Lead book review

Debussy: the musical genius who erupted out of nowhere

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

At the end of his study of Debussy, Stephen Walsh makes the startling, but probably accurate, claim that musical revolutionaries tend to be popular. We generally think of radicals as being primarily like Schoenberg, Charles Ives and Pierre Boulez, whose works, after decades, still mainly appeal to a small group of sophisticates. But if one takes the larger view, there is no doubt that most composers who transformed the art of music were almost always immediately popular. Monteverdi, Beethoven, Chopin and Wagner commanded substantial audiences, with often beguiling surfaces and revolutionary substance. Schumann said that Chopin’s music was ‘a cannon buried in flowers’.

The same might be said of Debussy, who could not have broken more decisively with the past. His major works were written over not much more than 20 years, from the prelude ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’ in 1894, to the piano etudes and the three chamber sonatas dating from the middle of the first world war.

Much earlier, a curious and by no means hostile teacher at the Paris Conservatoire had asked Debussy what principles guided his harmony: ‘My pleasure,’ he replied. That approach extended to pleasure in form and development, not merely as a succession of delicious moments: Debussy’s pieces are never just improvisations, one thing after another.

The results were extraordinarily original. Jeux, a ballet commissioned by the Ballets Russes for the same season as The Rite of Spring, has a good claim to possess a more radical form; in it, everything is repeated immediately and then never returns, like a plant growing at terrific speed. It was a huge favourite with the avant-garde 40 years later, and has remained a talisman of highly advanced taste — surprisingly, considering that it’s an idiotic ballet about a tennis match.

Hardly anything in Debussy’s work is obviously indebted to a predecessor. The hunt for influences on him is a favourite game of musicologists because it is so perverse; once you have mentioned Mussorgsky in the first orchestral nocturne and Wagner’s Parsifal in Jeux, there is surprisingly little else to add. Indeed, there is a good case for calling Debussy the most perfectly original composer of the past 200 years.

He came out of nothing, and the eruption of his genius is a complete mystery. There was no musical tradition in his very ordinary family. Within two years of starting to play the piano he was admitted to the Conservatoire; and two years after that, aged 12, he was being given prizes for his performance of a Chopin concerto. Almost from the start, his own music was exquisitely formed, and even the earliest of the songs and piano pieces give a lot of pleasure.


When his mature period began in 1894, that satisfying form was filled with inventions of extraordinary beauty and, at first, strangeness — there are chords in the sumptuous ‘Les sons et les parfums’ prelude of extreme discord. Oddly enough, his music, apart from the etudes, is not difficult for pianists to play — even the showy ‘L’isle joyeuse’ is much easier to get round than most of Ravel. Nor is he difficult to listen to. He was the first composer I really loved when I was a boy, and I don’t think there’s anything in his work that would challenge any open-minded 12-year-old. He wrote to give pleasure, and the depth of the pleasure he gives is immense.

Walsh’s biography deliberately focuses on the music rather than the life. Debussy was perhaps not a very likeable person, so this approach serves to remind us what we most admire about him. Mary Garden, the first Mélisande, said that he was a ‘very strange’ man; and it does sometimes appear as if he had no real sympathy for, or interest in, other people.

The three women he was connected with had a dreadful time: the first was a professional mistress called Gaby, occupying a rank below the famous grandes horizontales of 1890s society. He left her for Lilly Texier, whom he married; but she shot herself in the stomach when Debussy left her in turn for the rich, married Emma Bardac, with whom he had his only child.

Many of Debussy’s friends were outraged at his conduct. What seems most shocking is that his affections were not bestowed for very long; and perhaps he was incapable of loving anyone — except his daughter ‘Chouchou’, who inspired songs, ballets and piano pieces and had love in abundance piled upon her. It would be telling, however, to put ‘Children’s Corner’ next to the great musical classics of childhood such as Schumann’s ‘Kinders-zenen’ or Mussorgsky’s ‘The Nursery’. Those are leaps of the imagination and of recollection, whereas Debussy’s suite plays at showing affection, amusing an adult audience with jokes about Wagner and Czerny. His great leaps of the imagination were inspired by visions of unpeopled land and seascapes.

What emerges strikingly from Walsh’s account is just how much Debussy wrote for money. With an expensive house to run, a first wife who had to be supported, and a second with luxurious tastes, he often found himself in urgent need. Sometimes the money-making plans were successful. ‘Clair de lune’, dug out from his bottom drawer, was a huge hit, and has been a favourite of amateur pianists ever since 1905.

The last years are full of hare-brained projects such as the ‘Martyre de Saint Sébastian’ music for D’Annunzio and the Khamma ballet for the Canadian dancer Maud Allan — often beautifully executed, but done entirely out of necessity. There are, too, a surprising number of bids for mass popularity, such as the vulgar slow waltz of 1910, ‘La plus que lente’, charitably regarded by a number of scholars as a vicious parody. When he died in 1918, he owed his publisher a colossal sum in advances.

It is fair to say that Debussy succeeded in spite of himself. He had that sort of perverse temperament which rather despised his admirers; and once he had roused their rapture he would make sure he never wrote in that vein again. The very few compositions which attempt to repeat previous successes — such as the ‘Bruyères’ and ‘Pickwick’ pieces from the second book of preludes — are painful rarities.

Otherwise, he pressed on. The last works are astonishingly unexpected inventions — the hard-edged two-piano suite ‘En blanc et noir’ and, above all, the great sonata for flute, viola and harp. At the end, he was planning to write sonatas for still more unusual combinations — the last of the six would have obliged him to use a harp, a harpsichord and a piano in the same ensemble — and there is no doubt that his ear for original sonorities never left him.

Published to mark the centenary of the composer’s death, Debussy: A Painter in Sound concentrates on what truly matters. Walsh is one of our most insightful writers on music, and his judgment always illuminates what it touches: his preference for the second book of piano ‘Images’; his scepticism about the violin and cello sonatas; and some historical sleuthing, that allows a planned three-part piano suite to emerge from three pieces, published separately in Debussy’s best period.

Added to which, Walsh writes with precision and almost consistent accuracy — well, he gets the title of ‘Lindaraja’ wrong, but that is the sort of slip that anyone can make. But as I’ve grumbled before, what is regrettable is that it’s still apparently impossible to include music examples in books of this sort. Why is the following sentence (about a piano ‘Image’) any more accessible than a simple music example?

At one point, for the sake of fluency, the whole tone becomes a semitone, and on
the last two chords of the opening phrase the open fifth contracts to an augmented fourth, as if questioning the previous chords.

It’s a piece that I happen to enjoy playing myself, but reading this, I didn’t know what Walsh meant by ‘contracts’, and had to hoik the score off the shelf to see. Serious, careful and readable writers like Walsh are not helped by this publishing restriction.

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