Discovering André Caplet


One intensely involved special interest of mine is discovering, evaluating and — often — enjoying the music of classical composers who haven’t a gotten a fair shake in terms of posterior reputation. For those anti-posterior composers — present company included — it is hard enough to make any headway in a world which no longer seems to care much about classical music. It was always a cultivated taste, and it remains popular in some quarters, primarily in Europe and in Japan. But let’s face it; classicists are not going to beat the time of guitar-slung fellas that sing about girls, trucks and girls and trucks. So if you are a composer of the dead variety, and are unknown, so much the worse for you.

Actually, André Caplet (1878-1925) ought not to be unknown at all, and in a sense IS known outside of his native France, but for some practical transformations he made of the works of a composer friend far better known than he. In the broadcast segment included below — more about which we’ll hear in a minute — I erred in saying that Caplet’s worklist is small; I was relying on the one in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the only one available to me at the time. Since then, some online worklists have surfaced that demonstrate Caplet was quite busy as a composer in addition to conducting and fixing up the music of others. Born in Le Havre in 1878 (or ’79, depending on the source), Caplet began to compose at the age of 12 and went to Paris to commence formal study in 1895. In 1901, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome of the Paris Conservatory with his cantata Myrrha, beating out his slightly older contemporary Maurice Ravel. Shortly afterward, Caplet began a long friendship with Claude Debussy and orchestrated several of Debussy’s later works, including parts of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien; not my favorite Debussy project, but one much admired by Olivier Messaien. Also, Caplet gained traction as a reputable conductor and was appointed to the staff of the Boston Opera in 1910; he was named music director in 1912. But with the outbreak of World War I he left his post and signed up for the French Army. Gassed in the trenches, Caplet barely survived and his last years were marked by declining health, though these also witness a steady stream of compositions including the cantata Le miroir de Jésus, mystères du Rosaire (1923), said to be his masterpiece; I’ve never heard it, but I used to stock recordings of it when I was in classical retail.

The radio show linked below was an “Anti-Halloween” show I did in Ann Arbor, October 23, 2008, the week before Halloween; “Mr. Hunchback,” i.e. Keith Larsen, covered the Halloween show proper the following week. I comment, from the perspective of 2008, how 9/11 led to a decrease of interest in the holiday, and I am happy to report that since it has bounced back. I suspect that its value as a marketing tool ultimately won the day rather than any other factor in its favor, and this year Halloween products were on the shelves as early as late August. Caplet’s Conte fantastique is about as ideal a Halloween piece as anyone could expect from classical music, but it is very seldom heard outside of the advocacy that harp players have made for it. Caplet made two versions of it; the second, for harp and orchestra, was created in 1919 (or 1923, depending on the source you read) and it was the first music of Caplet I ever heard back in the 1980s, included as filler on an LP otherwise devoted to the furtive fragments of Debussy’s attempt to convert Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” into an opera. Even as superb as the Debussy is, the Caplet really caught my attention, with its rapping on the harp and soaring glissandi in an indefinable combination of keys. I have since come to prefer the earlier chamber version, written in 1908.

The hideous cover image used on the original 1985 US Capitol/Angel release of Debussy's "The Fall of the House of Usher." I've never this cover on the web; EMI CDs use the image from the French release.
The hideous cover image used on the original 1985 US Capitol/Angel release of Debussy’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I’ve never seen this cover on the web; EMI CDs use the image from the French release.

When listening to Conte fantastique, it is helpful to know what else was going around it. 1908 was something of a watershed year in the development of modernism, particularly as Arnold Schoenberg composed his Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 that year, the works in which it is generally said that Schoenberg ushered in the practice of “free atonality” or music written outside of a key signature. That year also witnessed Schoenberg’s student Anton Webern’s Op. 1, the Passacaglia for orchestra, Charles Ives wrote The Unanswered Question, Bela Bartók wrote his Ten Easy Pieces, including “Bear Dance,” Stravinsky his Four Etudes Op. 8 and Scriabin completed his Poem of Ecstasy. Finally, Debussy wrote his light and eternally popular Children’s Corner that year, which Caplet later orchestrated, and Ravel his Gaspard de la nuit. Prokofiev would not begin to publish until the following year.

In terms of modernity and advancement of musical language, Conte fantastique would rank very high on this list; short sections of it veer close to atonality and, while French impressionism remains the basic recipe, Caplet is finding new ways to bake the cake. While it is customary to award the French impressionists, and Debussy in particular, for ushering in the era of modernism in music, there is likewise an idea that after 1905 that impressionism is already rather derrière-garde; that the front lines of modernism cedes to other, less fanciful figures writing less piquant and elegant — and therefore, tougher music. Indeed, I well remember a French CD which included Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin as played from a piano roll in a program of upper middle class Café concert music. Was impressionism really considered so de riguer already in 1908? And didn’t it continue to move forward in its own way, in the music of Tournemire, Cyril Scott, Messaien, and Dutilleux? Henri Dutilleux, by the way, was a great admirer of Caplet’s Epiphanie for cello and orchestra (1922) and asked that it be included as filler on a recording of his own Tout un monde lointain … (1970).

The discography at makes it clear that his work has been adequately recorded, albeit mostly on French labels exported into the United States on an erratic basis. I have seen many of these releases but have not heard a great many. The 1935 Quatour Calvet French HMV recording of Caplet’s 1909 Septuor à cordes vocales et instrumentales for three sopranos and string quartet is one of the weirdest historical classical recordings I’ve ever heard, and his practice of writing for wordless vocal groups anticipates by nearly a decade pieces like Milhaud’s L’homme et son désir, which was still viewed as cutting edge when first heard in 1923. All of this makes an enterprising mind like mine wonder where Caplet fits in the development of modernism and in twentieth century music in general. Does Caplet form an essential link between the impressionists born before 1900 and later French composers working in a more advanced style, or was he simply a minor figure who orchestrated Debussy because the great — but by 1909, terminally ill — man was unable to do so himself? I suspect it isn’t easy to know the answer, but it is something that makes me curious.

In regard to the broadcast, it runs 55 minutes, and the Caplet starts at about 31 minutes in. If you don’t care for the mostly Baroque music that precedes it, then by all means, skip ahead. — Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton, OH 9-14-2014

The Uncle Dave Show: Anti-Halloween Part 1 10-23-2008 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, Michigan

Nice Caplet Summary with Album Reviews in Badly Translated English

French page with concise worklist, great pictures

Comprehensive, multi-level website for Caplet; great, contains whatever you’d want to know about him, but you need to know at least some French


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