Ernest Fanelli

Ernest Fanelli (1860–1917) was a French composer of Italian descent who is best known for sparking a controversy about the origins of Impressionist music when his composition Tableaux Symphoniques was first performed in 1912. George Antheil asserted that Fanelli was "one of the greatest inventors and musical iconoclasts of all time",[1] but he remains an obscure figure.


Fanelli was born in Paris on 29 June 1860, his family having emigrated to France from Bologna. He studied music at the Conservatoire de Paris for a few years from 1876, but was expelled because of his disputes with the teaching staff. The claim that he studied there with Charles-Valentin Alkan[2] is mistaken, as Alkan quit the Conservatoire in 1848, but he may have studied with Alkan's brother, Napoléon, who was the Conservatoire professor of solfège at the time. Fanelli worked as a timpanist before returning to musical studies under Léo Delibes. Again he failed to complete his studies, this time for lack of funds, and returned to work as a jobbing percussionist. He continued in self-taught studies of composition and began to create his own works.[1]

In 1912 Fanelli was seeking work as a musical copyist, and submitted a manuscript to Gabriel Pierné as an example of his neat handwriting. Pierné was intrigued by the music itself, which Fanelli told him was one of his own compositions, Tableaux Symphoniques, written nearly 30 years earlier. Pierné found evidence of radical musical innovations anticipating the recent work of Claude Debussy. He arranged for Thebes, the first part of the Tableaux, to be performed, creating a sensation in the musical press.[1] Pierné later performed several other works by Fanelli. Debussy himself reviewed the work, taking a sceptical view that Fanelli had "an acute sense of musical ornamentation" but that it "dragged [him] towards such an extreme need of minute description" that it made him "lose his sense of direction.".[1]

Fanelli was supported by Judith Gautier, the daughter of Théophile Gautier, whose novel The Romance of the Mummy had inspired the Tableaux Symphoniques. Gautier sponsored a private performance of the work and helped to fund him to produce transcriptions of his works.[3]

Fanelli himself was unable to capitalise on his new fame. He had given up composing in 1894, several years before he became well known, and could not or would not resume creative work. He continued to work as a performer to support his wife and children and died a few years later.


Because the work predated the innovations of Maurice Ravel and Debussy there was speculation that either or both of them had seen the score in manuscript form. Ravel himself is widely reported to have commented "now we know where his [Debussy’s] impressionism comes from".[1] However, a closer look at Ravel's published review reveals that he was speaking ironically and defending Debussy:

Above all, the investigations of the young Fanelli could not have diminished those of his colleagues. [...] This noble courage, which consists of crushing the innovations of troublesome innovators with the innovations of their predecessors, has uncovered the source of Claude Debussy's impressionism in M. Fanelli's piece. One critic, carried away by his own enthusiasm, even thought it necessary to state point-blank that in this symphonic poem, "the conception and the harmonic language are clearly Debussyian, or rather pre-Debussyian," [...] It is customary for M. Debussy to undergo a yearly attack of this sort. We already knew that the discovery of his harmonic system was entirely due to Erik Satie, that his stage works derived from Mussorgsky, and his orchestration from Rimsky-Korsakov. We now know the source of his impressionism. Despite this paucity of invention, Debussy only remains the most important and profoundly musical composer living today.[4]

Debussy is said to have been so sensitive to these claims that he tried to avoid being seen listening to Fanelli's work. Ezra Pound recalls an episode in which he was sitting in a restaurant listening to Fanelli play a composition on the piano when Debussy walked in. As soon as Debussy saw Fanelli, he walked out again.[1]

After his death his widow is supposed to have claimed that Erik Satie, Ravel and Debussy had all visited Fanelli's home and studied his unpublished scores before writing their own works. This alleged claim was published by George Antheil. Antheil states that Constantine von Sternberg had told him of Fanelli's innovations, and that he visited Fanelli's widow, who allowed him to peruse her husband's scores. Antheil wrote,

I soon discovered that Constantine von Sternberg had been right, at least in one regard: the works of Fanelli were pure "Afternoon of a Faun" or "Daphnis and Chloe", at least in technique, and they predated the Debussy-Ravel-Satie works by many years. But, as I also soon discovered, they were not as talented as the works of the two slightly younger men although they had had the advantage of being "firsts" ... Debussy was the genius who had distilled Fanelli into immortality![5]

However, there are dissenting opinions. The writer and critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who heard the first performance of Thebes, commented "I should not say that in idiom and technical treatment it is as far in advance of its time as well-meaning journalists would have it". He also describes the composer's L'effroi du soleil, perhaps implying an anticipation of cheap film music, as follows: "A severed head bounces from the scaffold, rolls over hills and dales, the executioner vainly pursuing it [....] whilst torrents of blood cover the whole landscape".[6]


Fanelli's most notable composition, Tableaux Symphoniques d'apres le Roman de la Momie was a symphonic poem in a series of "tableaux" illustrating the novel The Romance of the Mummy by Théophile Gautier. The first part, Thebes, is supposed to represent the Egyptian capital city. The second part, Fete dans le palais du Pharaon, depicting royal festivities, was never published, but was performed in 1913. Other scores were also performed, and are known from reviews and comments.

Known compositions by Fanelli are:

  • Stage
    • The Two Casques (Les deux tonneaux) (1879), three acts, after Voltaire.
  • Orchestral
    • Saint Preux of Clarens (St Preux à Clarens) (1881)
    • Symphonic Poem 'Thebes (nymphs)' (1883)
    • Masquerade (Mascarade) (1889)
    • Rabelaisian Suite (Suite Rabelaisienne) (1889)
    • Carnival (Carnaval) (1890)
    • Symphonic Pictures: Romance of the Mummy' (Tableaux symphoniques 'Le roman de la momie') (1883/1886)
    • Pastoral Impressions (Impressions pastorales) (1890)
    • In the Escorial Palace (Au palais de l'escorial) (1890)
    • Heroic march (Marche héroïque) (1891)
    • Fear of the Sun (L'Effroi du soleil) (undated).
  • Piano and Chamber
    • Remembrance of Youthful Days (Souvenirs de jeunesse) (1872–1878)
    • Poetic Recollections (Souvenirs poètiques) (1872–1878)
    • A Night in Sophor (Une nuit chez Sophor) (1891)
    • 32 Songs (32 chansons) (1880–1892)
    • Humoresques (1892–1894)
    • String Quintet 'The Donkey' (quintette à cordes 'L'Aneau') (1894)


  1. Adriano, Ernest Fanelli (1860-1917), Symphonic Pictures, Marco Polo, p.1-4
  2. Rosar, W.H. 2004. New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, Oxford University Press.
  3. Bettina Liebowitz Knapp, Judith Gautier: writer, orientalist, musicologist, feminist, Hamilton, 2004, pp.250, 299, 310.
  4. Maurice Ravel, Ed. Arbie Orenstein, "A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews", Courier Dover Publications, 2003, p.350
  5. George Antheil, Bad Boy of Music, 1945, Doubleday, p129.
  6. M. D. Calvocoressi, An Unknown Musical Composer of Today, in The Musical Times, vol. 53 no. 830 (April 1, 1912), pp. 225-6. The entry in Grove is almost entirely based on this article.
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