(b Le Havre, 23 Nov 1878; d Neuilly-sur-Seine, 22 April 1925). French composer and conductor. As the seventh child of poor parents, he learned to be resourceful and self-reliant; by the age of 12 he was working as rehearsal pianist at the Folies-Bergères in Le Havre, and at 14 he was playing the violin at the Grand Théâtre there. With his acute musical ear and his gift for sight-reading and improvisation, he made rapid progress and was soon studying harmony and counterpoint (as well as the piano) with Henry Woollett. In 1896 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying harmony with Leroux, fugue and composition with Lenepveu and accompaniment with Vidal. His years there were littered with prizes, culminating in the Prix de Rome in 1901, which he won at his first official attempt with the cantata Myrrha.
His brilliant career as a conductor began in 1896, when he substituted for Leroux at the Théâtre de la Porte-St-Martin, Paris, and he was quickly promoted from timpanist to assistant conductor of the Colonne orchestra, also becoming musical director of the Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1898. As a conductor, and as a composer, he was a perfectionist; his meticulous preparation and painstaking rehearsal techniques led to sensitive and authoritative performances which soon attracted international attention. In October 1910 he was invited by the impresario Henry Russell to conduct at the Boston Opera Company, where he spent six months a year for the next four years, becoming the company’s musical director in 1912. As well as giving some of the best performances of Pelléas et Mélisande ever, he also continued his affair with Russell’s wife, Nina, which had begun in France and only ended when he volunteered for military service in August 1914.
In 1907–8 he had developed a close friendship with Debussy, whose harmonies initially captivated him. Debussy in turn recognized Caplet’s artistry and sensitivity, praising his ‘gift for conjuring up an atmosphere’ and his ‘rare sense of proportion’ in composition (in a letter of 1908 to Jean-Aubry). Debussy also found Caplet indispensable as a proofreader (‘le tombeau des fautes’, ‘l’ange de corrections’), and entrusted him with the orchestration of Acts 2–4 of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911, as well as with conducting its first performance.
Caplet’s distinguished war service came as a dividing point in his career. He was twice wounded, and the gassing he suffered permanently affected his lungs, resulting in his premature death from pleurisy. Following the Armistice, he relinquished his various conducting and teaching appointments to devote his time wholly to composition. During this secluded final period and after his marriage to Geneviève Perruchon in 1919, his esoteric Catholic mysticism deepened, resulting in Le miroir de Jésus (1923) generally considered his masterpiece.
More than any of his French contemporaries, Caplet centred his art on the human (especially the female) voice, and he published virtually nothing for piano or orchestra alone. He owed most to Debussy in his eschewal of traditional thematic development and his desire to give his music a subtly unified, almost improvisatory feeling. The flute arabesques and certain harmonic progressions in an early song like Viens! Une flûte invisible soupire … obviously owe a debt to Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, but the spacious vocal lines that combine with the flute in effortless counterpoint are already Caplet’s own. Like many of his early songs, this is an unhurried miniature cantata with a quasi-orchestral piano part that is far more than mere accompaniment. The same is even more true of a song like Angoisse (from Paroles à l’absente of 1908), where both the vocal range and the intervals widen beyond the French norm. In Préludes (from the same set) we get the first real insight into Caplet’s mysterious, yet strangely satisfying chromatic world, even if the final bars still show that he knew Debussy’s La soirée dans Grenade well. The experiences of the war strengthened Caplet’s unquestioning Catholic faith, the heart of which can be seen in the Prière normande of 1916, while the torments of war are expressed in songs like La croix douloureuse and Détresse!, and his gift for exquisite simplicity in the nostalgic Quand reverrai-je, hélas!
After the war, the Cinq ballades françaises reveal a new rhythmic extroversion and often a fantastical, dance-like buoyancy. The piano introductions grow into balanced preludes in their own right, and the expansive vocal lyricism becomes ever more apparent. In the Trois fables (also of 1919) Caplet can be seen at his most original as awkward vocal intervals (up to an 11th) and often aggressive harmonies are used to characterize La Fontaine’s animals to perfection in a worthy comic successor to Ravel’s Histoires naturelles.
Caplet’s art is also one of constant imaginative renewal, and the way he expands the demands made on the human voice is paralleled in the virtuoso instrumental writing of later works such as Epiphanie for cello and orchestra and the Conte fantastique for harp and string quartet (inspired by Poe’s tale The Masque of the Red Death). Atmosphere and texture are all-important; traditional cadences are avoided, and often the music seems horizontally rather than vertically conceived in these powerfully intense and individual creations. However, the true heart of Caplet is to be found in Le miroir de Jésus, where the spirit of the plainsong he so much admired from his visits to Solesmes is adapted to modern techniques in a fervent, sincere and supple work of consummate beauty and tenderness which, as always, reveals to the full his refined taste and avoidance of sentimentality.