Monsieur Croche: Debussy, music critic

In 1901, Claude Debussy joined the world of music criticism, writing under the pseudonym "Monsieur Croche". Incisive and sarcastic, Monsieur Croche openly expressed his thoughts and convictions, never for a second biting his tongue.

Monsieur Croche: Debussy, music critic
Monsieur Croche: Debussy, music critic, © Getty / Monsieur Croche: Debussy, music critic

An unquestionably important French composer of the early 20th century, Claude Debussy remains to this day one of the most performed and appreciated composers.

Though not yet at the peak of his career in 1901, Debussy had already composed a great number of mélodies (Cinq poème de Charles Baudelaire, Chansons de Bilitis…), his Arabesques for piano, and several works for orchestra such as his Nocturnes and the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. He had also recently finished his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered the following year on the stage of the Opéra Comique.

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Concurrently to his work as a composer, Debussy began working as a music critic, writing for publications common amongst intellectual circles and the worldly salons of Paris.

Debussy, music critic

Claude Debussy invented the character "Monsieur Croche" precisely for his role as a critic, which he began in April 1901. At that time, he was solicited by the founders of La Revue blanche, in circulation since 1891, to discuss the current musical events in Paris. Attracted by the publication's open and heterogeneous tone, Debussy willingly accepted the offer.

Thus, every two weeks, Debussy the critic published a column with an unusual tone, to say the least. He warned his readers in his very first publication: "You will find here my own sincere impressions, exactly as I felt them - more that than 'criticism'". Far from the objectivity of the usual critics, Debussy openly adopted a totally subjective position.

The critic also warned those expecting of him an exhaustive review of musical events: "I am only slightly concerned with works hallowed either by success or tradition." He only discussed that which interested him. The aim was not to inform his readers but rather to share his own ideas and opinions on subjects as varied as the symphony, the opera, Richard Wagner, the Prix de Rome, and even open-air music. More than for his musical analyses, Debussy's critical columns are a precious opening into the thoughts and musical conceptions of the French composer.

A portrait of Monsieur Croche :

Name: unknown
Family name: Croche
Age: unknown
Address: possibly somewhere in Paris
Profession: dilettante hater.

"Antidilettante" or "dilettante hater", what an unusual profession! What is it exactly? Hard to say... If the "dilettante" is he or she who "cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge", the antidilettante must therefore refer to the non-amateur of music. Yet, Monsieur Croche enjoys music, to the point of being his only subject of conversation. It is not,, however, a mere topic of passing interest, but rather a most serious affair.

A demanding music-lover

This unique character expressed himself publicly for the first time on 1 July 1901, in the musical section of La Revue blanche, "one of the best publications in the world of Parisian literature and art" as described by the French musicologist François Lesure in his biography Claude Debussy.

In his first ever column, Monsieur Croche hit hard, criticising concert hall audiences, seemingly very little concerned by the music to which they are listening. "These people, sir, appear to be more or less well-behaved guests: they suffer the boredom of their responsibility, and if they choose to stay it is only because they must be seen at the end of the concert; otherwise, why else would they have come?", wrote Monsieur Croche.

Composers are also the subject of scathing remarks: Monsieur Croche loathed ease and conformity, criticising those who rested on their laurels. He notably criticised the music written by "practiced hands", rather than the music "inscribed in nature". He boastfully claimed that he was not a musician since "he does not like specialists", adding "to specialise is to limit one's universe".

La Revue Blanche, illustration de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895
La Revue Blanche, illustration de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895

Monsieur Croche and his alter ego.

The creation of Monsieur Croche allowed Debussy to not only express his own thoughts and opinions but also to vary his style of writing, adopting the form of an imaginary dialogue with his own character, in the style of a novel. Despite all of this, he did not seek to create discord amongst his readers, and would always sign his columns with his real name.

Debussy drew inspiration from an essay by Paul Valéry, La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste, found in another review publication, Le Centaure, several years earlier. Though the composer never openly cited this model, the resemblance immediately stood out to the writer: "I now have the pleasure of reading my old works in the form of music criticism. I must confess I'd never foreseen this outcome. I don't know if you've read Entretien avec Monsieur Croche, but C.A.D. [Claude Achille Debussy] has certainly read La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste", wrote Paul Valéry to the poet Pierre Louÿs (a mutual friend).

An enigmatic character, having renounced all forms of vanity in order to dedicate himself to more intellectual reflections, Monsieur Teste does indeed bear a striking resemblance to Monsieur Croche.

Monsieur Teste had no opinions. I believe he stirred his passions when he willed, and to attain a definite end. What had he done with his personality? What was his view of himself? ... He never laughed, there was never a look of distress on his face. He hated sadness.

Monsieur Croche was a spare, wizened man and his gestures were obviously suited to the conduct of metaphysical discussions [... ]. He spoke almost in a whisper and never laughed, occasionally enforcing his remarks with a quiet smile, which, beginning at his nose, wrinkled his whole face, like a pebble flung into still waters.

A brief career

With an accomplice such as Monsieur Croche, one could believe that Debussy had found the perfect means with which to keep his reader intrigued, offering in each publication a new episode revealing their fictitious discussions.

However, the antidilettante was a short-lived character, since Debussy stopped writing for La Revue blanche after only eight publications. Eight columns during which Monsieur Croche appeared only three times, with Debussy preferring in general to write under his own name. Evidently, Monsieur Croche was an elusive character, unwilling to express himself upon command.

Monsieur Croche was tempted by another cigar and said  to me by way of farewell:  "Forgive me, but I should not like to spoil this one." (published on 15 November 1901).

After Monsieur Croche

Debussy's activities as a critic, however, did not stop following the disappearance of his character.

Two years after his collaboration with La Revue blanche, Debussy began writing once again for the periodical Gil Blas (from 12 January to 26 June), for which he would write every week. His style remained wholly personal, though there was no longer any trace of Monsieur Croche to be found.

Later, in 1905, the musicologist Louis Laloy sought to resurrect Monsieur Croche by offering to Debussy to write for the Mercure musical. However, the composer disapproved of the publication's tone and thus declined, not wishing to be associated with the other authors: "apart from you, dear friend, the people at Le Mercure musical are sinister; above all, they terribly well-informed, I really cannot see what poor Monsieur Croche would do among so many hardy specialists?".

It was only in 1912 that Debussy finally resumed his work as a critic, for the monthly publication S.I.M., an activity he stopped after two years.

Rubrique "Musique" du Gil Blas du 12 janvier 1903, dans lequel Debussy intervient pour la première fois
Rubrique "Musique" du Gil Blas du 12 janvier 1903, dans lequel Debussy intervient pour la première fois

A late publication

In 1906, Monsieur Croche's creator had the idea of publishing a selection of his articles, an idea which he shared with his friend Louis Laloy: "I am thinking for the future of a series of notes, opinions etc. [...] left to me by poor Monsieur Croche who decided to die […]. He leaves me the freedom: to publish the papers, or to burn them. Together we'll see what's best done about it."

As was often the case with Debussy, the idea took a while before becoming a reality, only finally taking shape in the end of 1913, when the manuscript was finally sent to his editor. Unfortunately, the composer never saw his finished work published: as the First World War broke out, production was halted and only finished in 1921, after the death of Debussy in 1918, entitled Monsieur Croche antidilettante.

The entirety of the composer's critical writing was finally published 50 years later under the title Monsieur Croche et autres écrits.

Though Debussy's time as a critic only represents a small part of his overall output, it nonetheless helped not only impose his vision of French music but indeed position himself as a composer at the forefront of the contemporary musical scene.