Claude Debussy: on taste

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In 1913, Claude Debussy published a little article in the musical magazine La Revue Musicale S.I.M, discussing the matter of taste and the art of music.

Of taste

In our time, where the sense of mystery is lost little by little, while we are busy trying out various human training systems, it was necessary for us to also lose the true meaning of the word “taste.”

In the last century, having taste was only a kind way to defend your opinions. Today, this word has taken such an extension, is used for so many demonstrations, that it is hardly more than a kind of “American punch” argument, certainly affirmative, but without elegance. Because of a natural inclination, the “taste” made up of nuances and delicacy has become this “bad taste” where shapes and colors are engaged in singular battles… This is too general a reflection, since we are going to deal here only with music –a rather difficult undertaking!

Genius can obviously do without taste, for example: Beethoven. But it can be the opposite: Mozart, who adds the most delicate taste to so much genius. If we look at the work of J. S. Bach, benevolent God to whom musicians should offer a prayer before they set to work, to preserve themselves from mediocrity, this innumerable work in which we find at every step what we believe to be of yesterday, from the capricious arabesque to this religious effusion for which we have not found anything better until today, we will look in vain for a lack of taste.

Portia of The Merchant of Venice speaks of a music that every being carries within itself… “Woe to him who hears it not,” she says. Those who worry about learning the formula that best serves them, before listening to what is singing in their souls, should meditate on these admirable words. Or those who juxtapose measures, very ingeniously, as sad as little cubes. Music that smells of table and slippers, as mechanics say when trying a badly assembled machine: “It smells of oil.” Let’s be wary of writing. A mole’s work with which we end up reducing the living beauty of sounds to an operation in which, painfully, two and two are four… Music has known for a long time what mathematicians call the madness of the number.

Above all, we should protect ourselves from systems which are nothing but traps to catch dilettanti.

There have been, and there still remain, despite the disorders brought by civilization, charming small peoples who learned music as simply as we learn to breathe. Their conservatory is: the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and the thousand small noises to which they listen attentively, without ever looking into arbitrary treatises. Their traditions exist only in very old songs, mixed with dances, to which each person, across centuries, brings their respectful contribution. Nevertheless, Javanese music displays a counterpoint against which that of Palestrina looks like child’s play. And if one listens, without European bias, to the charm of their “percussion”, one must admit that ours is nothing but the barbaric noise of a circus band.

Among the Annamites, a kind of embryonic lyrical drama of Chinese influence is represented, where the tetralogical formula can be recognized; there are only more Gods, and less scenery… A furious little clarinet leads the emotion; a Tam-Tam organizes the terror… and that’s it! No special theatre, no hidden orchestra. Just an instinctive need for art and the wit to satisfy it; not a trace of bad taste! To think that it never occurred to these people never had the idea of picking up their formulas at the Munich school: what are they thinking about?

Could it be the professionals who are ruining civilized countries? And is the accusation made to the public that they only like easy music (bad music!) wrong?

The truth is that music becomes “difficult” when it doesn’t exist, the word “difficult” being nothing but a screen to hide its poverty. There is only one music and it takes from itself the right to exist, whether it adopts the rhythm of a waltz —even if it is that of a café-concert— or the imposing frame of a symphony. And why not admit that, in these two cases, good taste will often be on the side of the waltz, while the symphony will hardly disguise the pompous accumulation of its mediocrity!

Let us no longer persist in proclaiming this common place, solid as stupidity: tastes and colors should not be discussed… On the contrary, let us discuss, let us find our taste, not because it is lost, but because we have suffocated it beneath northern quilts. It will be our best support in the fight against the Barbarians, who have become much more terrible since they started to part their hair in the middle.

We maintain that the beauty of a work of art will always remain mysterious, that is, it will never be possible to verify exactly “how it is done.” Let us retain, at all costs, this magic peculiar to music. By its very essence, music is more likely to contain it than any other art form.

When the god Pan assembled the seven pipes of the syrinx, at first he imitated only the long melancholic note of the toad complaining under the moonbeams. Later, he engaged in battles with the songs of birds. Since then, the birds have probably enriched their repertoire.

These are sufficiently sacred origins, beginnings, in which music may well take pride, retaining something of the mystery… In the name of all the gods, we should try no longer to rid ourselves of it, any more than to explain it. Let’s embellish it with this delicate observance of “taste.” And may he be the guardian of the Secret.

Text excerpted and translated from La Revue Musicale S.I.M, 1913, retrieved from