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Notes 58.1 (2001) 95-97

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Book Review

Louis Laloy (1874-1944) on Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky

Louis Laloy (1874-1944) on Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Translated by Deborah Priest. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 1999. [xii, 342 p. ISBN 1-84014-628-1. $83.95]

Louis Laloy was a notable early-twentieth-century French music critic and scholar. A close friend of Claude Debussy, he wrote the composer's first French biography [End Page 95] (Claude Debussy [Paris: Les Bibliophiles fantaisistes, 1909; reprint, Paris: Aux Armes de France, 1944]), and he wrote astutely about many other composers as well, among them Paul Dukas, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Erik Satie. Proficient in eight languages (French, English, German, Russian, Italian, Greek, Latin, and Mandarin Chinese), Laloy was one of the first doctoral candidates in music history at the Sorbonne. In addition to Debussy, he numbered among his friends Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ricardo Viñes, and critics Romain Rolland and Jean Marnold, as well as others from the broader world of literature and the arts: André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, André Gide, Jacques Maritain, and Auguste Rodin.

Deborah Priest's new volume is an important contribution, for Laloy's writings on Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky have been little known up to now, especially among English readers. His links to and influences on these composers, particularly Debussy, reveal profound relationships between contemporaneous trends in music and the visual and literary arts.

Priest's translations are excerpted from two of Laloy's major books (Claude Debussy and La musique retrouvée, 1902-1927 [Paris: Plon, 1928; reprint, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1974]), and she has also included substantial material from his many articles and reviews in La revue musicale, La revue des deux mondes, Le mercure musical (cofounded by Laloy), La grande revue, Musique, and Comoedia. (She lists ninety books, articles, and reviews by Laloy in her bibliography [see pp. 324-28]). Her selections highlight Laloy's extensive learning and his intimate knowledge of ancient Greek music, Chinese music and philosophy, other non-Western music, and new directions in the arts.

Most of the translations--almost 200 out of 250 pages--are devoted to Debussy, a focus that seems appropriate in light of Debussy and Laloy's close friendship and shared aesthetic ideals. The writings about Debussy are divided into two parts, the first concerning friendships, compositional style, and genres, and the second considering specific compositions in chronological order. All of the material on Ravel and Stravinsky deals with specific works, also presented chronologically. The book has two appendixes, "Personalia" and "Chronological List of Principal Compositions by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky," and the volume concludes with a bibliography, primarily of French sources, and an index.

Laloy's analytical comments on specific works reveal his understanding of modern developments in music and aesthetics and his ability to distinguish each composer's unique qualities. For example, in an insightful chapter titled "On Two Chords" from La musique retrouvée, Laloy connects Debussy's orchestral introduction to Pelléas et Mélisande with music of the distant past, linking the opening ascending melodic fifth (d-a) to music of the ancient Greeks and the Middle Ages. He notes that "Dionysius of Halicarnassus recognised the interval of a fifth in the Greek language between the accented syllable and the other syllables" (p. 163) and alludes to the great number of Gregorian chant introits that open with the same pitches. The opening chord built on D omits the third; since there is no F or F, the listener has no indication whether the mode is major or minor. Consequently, "[t]he mind is in suspense, the ear is fully satisfied, for the consonance of the fifth is more blended than that of the third. . . . This is why Classical antiquity and the Middle Ages ranked the fifth among the perfect consonances, and considered thirds as imperfect" (ibid.). As Priest mentions, it is noteworthy that Debussy first invited Laloy to visit him in response to this article, which originally appeared in La revue...