Magazine article Musical Times

Vital Impressions

Magazine article Musical Times

Vital Impressions

Article excerpt

ANDREW THOMSON The life of Debussy Roger Nichols

Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1998);

vii, 184pp; 27.95 / 9.95 pbk.

ISBN 0 521 570263 / 0 521 578876.

A short but searching new biography of Debussy by Roger Nichols is one of an admirable CUP series `Musical lives', authoritative texts aimed at a broader intelligent readership. At the same time, it shouldn't be ignored by the academic fraternity, which tends to dismiss what is deemed `easy to read'; on the contrary, I'd go as far as to say that communicative flair and expertise are vitally necessary for the survival of scholarly music-book publishing. That Nichols's far from superficial study is most stylishly written and approachable goes without saying, and indeed its very concision brings significant aspects of Debussy's life and work into sharper focus. Moreover, it incorporates valuable new material already exposed in Debussy remembered and Debussy letters, edited by Nichols himself - and how these quotations leap to life in a continuous narrative! Like Elgar, Debussy had a true feel for words, wittily communicating his idiosyncratic and penetrating outlook on art and the world.

New perspectives on familiar territory are also opened up, and Nichols's entirely just and sympathetic re-examination of Debussy's musical development, first at the Paris Conservatoire and subsequently in Rome, is particularly illuminating.ln contrast with an earlier book in popular format, Jean Barraque's Debussy (1962) aggressively partisan and modernist - he doesn't see Debussy's relationships with his professors in black and white, as one between supreme radical genius and reactionary incompetents. Marmontel, Lavignac and Guiraud receive their due, emerging as admirably tolerant personalities, prepared to humour and coax their refractory student, whose outstanding abilities must have seemed at that time more apparent than real.

Nor does Debussy's award of the Prix de Rome - for all the faults and absurdities of that anachronistic system come across as quite the disaster of conventional wisdom.The necessary training did provide a goal and discipline for such a wayward student, and his sojourn in Rome, however uncongenial, at least provided the valuable experience of a different culture from that of bohemian Paris. He may not have much appreciated the art of Michelangelo and Bernini, but Nichols rightly emphasises how struck he was by hearing music by Palestrina and Lassus - with its Gregorian-inspired `divine arabesque' - which introduced him to a stylistic purity and a new conception of contrapuntal mastery far beyond the scope of the French musical establishment, as typified by Massenet.

Already Debussy was in the grip of agonising self-criticism and doubt as he struggled to evolve his own sort of music, focussing on essentials; `one should not rush to write things down, so as to allow complete freedom to those mysterious, inner workings of the mind which are too often stifled by impatience.' And if he frequently felt at sea, the Academie des Beaux-Arts likewise seemed puzzled and uncertain with regard to his envoies; perceptively, Nichols suspects in its written reports some political fudge to patch up differing views within the committees themselves. Printemps drew a warning about `that vague Impressionism which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art'. …

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