A musicologist offers a sensuous portrait of an iconic composer.
Drawing on many fine studies of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Walsh (Emeritus, Music/Cardiff Univ.; Musorgsky and His Circle, 2013, etc.) focuses on the composer’s music—daring and often misunderstood—to create a perceptive and authoritative new biography. A precociously gifted pianist, Debussy had achieved near-adult virtuosity by the age of 10, though he lacked “practical, or even moral, discipline,” rebelling against the narrow teachings at the Paris Conservatoire and the “rabid vocationalism of the average music student.” By the time he was 17, he decided to abandon the goal of becoming a concert pianist and, instead, become a composer. In 1885, he pursued that goal in Rome, where, again, he bristled against the “hated specifications and stereotyped criteria” at the Academy. His assessors deemed his compositions strange: He was preoccupied, they believed, with “the bizarre, the incomprehensible, the unperformable,” and warned him to “be on guard against that vague impressionism which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art.” Undaunted, over the next few years, he honed a unique style, “subtle and resonant,” inspired by “the astoundingly rich and suggestive imagery” of poems of Verlaine and Baudelaire. Walsh sees 1890 as a breakthrough year for Debussy, in which he met the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who invited him to write incidental music for a stage performance. Mallarmé, writes the author, “opened doors…that would broaden his literary and artistic horizons.” Soon, he mastered orchestral music. Walsh praises Nuages for its “refined juxtapositions of colours, melodic, harmonic and instrumental” and Fêtes, for its “deftness and athleticism.” The ambitious Le Mer, Walsh writes, most clearly reflects Debussy’s “inflexibly meticulous, hyper-perfectionist approach to composition.” Perennially in debt and embroiled in domestic problems, Debussy felt, he explained, an “invincible need to escape into myself,” unable to abide “strict observance of traditions, laws, and other obstacles.” He was dedicated to creating, and redefining, beauty, and as Walsh amply demonstrates, he brilliantly succeeded.
A richly detailed life of a modernist master.