Edouard Destenay is known as a French composer of music, active in the early years of the twentieth century. His compositions were mostly of chamber music, with opus numbers ranging into the 40s. There is, however, a surprising dearth of biographical information to be found on Destenay. One source exclaims incredulously that “He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article!” This might be understandable for a young present-day composer who hasn’t yet made his reputation, but it seems quite baffling for someone who lived 100 years ago, and whose music is widely circulated and performed.
That Louis Edouard Bernard Destenay has been an enigma is almost certainly due to the fact that he was one of a handful of composers whose primary career was in another, unrelated field. Destenay was a career officer in the French Army for most of his life, except for period from 1903 to 1914 when he retired to devote time to his music. He attained considerable distinction for his military service, and was a member of the Legion of Honor (the full title in French is Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur), which makes the neglect even more astonishing.
We can speculate that Destenay’s biographical information might have been a sensistive issue for an army officer, and that the Army Command in Paris might have discouraged any form of publicity for individual officers. There were strong socio-political forces still active in the first part of the twentieth century that might have inhibited an officer who was not a member of the General Staff. Even at that late date, promotion to the highest ranks in the armies of Europe was dependent on social standing; Destenay came from a family of career military men with no connection to the aristocracy or “upper classes.” Perhaps the most penetrating depiction of the social class issues that pervaded the armies of the time is in the great film of Jean Renoir: La Grande Illusion. Destenay was not in the class of the aristocratic de Boildieu’s of the film; he might more appropriately be identified with the working-class Marechal’s.
So, if Destenay had attained the rank of a General Officer we might have copious published biographical information; but he never reached a rank higher than the equivalent of Major in the modern army.