Matthew Au­coin

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Matthew Au­coin

De­bussy: A Pain­ter in Sound by Stephen Walsh.

Knopf, 323 pp., $28.95

The world of clas­si­cal mu­sic loves an an­niver­sary to cel­e­brate the al­readycel­e­brated. The 250th an­niver­sary of Mozart’s birth in 2006 brought per­for­mances of all twenty-two of his op­eras in his home­town of Salzburg, among in­nu­mer­able other fes­tiv­i­ties world­wide; the 225th an­niver­sary of his death in 2016 prompted the re­lease of a two-hun­dred-CD set of his com­plete works. In ad­vance of the 250th an­niver­sary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, the Ger­man govern­ment has de­clared him a “mat­ter of na­tional im­por­tance,” as if he were a pre­cious, rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing nat­u­ral re­source. One could be for­given for won­der­ing ex­actly why the most-per­formed com­posers in his­tory need these pro­mo­tional blitzes.

The sub­jects of this year’s two most prom­i­nent clas­si­cal-mu­sic an­niver­saries could hardly be more dif­fer­ent from each other. One hun­dred years ago this past Au­gust 22, AchilleClaude De­bussy died in Paris. Three days later, in less glam­orous Lawrence, Mas­sachusetts, Leonard Bern­stein was born. For lis­ten­ers world­wide, each has be­come a kind of metonym for his time and place: De­bussy for the lan­guorous re­fine­ment of the French fin de siè­cle; Bern­stein for the brash, brassy ex­tro­ver­sion of mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Amer­ica. In life, De­bussy was an elu­sive per­son­al­ity, fe­line and with­drawn; he seems to have been un­scrupu­lous in his love life and not en­tirely trust­wor­thy in fi­nan­cial mat­ters. His ma­ture mu­sic, how­ever, bears the stamp of an un­mis­tak­able sen­si­bil­ity: sen­sual, ten­der, al­ter­nately del­i­cate and lush, it re­veals a wiz­ardly gift for drain­ing fa­mil­iar tonal har­monies of their usual sta­bil­ity and sus­pend­ing them gor­geously in midair.

As a mu­si­cian, Bern­stein is prac­ti­cally De­bussy’s pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive. He seems to have made a seis­mic im­pres­sion on ev­ery­one he so much as shook hands with, and as a con­duc­tor he was uniquely, ex­trav­a­gantly gifted: he had a sin­gu­lar abil­ity, through sheer pas­sion and panache, to make clas­si­cal mu­sic ex­cit­ing, even sexy, to mid­dle­brow Amer­i­can au­di­ences. But Bern­stein’s own com­po­si­tions are a frus­trat­ing mélange of de­fanged Amer­i­can pop­u­lar id­ioms—jazz, vaude­ville, Broad­way—and un­der­cooked re­hash­ings of the mu­sic he con­ducted so bril­liantly: Mahler, Co­p­land, Ravel. He was, by his own ad­mis­sion, a com­pul­sively so­cial an­i­mal; it wasn’t in his na­ture to with­draw from so­ci­ety for ex­tended pe­ri­ods to com­pose. Here De­bussy’s ret­i­cence was a ma­jor ad­van­tage: his seem­ing aim­less­ness, which kept him in per­pet­ual fi­nan­cial peril, af­forded him the time to write La Mer, Pel­léas et Mélisande, and an ex­quis­ite body of cham­ber mu­sic.

It’s cu­ri­ous, then, that this shared cen­ten­nial has been heavy on Bern­stein and rel­a­tively light on De­bussy. The “Bern­stein at 100” press re­lease on the of­fi­cial Leonard Bern­stein web­site boasts of “more than 4,500 events on six con­ti­nents,” in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple pro­duc­tions of ex­trav­a­gant eveninglength pieces, like his Mass. It could be ar­gued that much of De­bussy’s mu­sic is al­ready cen­tral to the clas­si­cal reper­toire, while Bern­stein’s con­cert mu­sic has been ne­glected, justly or not, and is thus ripe for re­vival. But the sheer loud­ness of the pub­lic­ity has felt like force­feed­ing, and the mu­sic has sounded as thin as ever.

What a plea­sure, by con­trast, to have an ex­cuse to study the mu­sic of De­bussy, who would likely have curled up into the fe­tal po­si­tion at the idea of a blaring PR ma­chine push­ing his works in ev­ery cor­ner of the globe. For­tu­nately, it speaks for it­self—qui­etly, yet au­thor­i­ta­tively. This year has brought some ap­pro­pri­ately thought­ful cel­e­bra­tions of De­bussy’s life and work, no­tably Stephen Walsh’s De­bussy: A Pain­ter in Sound.

Walsh’s ma­jor schol­arly achieve­ment is his epic two-vol­ume Stravin­sky bi­og­ra­phy, a sweep­ing, ex­haus­tive guide to the com­poser’s flab­ber­gast­ingly rich life, which stretched from tsarist Rus­sia in the 1880s to New York City in 1971. A Stravin­sky bi­og­ra­phy is a Her­culean task: the man had an in­sa­tiable wan­der­lust, cou­pled with a ten­dency to move wher­ever the ac­tion was, from Paris in the 1910s to the ex­pat com­mu­ni­ties of mid­cen­tury New York and Los An­ge­les.

De­bussy’s life is, by com­par­i­son, a much sim­pler as­sign­ment: he lived only into his late fifties, spent most of his life in France, and was not known in­ter­na­tion­ally as ei­ther an en­fant ter­ri­ble or a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, as Stravin­sky was. Walsh’s joy, and maybe his re­lief, at hav­ing such a man­age­able sub­ject is pal­pa­ble on ev­ery page of his book, which is writ­ten with an aptly De­bussyan light­ness and at­ten­tion to de­tail. Per­haps most im­pres­sively, Walsh has man­aged the rare tightrope act of de­scrib­ing and an­a­lyz­ing widely beloved mu­sic in ways that will nei­ther seem sim­plis­tic to con­nois­seurs nor con­fuse a gen­eral au­di­ence.

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. Those three qual­i­ties are also es­sen­tial to De­bussy’s mu­sic, and we would be naive to ig­nore the analo­gies be­tween the com­poser’s world­view and his still­influ­en­tial aes­thetic.

For mod­ern lis­ten­ers, De­bussy prac­ti­cally de­fines French mu­sic, by which I mean that the es­sen­tial qual­i­ties of his mu­sic—not only his sen­su­ous del­i­cacy but also his aver­sion to the har­monic be­hav­ior char­ac­ter­is­tic of latenine­teenth-cen­tury Ger­man mu­sic, a dense chro­matic mo­tion that tends to con­stantly, rest­lessly build to or­gias­tic cli­maxes, as in Wag­ner and Strauss— have come to be seen as also es­sen­tially “French” qual­i­ties. Walsh makes clear, how­ever, that De­bussy, far from sim­ply am­pli­fy­ing or ex­em­pli­fy­ing the dom­i­nant ten­den­cies of his mu­si­cal mi­lieu, con­sciously and stub­bornly swam against the cur­rent, es­pe­cially when it

Claude De­bussy, circa 1910

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.