DEBUSSY. STRAUSS. MAHLER
AT THE TURN of the century there were four composers in Europe, each about forty years of age, whose music may be regarded as typical of the first decade after 1900--Richard Strauss (the youngest and already the most famous--or notorious!) in Germany, Claude Debussy in France, Gustav Mahler in Austria, and in England Edward Elgar, the senior in age.
Debussy stands apart from his contemporaries in all except his orchestral virtuosity, and even in that sphere his reticence is in striking contrast to the opulent display of the others. Debussy's songs, the most important of his vocal compositions except the opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, have already been noted, and there remain to be considered here only the early cantatas, L'Enfant Prodigue and La Demoiselle Élue. It was with the first of these that Debussy won the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatoire. As might be expected of a student work, it is derivative, and the "Air de Lia," which has kept a place in concert-programs, is a fair sample of its indebtedness to Massenet. La Demoiselle Élue, a setting of Rossetti Blessed Damozel for female voices and orchestra, is more important, though slight. The music reflects the spirit of Rossetti's poem more accurately than the French translation of the words. It may be added that in Sirènes, the third of the orchestral Nocturnes produced in 1899, Debussy uses a small chorus of female voices as part of his orchestra, following the example set by Verdi in the storm-music in the last act of Rigoletto, and that the incidental music to d'Annunzio Le Martyre de Saint Sébastian contains some choral numbers. But by 1911 Debussy's peculiar vein of inventiveness seems to have been worked out and his mind exhausted.