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 In life, Debussy was an elusive personality, feline and withdrawn; he seems to have been unscrupulous in his love life and not entirely trustworthy in financial matters.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