Chapter XIII: The Sounds of Nationalism

Section 1 - Poetry
Section 2 - Music

Wilfred Owen was a young English poet who died fighting in WW1.  His poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” captures the futility of a war whose cataclysmic effect on Europe defined Debussy’s last years. Debussy, unlike Owen, never saw battle, and as an ardent Frenchman and anti-German, he retained more illusions as to the purpose of the war than Owen; he was far from oblivious, however, to its horrors, and his late letters speak of a deep-seated despair.

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori


Musical examples

En blanc et noir, 1915 (Robert and Gaby Casadesus)

This is one of Debussy's great masterpieces, one of only two works for two pianos outside of orchestral transcriptions, and by far the most monumental. Its title "In Black and White" captures not only the contrast between the black and white keys of the piano, but can also be taken as a reference to the stark atrocities of war and possibly even to the good and bad sides engaged in battle.  The piece was written during World War 1, when Debussy's world was shattered both by his own fatal illness and by the tragic war surrounding him; his response was both despair and a fervent patriotism. Each movement of the piece is preceded by a quotation related to the war effort, and the second movement is dedicated to a friend who'd been killed in action.

Feux d'artifice, Prelude no. 12, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

This last of the Preludes seems to presage Debussy's nationalism which grew more and more intense in his last years as enmity with Germany became a pressing reality. The "fireworks" indicated in the title probably refer to Bastille Day, and the allusion to the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," cleverly camouflaged in the last bars, alerts us to Debussy's fervent allegiance to his native land.

La boîte à joujoux, 1913 (George N. Gianopoulos)

This children's ballet, dedicated to Debussy's own daughter, Chouchou, features a wounded soldier and her beloved, who eventually triumph over forces of evil as personified by a Pulcinelle.  The story cannot have been chosen coincidentally in this year before the outbreak of World War 1, and the sad combination of a war scenario and children's theater brings home Debussy's overwhelming despondency during these years.

Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons, 1915 (Elly Ameling, Dalton Baldwin, 1977)

Yet another combination of children and war, this song, for which Debussy wrote both music and text, is about the killing effects of the war on children, who stand to lose everything. It is simple and straightforward: children will lose parents, homes, schools.  The world appeared a sad place indeed in 1915.

Berceuse héroïque, 1914 (Gieseking, 1953)

This small piece makes no pretense at masterpiece stature, but, written for inclusion in a Belgian relief project, King Albert’s Book, it features the Belgian national anthem and an army of bugles and drums, obviously mobilized to defeat an intransigent enemy.

Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, 1917 (Bavouzet)

This lovely, short piece was only recently unearthed. Debussy  presented it to the man who delivered his coal during the war, when he might otherwise have gone without heat. Its title (Evenings Lit by the Burning c=Coals") taken from Baudelaire's poem, "Le Balcon," (see Ch. 12) takes on new meaning in this context, and the miniature music is a small ode to the composer's patriotism and feeling of helplessness during this time of bitter hardship.