Toscanini and Debussy

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Racial traits are am abiding interest with me. Lately I have been looking towards Toscanini and wondering whether the Latin in him could be obscured by his appreciation of Teutonic art. A conviction that it could not was confirmed when I had placed before me a ‘cutting’ from a French paper in which the great conductor reveals himself with marked candour. I have elsewhere remarked7 that Toscanini’s performance of La mer with the New York Orchestra placed Claude Debussy among the greatest of composers. I do not know how to escape the argument that if one man can do this, the failure of others does not matter. The cutting referred to an interview between a representative of Le petit journal_ and Toscanini, and here it is:

‘The modern French school is foremost in the world. Debussy swayed the highest — you really understand me, the most high — [of] all the endeavours, all the schools, all the manifestations of the end of the nineteenth century, and of the twentieth century. His music is triumphant in its clarity, in its spirit, in its feeling, and even — yes, yes! — in its soul. In the period during which we are living — so full of forebodings and unrest — Debussy! is he not the path, charmed and scented, to those heavens where men who think and feel can find again sweetness in life? The world of today — restless, troubled, fevered, and ferociously cruel — is near losing for ever the significance of those heavens.’

Here we see the reason for Toscanini’s magnificent performances of Debussy’s music revealing their true greatness. The Italian was inspired by one of his own race. It is now nineteen years since Debussy died. He passed away at an hour when the Latin race was more heavily threatened than at any time known to history. In the intervening years, appreciation of Debussy’s art has ebbed and flowed, because public performances are influenced by crowd-movements stimulated sometimes by commercial interests. The music of a few composers — Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and one or two others — is not influenced by stimulated fashion, it stands unmoved. Facing the declaration of Toscanini, he would be a bold man to deny a niche to Debussy among the Immortals.

  1. I have not located this ‘elsewhere’ in print, but in several letters Brian testified to the great impression which Toscanini’s 1930 performance of La mer in London had upon him. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1935, p. 397