Magazine article Gramophone

Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Magazine article Gramophone

Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Article excerpt


A Painter in Sound

By Stephen Walsh

Faber & Faber, HB, 368pp, 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-5713-3016-4

'A biography of sorts' is how Stephen Walsh describes his fine new study of Debussy. I His primary aim is 'to treat Debussy's music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life', and the book is not so much a conventional life-and-works as an examination of his artistic development in the context of the circumstances, cultural and personal, that shaped it. Above all, it is a portrait of a rebel, whose redrafting of the parameters of harmony, sonority and rhythm, in ways he considered to be quintessentially French, irrevocably changed perceptions of music itself.

Walsh traces how Debussy's work was forged in reaction to the academic traditions, rooted in the study of Viennese classics and Czerny's piano method, of the Paris Conservatoire and French Academy in Rome, which in turn fostered his lifelong distrust of Austro-German trends in French music. Other influences, however, inevitably came into play. As a teenager, he was an avid reader of contemporary poetry, and his association of music with the literary and pictorial was formed early. So, too, was the equation of the creative with the sensual through his affair with the married and vocally gifted Blanche Vasnier. The songs he wrote for her have only recently come to prominence, and Walsh's examination of how he began to find his own voice through hers is one of the book's significant achievements.

Another is Walsh's discussion of Debussy's complex relationships with the Symbolist and Impressionist movements with which his name is linked, whether he wished it or not. His ties to the Symbolists were close. Mallarme, Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio were among his associates and collaborators. He also based a considerable body of work on acknowledged precursors such as Baudelaire, Poe (the unfinished La chute de la maison Usher) and the Pre-Raphaelites (La damoiselle elue). Yet one also senses ambivalence, since the movement from Baudelaire onwards was saturated with Wagnerism, which he profoundly distrusted, and in the key Symbolist works of the early 1890s its legacy had to be both transformed and rejected. Pelleas is haunted by Tristan, even as it struggles to forge a new vocal and orchestral language in opposition to it. In Prelude a L 'apres-midi d'un faune, written contemporaneously, Debussy breaks free and the mature composer finally emerges. …

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