Debussy: A Painter in Sound
by Stephen Walsh
Knopf, 323 pp., $28.95
A pure pleasure to indulge in this thoughtful review by the musician and composer Matthew Aucoin on a book by Stephen Walsh, who has been acknowledged as best informed and learned author on Igor Stravinsky, and now on the French composter Debussy.
For once not the necessity to focus on the Orang Wotan and his followers, not on war & crime as daily business, but on the somehow remote field of music and composers. A mirror of cultures and societies and, of course, of personalities with all their faults and gifts.
Here some paragraphs from the review:
Walsh also makes the astute decision to focus on Debussy’s music, rather than on his social life, precisely to the degree that Debussy himself neglected personal obligations in favor of the inner world of his work. Walsh announces in his introduction that he has set out “to treat Debussy’s music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life”; he has an understandable horror of his book amounting to “a slightly annoying series of incidents.” In this, he sounds for a moment like his subject: to a near-pathological degree, Debussy regarded most of life’s responsibilities as mere annoyances, which could surely be wriggled out of with the right blend of slyness, reticence, and charm.The biographer focuses mainly on the work and less on the biography or aspects of the personality. This is remarkable, especially in our times. On the other hand: one must not overlook the personal limitations, the flaws, the asocial, egotistical aspects of this almost closed, personality who was using (and thereby abusing) his counterparts, the people in his environment in a very mean way. One should keep in mind Debussy's opportunistic compliances and his often narrow-minded, bigoted views on the work of others. All these aspects denounce him as person. And yet, and yet.
These lacunae are not mistakes; rather, they perfectly match Debussy’s own blind spots, his tendency to act as though other people didn’t exist unless he wanted something from them. Walsh notes that Debussy often seemed to act on “the instinctive feeling…that emotional ties are a nuisance unless kept firmly in the drawer marked ‘when I need them.’” Whenever he was caught behaving badly and had to suffer the consequences, he evidently reacted with annoyance at the inconvenience of other people’s emotions. Caught having an affair, Debussy, in a letter to Pierre Louÿs, impatiently referred to his wife’s anguished reaction as “bad literature”: “All this is barbarous, pointless, and changes absolutely nothing.”
It’s curious that Walsh, who is clear-eyed about Debussy’s personal flaws, seems to have a blind spot about his artistic integrity. Walsh, despite citing evidence to the contrary, paints him as an uncompromising perfectionist, a freethinking, anti-institutional rebel: “Everything depended on his own sensibility,” Walsh writes, “and he could not—would not—fall back on traditional best practice to help him over awkward joins or moments of failing inspiration.”
One of this book’s guilty pleasures is the inclusion of Debussy’s unfailingly accurate, often brutal summations of other composers’ music. Schubert’s songs, in his eyes, are “bits of faded ribbon, flowers forever dried, and photographs of the departed”; Richard Strauss has “the frank and decisive appeal of those great explorers who walk among savage tribes with a smile on their lips.” When Debussy noticed real talent, though, he seems to have put aside all feelings of petty competition.
Besides the great achievements in music we receive an image of Debussy which corresponds to the modern man of today: nervous, egotistical, abhorring emotional involvement, giving in to drives and deep anchored impulses but not having the energy for ordered, responsibel fulfillment of his choosen tasks. His journay is open, there is no goal, everything is temporary, and the journey is the reward, because there is no destination. Today he probably would be a cyber junkie, cold, nonattached but pouring out his translated emotions in controlled productions...
Debussy by Stephen Walsh review – a fine biography of a painter in sound
The French composer was once dismissed as a Romantic or ‘impressionist’ who prioritised mood and feeling. This life digs deep into his innovations