Viñes first apologizes to Henri Malherbe for not being a good orator, afflicted in addition with a strong Spanish accent. However, he is keen to participate in this commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Debussy's death and thereby pay his debt of gratitude to the composer. He recalls being his interpreter of choice and enumerates the many piano pieces he premiered. He singles out Poisson d'or, which Debussy dedicated to him, the only such honor he ever did to a pianist. Viñes evokes the evening when Debussy and his wife had invited him to dinner. Debussy, an exquisite but difficult personality, seemed a little strange that night. Sitting down at the piano, he played Poisson d'or in his “supple, velvety” manner, and then showed Viñes the dedication. Viñes was all the more touched since he shared the honor with Chopin alone, to whose memory Debussy had dedicated one of his works. Viñes goes on to describe Debussy's slightly frightening side, his “magnificent ugliness,” with his big, Verlaine-like forehead, his ironical, “ambiguous” look; he compares him to a condottiere, or even a bandit of sorts. He then mentions the magical, incantatory, other-worldly character of Debussy's music, adding that it seems to him related (quoting a phrase by the critic Stanislas Fumet) to the powers of the soul. This conveys to his piano music a character of poetic strangeness, an unreal, paradisiacal flavor. Yet Debussy was not austere and, at times, could have fun like a child.
How can I speak about Claude Debussy, my dear Henri Malherbe1? First of all, I’m no speaker, and secondly although I have lived in Paris since my childhood I still have a slight Spanish accent which I have never been able to shake off, and thirdly I have innumerable memories of Claude Debussy, and I am at a loss to know which ones I should choose out of all those which flow into my mind. But I cannot refuse the request you have made, dear friend, to recall and to honor the memory of that glorious musician whose death occurred 20 years ago now, whom I loved so well and whom I admired more than any other. I am very proud and eternally grateful to Claude Debussy that he chose me to play the first performances of almost all the works he wrote for the piano. I was for many years his official performer, I was known as the friend and confidante of Claude Debussy. He asked me to give the first public performances of Prélude, Sarabande and Toccata, Pagode, Jardin sous la pluie, La soirée dans Grenade, Masques, L’île joyeuse, Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, Cloche à travers les feuilles, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, Poisson d’or, etc. This last piece, Poisson d’or, was even dedicated to me. I was all the more touched by the honor as Claude Debussy had never dedicated any of his works to a pianist.
One evening, Debussy and Mme. Debussy had invited me to dinner. I could see he was agitated, embarrassed, and gesturing to his wife. He was a delightful friend, but fearfully difficult to get on with. I was expecting some friendly reproach and was waiting with some trepidation for what was going to happen, but Debussy sat down at the piano and started to play, in his supple, velvety style: Poisson d’or. Then he showed me, laughing up his sleeve, that he had dedicated it to me. I thanked him, overcome with emotion. The only other pianist he awarded this favor to was Chopin, in whose memory he had dedicated a collection of pieces for the piano.
Claude Debussy was rather awe inspiring, with his great head, magnificently ugly face, his odd, overhanging forehead in the manner of Verlaine, and his intimidating feline eyes looking at you from below, with their rather ironic, ambiguous gaze. This Romantic image recalled some Condottiere, or if I may make so bold as to say, some honorable Calabrese bandit.
There was something about Debussy, and more two thirds of his work bears witness to this, something magical, something extraordinarily incantatory, diaphanous, it was said, which came from another world. Debussy’s art was wed to the powers of the soul, as Stanislas Fumet2 has said of romanticism. This mystical marriage gives to Claude Debussy’s music its most mysterious character, this note of poetic otherness, which made him somehow unreal, a foretaste of paradise, if I may say so, and a potential of persuasive emotion.
You should not think that Debussy was in any way heavy or austere. At certain times he could amuse himself as a child.
1Henri Malherbe, winner of 1917 Prix Goncourt.
2Stanislas Fumet (1896-1983), avant-garde critic of the arts and literature
Translation and summary provided by John Humbley and Vincent Giroud
ERicardo Viñes: The Complete Recordings