Debussy and the writers

Every now and then life gives us a glimpse of hidden meanings.  Maybe it’s all in our head, but even so one can’t help wondering.  Coincidences can seem like more than mere chance.

In the 1990s I spent a few years as the tenor soloist at an Anglican church in North Toronto.  The organist, Art Wenk, was one of the most impressive musicians I’d ever met, a man of eclectic taste & musicianship.

Although most times he turned his own pages sometimes the piece was so difficult he’d need someone to turn pages: for instance when he played the Bach St Anne prelude and fugue.  Oh and by the way that’s not Art playing. 

I left the position at the church because I was expecting to be too busy when I started grad school.

I didn’t make any connection when I came upon a pair of books about Claude Debussy, by someone named Arthur B. Wenk.  First I came upon Claude Debussy and the Poets(1976), one of the most purely entertaining books on a composer that I have ever encountered, possibly because the author writes about music as part of the broader milieu, across several disciplines.  The book works whether you come to it via French poetry, musicology, or simple curiosity.  Nowadays it would be called “a good read.”

I suppose Wenk was ahead of his time.  Inter-disciplinary study isn’t new anymore.  It’s the norm.  What Wenk brought to Debussy was a thorough grounding  from the literary side, exploring the composer’s sources and inspirations, coupled with a musicologist’s eye for the score and its details.

Wenk was the one who noticed that Debussy put the same number of bars in his Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun as there were lines in Mallarmé’s eclogue.  Or as Wenk put it “it seems more than coincidental.”

Wenk takes us through several different kinds of input.  There’s Pierre Louÿs, Debussy’s friend & room-mate, who wrote the Chansons de Bilitis.  There’s Debussy himself, who wrote the poems of the Proses Lyriques that the composer set.  And there are the different kinds of inspiration supplied by Banville, Baudelaire, and especially Verlaine (who caught Wenk’s eye as much as Debussy’s).

And there’s another book from Wenk, titled Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music (1983), where the analysis is predominantly musicological, and much dryer in its style, but every bit as incisive.

Our paths crossed again thanks to the Canadian Opera Company’s Opera Exchange, and by this time I’d put two and two together, realizing that Art & Arthur B were the same Wenk.  The occasion was the COC’s 2008 production of Pelléas et Mélisande.  I talked about symbolists, and then Art talked about Debussy.

Wenk is a man of many talents.  He continues to excel at many sorts of keyboard.  He’s still a musician (piano or organ), and he’s still a writer.  Wenk now writes mystery novels.

AxelIt seems perfectly natural that the hero of his novels is musicologist Axel Crochet, considering that Claude Debussy’s music criticism early in the 20th Century was published under the nom de plume of “Monsieur Croche”.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

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4 Responses to Debussy and the writers

  1. Beautiful article. Debussy has always been #1. Boulez realized his work was as ‘modern’ as Webern’s. Hoping to find Wenk books. The Christa Ludwig is absolutely gorgeous. Thanks, jmc

  2. barczablog says:

    Thanks JMC. While Wenk may be out of print he’s in good libraries (eg at University of Toronto’s Edward Johnson Bldg library), perhaps also in BC

  3. Pingback: Debussy by Design | barczablog

  4. Pingback: 10 Questions for Arthur Wenk | barczablog

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