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9 - Debussy's ‘Reputational Entrepreneurs’: Vuillermoz, Koechlin, Laloy and Vallas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 July 2019

Marianne Wheeldon
Affiliation:
Professor of Music Theory at the University of Texas at Austin.
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Summary

In the years following Claude Debussy's death in 1918 his legacy was far from secure. His reputation fell foul of a post-war generation of composers and critics who felt compelled to distance themselves from the perceived decadence of the pre-war avant-garde and to begin afresh with a new conception of French music. While part of this process of artistic renewal entailed establishing what young musicians stood for, an equally important part was spent defining what they were against, which gave rise to numerous critiques of Debussy's aesthetic and influence in the music criticism of newspapers and specialist journals. In a period when the composer's influence on French music was often called into question, the publication of counter-narratives by influential critics became all the more important to combat the negative press surrounding Debussy after his death. This essay considers the contributions of four such critics – Émile Vuillermoz, Charles Koechlin, Louis Laloy, and Léon Vallas – whose writings in the post-war years helped to overturn the initial backlash against the composer's music.

All four critics had access (regular or occasional) to a large readership in the columns of daily newspapers, maintained a continual presence in music periodicals, and exercised a more enduring influence through their biographies of Debussy. Two were trained as musicologists: Laloy was a normalien (a graduate of the École normale supérieure) and was one of the first scholars to receive a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne (1904); Vallas was awarded his doctorate in musicology from the Université de Lyon (1909). In contrast, Vuillermoz and Koechlin were trained as composers and were fellow members of Fauré's composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. After leaving the Conservatoire, Vuillermoz devoted himself full-time to music criticism whereas Koechlin continued to juggle composition and criticism throughout his career. While all four were involved in other musical fields – teaching privately, lecturing publicly, concert organisation, or music administration – it was their activities as writers that significantly contributed to the cultivation of Debussy's posthumous reputation. As critics and historians, they were ‘fonts of reputation’, and the publications of Vuillermoz, Koechlin, Laloy, and Vallas were crucial for the early establishment of Debussy's legacy.

Type
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Music Criticism in France, 1918–1939
Authority, Advocacy, Legacy
, pp. 219 - 244
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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