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Music cannot be learned (Claude Debussy)
A film by Georges Gachot, produced by Metropolitan Munich, 2000 [57.59]
Children’s Corner played by Zoltán Kocsis (piano) rec.1991 [17.38]
This documentary includes 3 language versions (English, German, French)
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9
Sound formats DVD: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0
Languages: English, French, German
Booklet notes: English, French, German
EUROARTS 2066718 [74.00]

From time immemorial - certainly since the days of Plutarch and Suetonius - biographies have been basically divisible into two types. There is the hagiography, treating its subject as a quasi-saint whose every instinct is impeccably right and who can do no wrong; and there is the hatchet job, putting the worst possible construction on every aspect of the subject’s actions and thoughts. Studies which ostensibly take a more balanced view are nevertheless frequently watered-down versions of one sort or the other. Documentaries on the lives of composers inevitably fall into the same two categories. Some authors have vehemently doubted whether the study of the life of an artist of any description actually sheds any light at all on their works. Tolkien was notoriously one such, and the multitude of studies and biographies which have followed on his death simply go to show how misguided he was.
 
This documentary by Georges Gachot on the life of Debussy basically falls into the class of the hagiography, typified by the inclusion of Ravel’s remark that Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was the “only perfect piece in all music”. It takes its title from a saying of Debussy, which can be taken either as a truism - music is a natural instinct rather than an acquired one - or as palpable nonsense for if it is taken literally, what is the point of ‘studying’ music at all? A documentary which took this assertion as its starting point might have been a very interesting - and possibly profitable - examination of the nature of musical inspiration itself. Here we are simply asked to accept the contentious statement as fact, as an element in a brief overview of Debussy’s life. Over half of the documentary itself is spent looking at Debussy’s origins and early career - before the success of Pelléas et Mélisande - and no more than the last six minutes looking at his final years after La mer where his music began to explore the more remote territories of tonality. We are told nothing whatsoever about Jeux, or the late chamber works, or Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien.  

It is described as a ‘film’ but much of the visual element comprises still photographs, with occasional inserts of period films. The presence of the completed Sacré-Coeur in the shots of Montmartre confirm that these probably postdate Debussy’s death. Add to this some modern videoscapes of Paris which say nothing about Debussy at all. Thankfully, there are no interpolated shots of actors pretending to be Debussy or any of his contemporaries, so it is not a ‘biopic’ type of film. It is simply a brief overview of Debussy’s career illustrated with excerpts from some of his earlier scores. Most of the dialogue is provided by reminiscences of Debussy by his friends and colleagues, with some sections drawn from the composer’s own letters. Unfortunately we are only occasionally told whose words we are listening to, until the final credits reveal this information; it would have been more interesting and illuminating if screen credits had been given at the time the quotations started - as we are told when listening to the opinions of Satie and Stravinsky, for example. The documentary was originally shot with German commentary, but the French and English versions substitute narrations by different actors which sound fine since at no stage are any of the speakers shown on screen. The exception is Manuel Rosenthal, whose French words are given with subtitles.
 
The musical excerpts are fine, given by the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Sergiu Celibidache (a stunningly slow and beautiful Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune), Sviatoslav Richter (surprisingly reading from a score), Zoltán Kocsis and excerpts from Peter Stein’s Welsh National Opera production of Pelléas (uncredited until the end, and with no details given of the singers involved). There’s also a piano roll made by Debussy himself. No subtitles are provided for the Pelléas excerpts, which renders them effectively meaningless. Interestingly, we are given the text of part of the Mallarmé poem which inspired the Prélude. As a bonus to the documentary we have a complete performance of Children’s Corner by Zoltán Kocsis. This is not the Philips award-winning recording but what appears to be a television transmission - and very good it is too.
 
The booklet notes by Janina Rinck make some big claims for what is puzzlingly described as “this first documentary film about Debussy” - surely not? These state that the film “devotes itself to [the] question of Debussy’s identity.” Sadly, it hardly begins to scratch the surface of that issue. At first one suspects the translation, but the original French seems to make the same claims. As an introduction to the music of Debussy for those unfamiliar with the composer’s life and work, it would be a valuable asset. As an exploration of Debussy’s whole ethos it leaves too much ground unexplored. During the documentary Stravinsky quotes Debussy’s words to him about The Firebird: “One has to begin somewhere”. This film is similarly a beginning, not an end.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 

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