André Caplet: Portrait Of A Forgotten Artist

A Prix de Rome winner whose music has been overshadowed by Debussy.

André Caplet at the piano.
screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-21-42-14       By Clare Wilson 

The dawn of the twentieth century was a particularly fascinating time. This new century paved the way for so many advances across the sciences, engineering and the arts. Marconi sent the first Atlantic wireless transmission, Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight, and Henry Ford produced the Model T. Matisse led the Fauvism movement, and literary greats were being turned out by Ford Maddox Ford, Conrad, Joyce, Scott-Fitzgerald and Hemingway – to name just a few.

Music was no exception. In Paris, Debussy’s innovations were causing quite the stir amongst his contemporaries. Interestingly, as a prolific writer, Debussy also expressed his opinion on a melange of musical matters in journals and letters. His persona of ‘Monsieur Croche’, an alter ego with a pen as quick as his tongue and manner sharp as a razor, would say what he meant, and meant what he said. One extract, from a letter to his friend, the music critic Georges-Jean Aubry, mentions a certain young composer:

This Caplet is an artist. He knows how to find a sonorous atmosphere and, with an attractive sensitiveness, has a sense of proportion; something which is more rare than one would believe in our haphazard musical epoch patched or closed up like a cork!

This is praise indeed for a composer relatively unknown today, and certainly begs the question who exactly was André Caplet…?

As an established figure in Parisian musical society, André Caplet was well known and respected for his craft during his lifetime.

The public mourned his tragically early death in 1925, when, at just 46, a simple cold developed into a fatal case of pleurisy. This was a true loss to the 1920s artistic scene – Caplet was an upstanding and musically adventurous personality who had much to give. Perhaps it is due to his untimely end that Caplet’s memory remains, to a degree, somewhat indistinct in music history.

Nonetheless, tracing Caplet’s movements could unravel some of the history behind this artist; the one who, according to Debussy, knew the key to a sonorous atmosphere.

Born in Le Havre in November 1878 to a modest family, the young Caplet spent his childhood by the sea; as a boy he was fascinated by the wind in the sails and sounds of the waves. This love of all things marine would stay with him all his life. Caplet began early music lessons with Henri Woollett, who himself had been a student of Massenet. Woollett and Caplet developed a warm rapport, and Woollett is known to have held Caplet in the highest esteem. In Le Monde Musicale February 1922, Woollett wrote:

I have spoken about the joy and pride of the professor who, discovering among his students a beautiful and strong musical nature, and about the satisfaction, after having guided his first steps, of opening to him little by little all the mysteries of the art, of having him taste its sublime beauties, of putting into his hands a tool with which he will force open the secret doors jealously closed on so many treasures, and finally, in leaving, to see him throw himself out on foot on the perilous road which leads to the conquest of dreams […] This joy […] never was it so great or so complete as when I had to form the fingers and the brain of an artist so accomplished.

When the time came for Caplet to move to Paris to continue his education, he entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where he become a successful student of teachers Xavier Leroux, Paul Vidal and Charles Lenepveu. Caplet won numerous prizes for composition, accompaniment and counterpoint. It was in 1901 that the most prestigious prize of all was awarded to him: the Prix de Rome – the grand scholarship which allowed young artists to study in Rome. Other competitors for this year included Maurice Ravel, who won third place, and Gabriel Dupont, who won second. Caplet’s cantata Myrrha was assured and confident in style, demonstrating his outstanding technique, and unlike Ravel’s submission, the tone of Caplet’s cantata did not annoy the judges; instead, it expressed the religious nature of the subject in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

The Prix de Rome contestants in 1901. Caplet is seated, third in from right.
The Prix de Rome contestants in 1901. Caplet is seated, third in from right.

1901 was a good year for Caplet. He was a rising star in Paris, and just ahead of his Prix de Rome prize in May, this year saw a concert fully dedicated to his music, organised by the Société de Musique Moderne pour Instruments à Vent  (Society of Modern Music for Wind Instruments), held at the Petit Salle Érard on the evening of March 9, 1901. The society was led by Georges Barrère, renowned flautist and active chamber music personality. Caplet and Barrère had a great working relationship; Barrère supported and encouraged Caplet’s musical efforts and the two collaborated on the concert platform on numerous occasions. Caplet even dedicated some of his flute compositions to Barrère.

The concert presented a programme of music which revealed Caplet’s compositional range to its fullest. This included Quintet for Piano and Winds, (which, incidentally, was awarded a prize of 500 francs by the illustrious Society of Composers), the Suite Persane (Persian Suite), a three movement opus based upon Persian-inspired themes, and the complete Feuillets d’album (Album Leaves), five pieces for flute and piano. The latter featured Caplet himself at the piano.

According to research carefully gathered by Nancy Toff, the critics’ reviews of the concert were enthusiastic: in Le Monde Musicale, the Suite Persane ‘affirms again the highest qualities’, and it was called ‘a very ingenious work of instrumental combinations and much inspiration’. The suite does indeed offer a lot to the listener. In this work, each movement embraces a stylistic freedom and modality which would become so intrinsic in the later works.

Sharki, the first movement, states an Eastern-style modal theme in flutes and clarinets from the outset, which then are joined by bassoon. Following incarnations of the theme are placed throughout different instrumental groups and further developed.

The stately swirling chordal movement in fifths opens the second movement, Mihawend, paving way to a melodic theme in E minor.

The final movement Iskia Samaïsi is the longest of the three, and consists of two main motifs; an energetic dance theme first heard on oboes, then a second theme in triplets is introduced, based upon a whole tone scale. These motifs weave around each other towards a repeat of the first section, and ending with a loud fluttering coda.

After the excitement of this concert, the next project for Caplet was his residency at the Villa Medici, as part of his Prix de Rome scholarship. Perhaps he was still searching for his compositional voice and hoping to fully broaden his horizons, but soon after arriving in Italy, Caplet’s travels took him beyond Rome and throughout Germany. Caplet pursued well known conductors (Felix Mottl and Arthur Nikisch), and perhaps this exposure fed his desire and interest for more involvement with conducting. For reasons which are still unclear, Caplet turned in his resignation from the Prix de Rome, and had returned to Paris by 1906.

Paris at this time was teeming with creative energy and innovative artistic style. A lot was happening. Before leaving for Italy, Caplet had associated himself with circles of young artists partial to both the modern and exotic, and he rekindled these connections upon his return. One such group was Les Apaches.

This was a collective of musicians and artists, originally started by Florent Schmitt. Fellowship grew, and before long it included Ricardo Viñes, D.E. Inghelbrecht, Paul Sourdes, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, and of course, André Caplet. They would gather in the welcoming home of artist Paul Sourdes in Montremarte, and discuss music, literature and the arts. Theirs was a shared love of oriental art, the literary work of Mallarmé and Verlaine, the music of Chopin to the Russian school of composers, and naturally the latest creations of Debussy himself. According to an account by one of the first Caplet scholars, Willametta Spencer, the group’s nickname came about in quite a spontaneous way: 

One Saturday afternoon, after a concert, they were walking down the rue de Rome en masse. They bumped into a newsboy who shouted ‘Attention, les Apaches!’ Ricardo Viñes picked up the slogan, and thus the group was named.

Les Apaches even had their own theme tune. Spencer goes on to mention:soon they even adopted a code of their own by which they could communicate. The first theme of the Symphony No. 2 by Borodin was adopted as their rally call, which served to help them find each other in various places’.

Les Apaches was not the only musical society with which Caplet associated. The Société Musicale Independente (SMI) was a group formed in 1910 by Ravel, amongst some other young composers, mostly in reaction to the earlier established Société Nationale de Musique (SNM). The SMI aimed to promote an inclusive and progressive approach to modern music of the day. It was this group who brought about the premiere of Caplet’s Septuor (Septet) for ladies’ voices and string quartet, and again in 1922 the premiere the vocal work Le Pain Quotidian (The Daily Bread).

Around the time of his return to Paris in 1906-07, Caplet had also become well acquainted with Debussy. Before long, the two were working closely together. Debussy wrote a lot of letters to Caplet between 1908 and 1914, and these give great insight into their relationship, which was clearly based upon mutual respect and admiration. Caplet assisted Debussy in correcting proofs of scores, transcribing music, reducing orchestral scores for piano (it was Caplet who transcribed Debussy’s La Mer for four-hands piano), as well as making orchestrations of piano works (such as Pagodes and the Children’s Corner Suite). Caplet also completed the orchestration of La Boîte a joujoux (The Toy-Box) and aided Debussy significantly with preparing Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.

These years were good to Caplet, and his role as a conductor would become even more elevated with his appointment as conductor of the Boston Opera between 1910 and 1914. Caplet’s time in Boston was fruitful; he introduced audiences there to French music and his choices of concert programmes received much acclaim. The Boston Globe carried positive reports – this one, reporting on Caplet’s orchestration of The Children’s Corner in 1910 mentions: ‘Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite will be an interesting novel of the orchestral programme […] Were it not for André Caplet, it is likely that Boston would never have heard this delightful suite’.

Caplet returned to Paris in early 1914, and was only a short time in his position as Director of the Boston Opera when war broke out. Caplet spent most of the war firstly as a soldier, then as sergeant in Verdun, France. Caplet was awarded the Croix de Guerre (with a silver star) for bravery in 1916 and when the war ended he was released in April 1919, remaining in the territorial reserve until 1924.

The kind of artistic socialising to which Caplet had become accustomed in the pre-war era had greatly changed during the war years. Caplet had huge responsibilities to his unit, less independence, limited supplies of instruments and only sporadic contact with Debussy. Fortunately, Caplet was not the only musician in the trenches, and he very soon surrounded himself with a circle of like-minded artists. Music making in this situation had an extra incentive; to lift the morale of the soldiers, generating some kind of respite from the surrounding tumult. This became a more pressing reason for Caplet to immerse himself in as much musical activity as possible. Through music, he could provide solace for his compatriots as well as using it as the channel for his personal responses to war. It is likely Caplet encountered soldiers equipped with musical abilities broadly ranging from rudimental to advanced, and possibly from all corners of France; perhaps a much greater spectrum of musical attitudes than that with which he engaged before active service.

There were some outstanding personalities with whom Caplet forged musical alliances. His relationship with one, the virtuoso violinist Lucien Durosoir, forged a friendship that would transcend the war years. Durosoir and Caplet were the same age, both educated at the conservatoire during the same period, and understandably a strong rapport developed. Amidst the difficulties surrounding them, the musicians found time to study scores by Debussy and others, and work together on music at quieter opportunities. But Durosoir was not Caplet’s only musical ally at this point. Cellist Maurice Maréchal was known to play Debussy’s works for the regiments, and while Durosoir continued his musical studies with Caplet, there was still plenty of music making procured by Maréchal and others where possible. In fact, Caplet, Durosoir and Marechal would regularly host concerts and soirees for other officers.

Left to right: Maurie Machéral, André Caplet, Lucien Durosoir
Left to right: Maurie Machéral, André Caplet, Lucien Durosoir

Although for Caplet there still remained at least a semblance of musicality, the war had a profound effect on him, as it did on so many other musicians at this time. Caplet did not produce a large body of work during the war years, and there is a very noticeable streamlining of musical genres.

Gone are the large-scale piano transcriptions and orchestrations with wide instrumentation; instead we are left with a small pool of songs. Mélodie as a genre was not new to Caplet – evidenced by the range of songs reaching as far back as the late 1890s – but it was during these war years that he began to delve deeper into the potential of harmonic language, modality, song structure and texture. Paradoxically, it was Caplet’s paring back of his artistic language which seemed to liberate his musical identity. It is to the tumult of war that we must attribute the inspiration behind the modest but valuable collection of mélodies dating from 1914-1918, amongst which lies a wealth of gems. From the song cycle Le vieux coffert (The Old Box), to the haunting diminished and octatonic strains of Détresse (Distress), to Quand reverrai-je, hélas (When Shall I See You Again, Alas), and La Croix douloureuse, (The Sad Cross), Caplet’s sensitivity and delicate treatment of war and other themes began to lay the foundations for an individual musical voice, which would come into full maturity after the war ended.

Upon returning to civilian life, Caplet found himself unable to continue conducting to the degree he had been previously. His lungs were weakened due to exposure to gasses during the war, and he simply did not have the stamina to meet the demands which came with a full and intense conducting schedule. His compositional output began to expand more, and around 1919-1920 we see a proliferation of mélodies: the 3 Fables and simultaneously melodious and lively Cinq Ballades Françaises (Five French Ballades) date from this time respectively. In the 3 Fables, we see Caplet bring the animals depicted in Jean de La Fontaine’s texts fully to life; wide-ranging vocal lines juxtaposing in equal partnership with the piano parts place Caplet’s authenticity within this genre firmly alongside Ravel’s Histories naturelles.

However, the lure of conducting had a strong hold on Caplet, and in 1922 it was he who held the conductor’s baton at the French premiere of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, an event which resulted in policemen on horseback being dispatched to calm the commotion of the audience, who erupted in uproar upon hearing Schoenberg’s music! Webern, speaking of the SMI in a letter to Ravel in 1927, mentions: 

Such an international embrace of new works signifies the SMI’s high standards for compositional excellence, where a composer’s worth is based not on nationality but on style, aesthetic, and quality. This truth grants composers the rewarding knowledge that, should their works be selected by the SMI, it is because their craft is deemed valuable, not because their piece fulfils a national stereotype.

In the final years of his life, Caplet commanded a lot of respect as a conductor, composer and all-round musical persona of his time. No mention of Caplet would be complete without a nod towards some of his large-scale later works. The harshness of war affirmed Caplet’s strong Catholic faith, and this religious theme was one to run through some of these. Le miroir de Jésus (The Mirror of Jesus), composed in 1924, encapsulates some of Caplet’s most distinctive characteristics: a combination of modal and chromatic harmonic movement, even with Schonebergian flavour at certain points, yet with an intensity and spirituality that is truly Caplet’s own sound. This spiritualism is continued in other works from this era – Epiphanie for cello and orchestra composed in 1923, after an Ethiopian legend, and Mystères du Rosiere (Mysteries of the Rosary) composed in the same year, share this search for spiritual meaning and evoke the mysterious and exotic, all the while encapsulating Caplet’s sensitivity to the subject without any over-emotionalism.

André Caplet was an artist in possession of an empathy and musical intuition which did indeed enable him to create a sonorous atmosphere – whether by his own compositions, or through the conductor’s baton, through a musical language of consistent inventiveness and design.

Indeed, Caplet’s part within the tapestry of early French modernism can be seen as that of a transitionary figure. His dignity and forward-looking use of modal structures places him beyond the realm of Debussysme and facing towards the direction that Messiaen would later expand upon both modally and approaching the creation of synthetic scales. Caplet was a figure who favoured different musical conventions. Perhaps he is best remembered with respect for his individual artistry amongst the true post-Debussyan composers of the 1920s and beyond.

Read more about French music on Corymbus:

Ravel’s Piano Concerto For The Left Hand

Clare is a third year PhD candidate at the Faculty of Music in Ulster University. She holds a Masters in semiotic approaches to the music of Debussy, diplomas in piano performance and teaching, and has recently been awarded Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Fuelled by both plenty of coffee and a passion for early twentieth century French music, Clare’s doctoral research focusses on rigorous analysis of the mélodies of Caplet. Through her current and future work, Clare hopes that she can help bring about more recognition for André Caplet. Clare divides her time between Belfast and Dublin, and as an enthusiastic piano teacher, is committed to supportive teaching and learning in higher education. She tweets as @claero.