Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Stephen Walsh’s recent book Debussy: A Painter in Sound from Faber & Faber, is a welcome addition to the literature concerning a man whose star continues to rise, a composer respected & loved more in the 21st century than ever before.

And yet has anyone yet really captured this artist in a single book? I say that as a former grad student who read everything about Debussy in English plus a whole lot more in French. While his compositional output is comparatively small, especially for someone held up as such an important influence, there’s a great deal about him to know.

There are his compositions (for piano, for voice, for orchestra, an opera, plus a few remarkable fragments), his critical writings (perhaps not the equal of Berlioz but still a substantial body of work), his correspondence, and a fascinating life story.

Musicologists rarely manage to get all of that into one book, indeed they usually must place their emphasis on one aspect. Arthur Wenk’s Debussy & the Poets is a wonderful multi-disciplinary study of the songs and their texts. Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion is a study of the scores testing a hypothesis concerning the composer’s use of mathematical principles in his music, literally exploring the aspects of music that his title would suggest. James Briscoe’s Debussy in Performance brings scores to life in order to explore them in the most practical sense. Robin Holloway studied one of his key influences in Debussy and Wagner. Robert Orledge wrote of Debussy and the Theatre.

And –more pertinent to what Walsh did—there are also several biographies.

debussy a painter in sound

Walsh sets off in a very original direction, proposing to write a biography framed within the language of visual art. I am now looking for the second time at his introduction, which reads very differently after one has finished reading the book.

In the introduction to his book on French music, Martin Cooper had provided a lucid explanation of the differences between the French and, for example the German views of art. After quoting a remark of the critic W. J. Turner that ‘it is the sublimity of the soul that makes the music of Beethoven and Bach so immeasurably greater than that of Wagner and Debussy’, he pointed out that ‘to seek in French music primarily for a revelation of the composer’s soul or for marks of the sublime was to look for something which the French consider a by-product… The French composer is consciously concerned with the two data which no one can question—his intelligence and his senses.’ And Cooper added, ‘The regarding of a piece of music as an artefact—a thing of planned shape, dimensions, colour and consistency—rather than as an expression of an emotion whose end is in itself, brings the French composer nearer than any other to the plastic artist.’
This strikes me as a perfect description of the attitude of Debussy to his work, and indeed of the work itself.  (Walsh)

That’s really a preamble to the key relationship that’s to be articulated.

In rejecting Wagner, Debussy was thinking a kind of music that prioritised what he saw as the virtues of French art, ‘its clarity of expression, its precision and compactness of form, the particular and specific qualities of French genius’…he not only discarded the heavy northern gloom of The Ring and Tristan, he threw out most of the grammatical infrastructure that had supported Wagner’s immense narrative frameworks. Suddenly there is a concentration, a focus on particular ideas and images that is, as Cooper implies, somewhat painterly. This is not a question off taking sides in the whole tormented issue of whether Debussy can or cannot be called an Impressionist. It has more to do with the way in which any painter handles the motif within the limits of the picture frame. In much of his music, Debussy seems to work like this with motifs and frames, rather than with the evolving, novelistic discourse, not only of Wagnerian opera, but of the whole symphonic tradition of nineteenth—century music.

He manages to stay true to this way of thinking and more. When, near the end of the introduction, Walsh describes his goal for the book, it reads like a critique of the other books that have gone before. And why not, he’s a music critic, and he likely had to read those books that he’s critiquing, when he says this:

What follows is a biography of sorts but it is a biography with the difference that is sets out to treat Debussy’s music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life, rather than, as one finds in many Lives of Composers, a slightly annoying series of incidents that hold up the story without adding much of narrative interest.

That is exactly how the book reads, an example of how a biography should be done.

And I celebrate what Walsh achieved. As far as telling the story of a life, it’s a wonderfully readable version that manages to locate the major compositions within believable contexts, so that they become the inevitable outcome of the incidents of the composer’s life.

While it’s not perfect I often found myself wishing as I was reading that I had written it.  I admire the book. The prose is skillful, fluid, accessible. It’s a good first book to read about Debussy, indeed if you’re only ever going to read one book about the composer this would be the one.

There are a few places where I pushed back against Walsh, unsatisfied with what he was saying.  I’m one of those petty people who thinks the whole impressionist – symbolist question matters. I’m not happy with the evidence I see for Walsh knowing what a symbolist is. It’s not enough to drop some names, you need to have an understanding of the process, how a symbolist writes or paints or composes and what they seek to signify. But perhaps that’s an indication of how insignificant that topic has been in the past that a book can be satisfactory without adequately addressing Debussy the symbolist, which to me should be one of the central concerns of the study. It’s still a revelation to dare to be multi-disciplinary in this way about a composer, although the invocation of multiple disciplines usually signals a crossover by someone from their area of competence into an area of lesser competence, sometimes with mixed results. Maybe in a generation or two we’ll get the multi-disciplinary study that gets it completely right.

I was very impressed with the way Walsh spoke of different songs, analyses that brought in poetry & Wagner deftly and with total agility, and without bogging down. Most of the book hangs together really nicely between the story of a life and the compositions that fill that life. I have to reconcile the book’s goal and my love of certain compositions that I wanted explored and unpacked in greater detail. But that’s not a flaw, especially when it’s precisely what the author set out to do. I’m like a passenger on the tour-bus, upset that we’re sticking to the schedule and not stopping longer at my favourite locale.

I wonder too if Walsh read Howat’s theories proposing that Debussy used specific proportions such as the Golden Mean in the construction of his scores; Debussy in Proportion is conspicuously absent from the bibliography, especially considering that Walsh would consider Debussy through visual art. Did the “painter in sound” (as Walsh calls him) use the golden mean to assemble notes on the page? I doubt I’m the only one asking the question, but perhaps there’s just not enough evidence for Walsh to explore the subject; or maybe it didn’t interest him.  Oh well.

This time as a library book I read it cover to cover. I’lI buy it because I need to explore it further. I recommend it to anyone curious about Claude Debussy.

And it’s a fun read.

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1 Response to Debussy: A Painter in Sound

  1. Pingback: Evolving past jealousy in opera | barczablog

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