Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Abel Decaux: A Quality-Over-Quantity Special Report

When I start talking about my passion for uncovering obscure works, people often ask me what drives it, or how I got started.  There are a number of reasons, including my natural collector nature and how I view pieces as being like small children who can't fight for themselves, but I think the aspect that most people can empathize with is that of a treasure hunt.  There are brilliant jewels in the vastness of classical composition just waiting to be uncovered, and every time I come across something truly extraordinary it makes all the time spent more than worthwhile.  For me there were a few early discoveries that spurred my interest (I'll get to Nicholas Thorne later), and the piece we're talking about today is a jewel in the crown.  And it stands alone not only in its techniques and moods, but also among the composer's oeuvre.  Because he never wrote any other pieces.

Abel Decaux (1869-1943) was a French organist, studying his instrument under Charles-Marie Widor and Alexandre Guilmant (two heavyweights in the French organ tradition), and composition under Jules Massenet (of Thaïs fame).  Starting in 1900 he spent 25 years as the organist of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Paris, later moving to America and teaching organ at the Eastman School of Music.  In 1935 he moved back to Paris to teach organ, and like most organists wasn't remembered by the general public in the years following his death.  However, he did leave behind a singular, haunting piece: Clairs de lune, a set of piano pieces written between 1900 and 1907, published in 1913, leaving the public not sure what to make of them.

At no point in this article will you hear me say that this work is a descendant of Massenet's compositional language.  In fact, I'm not sure anybody wrote music like this before or since, and many of the techniques on display anticipate experiments by Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg's free atonal period (such as the Book of the Hanging Gardens and Pierrot Lunaire).  Clairs de lune also has the rare distinction of being a horror-inspired classical work, a category I wish would grow, and its main inspiration lies in the grotesque world of Edgar Allan Poe, which was wildly popular among Parisian intellectuals in the late 19th century.  The piece opens with a super Gothic poem by Louis de Lutèce, which features such imagery as silently gliding clouds, a mummified cat, gargoyles and other classy horror symbols (and has my new favorite French word: abracadabrant!).  There were other Poe-inspired pieces from this time period, such as Debussy's attempted opera on "The Fall of the House of Usher" and André Caplet's Conte Fantastique for harp and strings, inspired by "The Masque of the Red Death".  This work stands above all of them out of sheer invention, and also by being less specifically based upon Poe but rather invoking his spirit.

The first piece sets the crystalline, ominous mood of the night, with light octaves and both whole-tone and hexatonic scale fragments.  He uses tiny contrapuntal cells (three or four notes), which interlock into strange chords.  After the first page he holds a tritone in the bass with the sostenuto pedal, letting an arpeggio skitter across the top (the chord it makes is a major thematic element in the piece).  The tritone makes the twelve bells of midnight, and the skittering grows, then shifting to little intoned major sevenths.  These expand into atonal chords, and those grow to a big cascade down the upper notes of the piano, landing in the middle register; the skittering returns and brings us to a dramatic reprise.  All of this is written with an incredible sense of drama and a number of pregnant pauses.

The second piece is La Ruelle, (the alley); the low, anticipatory chords intone dread, as we step softy through the back way, fearing danger around the corner.  A dry, chromatic melody snakes through near-pizzicato chords, and the low steps return, this time with a piercing chime up top.  The snake comes back, accompanied by a chromatic cry in the upper register; after some tentative drama, the tritone from the midnight bell returns, almost as a beating heart, racing for escape.  The piece crashes in climax, and familiar chords return to bring the listener down, the intonations leaving us with little resolution.

The third piece, La Cimetière (my favorite), is the emotional chord of the work, starting with delicate, carillon-like lines in the high registers.  Decaux uses the cemetery for a religious experience; rich low chords stately plane, like the voice of God.  The real meat is where the planed God voice is met by a double-octave melody, sung at the top of the piano's lungs.  The performance here is excellent and makes this movement an incredible cathartic experience, but without a conventional resolution; the most cathartic music is met by the most mysterious (minor ninths), and another setting of the skittering arpeggio.

The final piece is La Mer (the sea), and is the closest to impressionist pieces of the time, and can be played as a separate piece (being the most accessible of the four).  The 5-over-3 ostinatos are very evocative and murmuring, and after some whole tone business with accented note cells we get to the piece's most tonal music (Major chords!  Lydian skitters!).  It's pretty self-explanatory, and even though it's the most conventionally exciting it too has no finality.  None of the pieces offer a conventional resolution; Decaux wants mystery, not "ta-da!"

What I really admire in these pieces is their economy: the individual techniques are actually quite simple, but they're used in the most effective, evocative way.  This recording, the third in history, came with liner notes comparing Decaux's condensed writing (especially chords in the first movement) as anticipating Webern, which is remarkable considering the overwrought, sturm und drang tendencies of pre-WWI music.  There were sketches for a fifth movement, La Forêt (the forest), but they never came to fruition.  Also, the statement that Decaux only composed Clairs de lune isn't entirely accurate, as somebody found a small organ fugue in a pedagogical collection, but it doesn't really count for our purposes.  I suspect that the public of 1913 simply had no idea what to make of these pieces, and Decaux was never a consistent enough presence in the composition world to promote them.  Thankfully they have fallen into the public domain, and can be found here:,_Abel).  May your nights be spooky and your cemeteries transcendent, and let's get some more performances of these unforgettable miniatures.



  1. Could you please add a mechanism to subscribe to this, and your other, blog? The "subscribe to" button at the bottom is only for the "post a comment" section. If I could subscribe to it, I would get an email notice when a new one is posted, so I wouldn't have to depend on Facebook, and you wouldn't have to tag me and others on Facebook to let us know when there's a new entry.
    Excellent article and fascinating music. Thanks.

  2. I love these pieces too. Though there are no real links between the composers their simplicity makes me put them in with Mompou's music. I agree with your commendation of horror inspired music too - and would add to your list Rachmaninov's The Bells, another based on Poe.

    1. Thanks for the support! I adore Mompou's stuff, too. I'll check out The Bells; meanwhile, take a look at my article about piano suites by Miriam Gideon and Tina Davidson if you're interested in horror-inspired classical music.