Why did Debussy shun the original impressionist composer?

3 June 2014, 12:34 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45

On last Sunday's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Classical Music, Catherine Bott asks 'What is impressionism in music?' Here's the remarkable story of the neglected, and possibly first, impressionist composer.

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On a hazy afternoon in a wooded glade, a solitary faun blows languidly into his pipe, pursues a bunch of ambling nymphs, and then succumbs to a dream-fuelled reverie. 

That, in a nutshell, summarises 10 minutes of impressionistic musical perfection, concocted by the brilliant Claude Debussy in 1894 – the Prelude à l’aprés-midi d’une faune. It’s one of the pioneering works of modernism in music. Inspired by the sounds and musical forms of the Orient, Debussy was rejecting Western musical conventions and creating something startlingly new.

Or was he? Were Debussy and his sultry faun truly as original as we have been led to believe? Or had the composer actually heard and been inspired by the music of a contemporary – obscure, even shunned in his own time, and now vanished from history with barely a trace remaining.

Born in 1860, two years before Debussy, Ernest Fanelli was largely self-taught as a composer. Despite being kicked out of the Paris Conservatoire for resisting its strict practices, he carried on composing – with the occasional lesson from Delibes – but rarely ever thinking about whether his music might be performed or garner any attention.

Fanelli earned his living happily playing the kettle drums and as a music copyist. It was in the latter capacity that he emerged briefly from obscurity at the age of 52. Pitching for work, Fanelli submitted a sample of his own work to the composer Gabriel Pierné. Pierné presumably thought Fanelli’s penmanship was pretty good but was even more impressed by the actual quality of the music on the page in front of him. In the piece, written nearly 30 years earlier, Pierné quickly spotted some radical innovations which he noted were remarkably similar to Debussy’s latest works.

Fanelli’s major work, penned more than a decade before Debussy's Prelude à l’aprés-midi d’une faune, was the Symphonic Tableaux based on an exotic novel, The Romance of the Mummy by the Frenchman Théophile Gautier. Pierné arranged for 'Thebes' - the first part of the Tableaux, evoking the capital of Egypt - to be performed. It caused a veritable sandstorm in the music world.

All of a sudden Fanelli was getting the kind of attention he had never imagined – but not for the quality of his music. Experts speculated that Debussy or Ravel must have seen his score in manuscript form long before they made their own musical innovations. Ravel, always poised to take a swipe at his rival, gloated ‘Now we know where [Debussy’s] impressionism comes from’. 

Debussy - never a fan of the 'impressionist' label anyway - was quick to dismiss Fanelli stating he had ‘an acute sense of musical ornamentation’ but that it ‘dragged [him] towards such an extreme need of minute description’ that it made him ‘lose his sense of direction.’ 

Not surprisingly, the critics came down on Debussy's side, dismissing Fanelli as an incompetent who had somehow chanced upon his compositional style by accident. But in addition to his own cool response, Debussy seems to have actively tried to avoid Fanelli. The poet Ezra Pound wrote of once sitting in a restaurant listening to Fanelli play when Debussy walked in. As soon as Debussy saw Fanelli, he walked out again. What was Debussy afraid of? After Fanelli’s death, his widow reportedly claimed that not just Ravel and Debussy but Erik Satie as well had all visited their home and studied her husband’s unpublished scores before writing their own works. The great composers remained silent on the matter but when you hear what little of Fanelli's music remains today you can’t help but think that somehow, somewhere Debussy must have been aware of it.

In the end, even Pierné – Fanelli’s great champion – was unable to build a good reputation for his discovery. Only one of Fanelli's works was published in his own lifetime and by the time he died in 1917, he was as forgotten as he was invisible before his brief moment of celebrity.

Fanelli’s isn’t great music, but it does seem that somehow he was able to make the first tentative steps into a musical style that Debussy and Ravel would bring to its full glory. Perhaps if Fanelli had put himself forward more forcefully earlier in life, he would today be as famous and as celebrated as the giants that followed in his invisible footsteps.