An Unknown Version of a Well Known Phrase

by Angelo Gilardino

Claude Debussy, perhaps, would not have uttered a rather fleeting remark, if he had known that it were to become entrenched in our culture and become a candidate for an undeserved fame and discussion. This sentence, referring to the guitar, is normally reported as: “C’est un clavecin mais expressif” (“It is a harpsichord but an expressive one”). It has been reproduced in many instances, and even very recently it has been quoted by Graham Wade in his book A new look at Segovia (volume one, page 114), where he refers to the short Segovia’s biography printed in the book of the famous 20 Studies by Sor (edited by Segovia) and published in 1945 by Edward B. Marks. In that biography—as in several other instances—the sentence is usually given as pronounced by Debussy after a performance by Segovia. We clearly know that it was impossible, because Debussy died before Segovia’s appearance on the concert and social scene of Paris, and he is not known to have attended a guitar concert by Segovia in Spain. Also, I had been puzzled by what the sentence unspokenly implies: was the harpsichord unexpressive to Debussy’s ears and mind? The word mais suggests this, but this stands in direct contradiction to what we surely know about Debussy’s fondness for French harpsichord music.

When preparing my edition of the works by the late Italian guitarist-composer Benvenuto Terzi, I was kindly allowed by his heirs to read the letters existing in their archive, and I found one letter by Miguel Llobet that brought a new light on the famous phrase by Debussy. It was written by Llobet to Terzi from Barcelona, on January 9th, 1934. The letter was mainly devoted to a project of an article about Llobet that Terzi meant to write for the Italian guitar magazine La Chitarra. Llobet seems very interested in such an article, and he points out a relevant fact, which I like to report here.

“ . . . Et pour finir, je tiens qu’on sache ceci. On a beaucoup parlé dans lex milieux musicaux les plus selects de l’Europe et de l’Amerique, de même que publié dans plusieurs revues musicales, de la célèbre phrase du non moins célèbre musicien français Claude Debussy sur la guitare: “La Guitare est un clavecin expressif" - Et bien: c’est après que ce grand maître m’a entendu jouer que cette phrase lui a été inspiré. Beaucoup ignorent cela, mais je tiens à le faire constater avec la légitime fiéreté d’artiste”.

“ . . . And to conclude, I want to assure that this is known. In the most selected musical centers of Europe and of America, people have talked a lot—and musical magazines have reported—about the famous sentence of the equally famous French musician Claude Debussy about the guitar: “The guitar is an expressive harpsichord.” Well, it was after he listened to my playing that the great master was inspired to say this sentence. Many people are not aware of that, but I want to point it out with the legitimate pride of an artist.”

The difference between the form of the sentence as usually quoted, with the word mais (but), and the form quoted by Llobet, is much too explicit to be missed by anyone. Omitting the “mais”, the latter form creates no opposition between the fact that the guitar sounds like a harpsichord and the fact it is also expressive, and it does not necessarily imply that, for its being expressive, it sounds unlike a harpsichord. Of course, all of this leads us to wonder what actually Debussy said. It seems to me that we can safely accept Llobet’s quotation—written by his own hand—as a faithful one. It is a first-hand testimony by Llobet who actually heard Debussy expressing the sentiment. Moreover, missing a conjunction from his quoting would have made no difference for Llobet’s legitimate pride, whilst it would have made a world of difference for his sense of rectitude (Llobet was a honest person indeed).

Vercelli, August 26th, 1997.

Copyright © 1997 by Angelo Gilardino All Rights Reserved.

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