The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 greatly affected Debussy, rendering him almost silent as a composer. To keep his mind occupied, his friend and publisher Jacques Durand had persuaded him to take part in the creation of a new French edition of the Standard classical works to replace the existing German one. Debussy expressed an interest in this project, pointing out that he saw a particular need to produce new versions of the piano-duet arrangements of all the symphonies in the catalogue. (He had played many of these as a young man while employed at the home of Tchaikovsky’s benefactress Nadezhda von Meck.) The main task that he chose to complete, however, was the editing of Chopin’s piano music. By June 1915 he was beginning to think again of composition and told Durand of some pieces for two pianos he had in mind. He spent the summer of 1915 with his wife at Mon Coin, a house in Pourville, near Dieppe, owned by the playwright Ferdinand Hérold whom Debussy had met at Mallarmé’s soirées, and while he was there he worked at his three Caprices en blanc et noir
. By the time the composer and Jean Roger-Ducasse gave them their first performance in 1916 the title had been shortened to En blanc et noir
. Each of these pieces, which according to Debussy were like the greys of Velazquez, is headed by a quotation. That for the first piece consists of a short extract from the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré that Gounod had used for his opera Roméo et Juliette
. Some commentators have suggested that by quoting these lines—‘Qui reste à sa place / Et ne danse pas / De quelque disgrâce / Fait l’aveu tout bas’—Debussy was referring to those who, like himself, were not able to fight in the War. This does not, however, explain the dedication ‘à mon ami A Kussewitsky’. In 1913 Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky had invited Debussy to conduct several of his works, including the Nocturnes
and the Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune
in Moscow and St Petersburg. Although the letters to his family indicate that he did not enjoy being so far from home and that he was indeed feeling very miserable in Russia, Debussy was impressed both with Koussevitzky’s indomitable spirit and with his orchestra.
The quotation associated with the second piece comes from the Ballade contre les ennemis de la France by François Villon: ‘Prince, porte soit des serfs Eolus / En la forest ou domme Glaucus, / Ou prive soit de paix et d’espérance / Car digne n’est de posséder vertus / Qui mal vouldroit au royaume de France.’ Debussy’s anger against the enemies of France was inspired in particular by the death in battle of a cousin of Jacques Durand who had also worked for the family publishing firm. The dedication ‘au Lieutenant Jacques Charlot tué à l'ennemi en 1915, le 3 mars’, pinpoints the moment of the young man’s death and leaves no doubt as to the cause of it. Ravel was later to make a similar gesture to the memory of Charlot by dedicating to him the ‘Prélude’ from Le Tombeau de Couperin.
The line Debussy quoted at the head of the last of these pieces—‘Yver, vous n’este qu’un vilain’—comes from a poem that he had already set as the third of Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans for unaccompanied chorus. Correspondence between Debussy and Stravinsky (to whom this third piece is dedicated) during October 1915, apart from dealing with arrangements for a performance of the Nocturnes in Geneva, reveals the preoccupation of both composers with the War, and their fear that it would lead not only to the destruction of their nations but also of their art.
from notes by Peter Avis © 1999