Ernest Fanelli


Ernest Fanelli (29 June 1860 – 24 November 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", 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 percussionist. He continued in self-taught studies of composition and began to create his own works.

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 Thèbes, the first part of the Tableaux, to be performed, creating a sensation in the musical press. 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".

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 recalled 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.

However, there are dissenting opinions. The writer and critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who heard the first performance of Thèbes, 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".


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, Thèbes, is supposed to represent the Egyptian capital city. The second part, Fête 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:

  • Les Deux tonneaux (1879), three acts, after Voltaire.

  • ''St Preux à Clarens (1881)
  • symphonic poem Thèbes (1883)
  • Mascarade (1889)
  • Suite Rabelaisienne (1889)
  • Carnaval (1890)
  • Tableaux symphoniques d'après le roman de la momie (1883/1886)
  • Impressions pastorales (1890)
  • Au palais de l'escorial (1890)
  • Marche héroïque (1891)
  • L'Effroi du soleil (undated)

    Piano and Chamber
  • Souvenirs de jeunesse (1872–1878)
  • Souvenirs poètiques (1872–1878)
  • Une Nuit chez Sophor (1891)
  • 32 chansons (1880–1892)
  • Humoresques (1892–1894)
  • string quintet, "L'Aneau" (1894)