of the answers received - Massenet was rightly identified as the composer of the song in 304 entries, while 218 had no doubts about the Debussy piece. Chaminade scored 150, Saint-Saens 146, Berger 80 and Serpette - hardly surprisingly - only 6. There was but one totally correct entry, and so the prize of a new piano was awarded to Madame Maillard, Teacher of Piano and Theory, 48 boulevard Rochechouart, Paris.

The best of Debussy's piano music was yet to come so let us hope that the perceptive Madame Maillard and her pupils used the new instrument to full advantage in trying out the Préludes, Images, Children's Corner and other delights as soon as they appeared. Wouldn't it be nice if one of today's music magazines could promote a similar competition - but who on earth might the chosen composers be?

Copyright © Richard Graves, March 28th 1999

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