Debussy - A Painter in Sound
by Stephen Walsh
pp. 358, Hardback
Faber & Faber
To mark this year's centenary commemoration of Claude Debussy's death the record labels have done us proud, with a glut of fine recording, new and reissues, hitting the marketplace. So I was encouraged to see that Faber & Faber have marked this significant event by the publication of this splendid biography Debussy - A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh, Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, where he held a personal chair in music from 2001 until 2013. Certainly, in the English language, Debussy biographies have been thin on the ground, though I did have the good fortune to review Eric Frederick Jensen's biography of the composer in the Master Musicians series, back in 2014.
Rather than laying out a detailed chronological sequence of biographical facts and anecdotes, Walsh approaches his subject from the point of view of his compositions, discussing his life side by side with major works which established his reputation as one of the great composers in the history of music. So, we get detailed discussion of significant works including Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Pelléas and Mélisande, La mer, Images (orchestral and piano), Suite bergamasque and the solo piano Préludes (Books 1 & 2). Walsh's approach I found very helpful and informative. He shares his insights on the music in a scholarly, yet profoundly readable way. His analysis is well-researched, detailed and not too technical. Clarity is the name of the game.
Debussy revealed an early aptitude for the piano, taking formal lessons at the age of seven. By ten he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory and, for the next eleven years, studied composition with the likes of Émile Durand and César Franck. Though his talent was recognized, he was considered something of a maverick. He shunned the norms and accepted practices, more interested in going his own way, and exploring new territory. In short, he was a rebel. Influences at this time were Palestrina, Victoria, and di Lasso. He later came into contact with Javanese gamelan and eastern music at the World Fair in 1889. From his younger days, Debussy sought the company of artists and poets rather than his fellow composers. The book, however, does discuss those musicians who became close to him, particularly Satie and Chausson. He was also friends with Ravel, but over the years a complex rivalry developed. Debussy was famed for his unfinished musical projects, and there is detailed coverage of this throughout. He only completed one opera, with two operatic projects based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe: The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher, remaining unfulfilled. Other works were left in varying states of incompleteness at his death.
His poverty is a constant theme. He was born into a family with little money in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France on August 22, 1862, the oldest of five children. His mother was a seamstress and his father owned a shop that sold china. In 1892 he fled the nest and moved into a rented flat with Gaby Dupont. One close acquaintance, Vital Hocquet, recalled that the composer 'couldn't afford to eat or clothe himself. Lunch consisted mostly of a small bar of chocolate ... and ... the classic petit pain costing a sou'. He constantly borrowed money from friends. Later when he got hitched to Emma Bardac he had an expensive property to maintain, and a wife with expensive tastes. Added to this he had to provide maintenance to his ex wife. In short, he spent far more than he earned. Durand, his publisher, would often bail him out; the composer owed him 42,000 francs by 1912. The debt ran up to 66,000 when he died.
There were a string of women in Debussy's life. They came and went, and he treated them appallingly. They started with Marie Vasnier, then Gaby Dupont, Thérèse Roger, Alice Peter and Rosalie Lilly Texier. Dupont warned Texier of his unfaithfulness, but she turned a blind eye and agreed to marry the composer on 19 October 1899. Debussy had threatened to kill himself if she refused. Poverty struck again, and he had to give a piano lesson in the morning to pay for the wedding breakfast. When he met Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac, in 1903, it kick-started a period of intense friendship. Her sophistication, brilliant conversation and singing ability must have greatly attracted him. He took her on holiday to Jersey, and later decided to leave Lilly and move in with her. Lilly threatened to kill herself several times and on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, she went to the Place de la Concorde and shot herself. By a stroke of good fortune she survived, but for the rest of her life the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae. Friends alienated him, with Fauré refusing to speak to him. Debussy and Bardac married. 20 January 1908. The couple had had a daughter in October 1905, Claude Emma Debussy, known as Chouchou. Debussy was besotted with her; she was probably the only person he ever unconditionally loved.
Walsh discusses the composer's final years sympathetically, and it makes for a sad read. The composer's heavy smoking and drinking finally caught up with him, and he developed rectal cancer. His pain at the end was immense.
I cannot sing the praises of this outstanding and fascinating biography loud enough. It’s a worthy and fitting tribute to a distinguished French composer on his anniversary year. The book, an honest assessment, is essential reading and will appeal to all devotees. Included are an array of beautifully produced black and white photographs and a useful bibliography. Notes are situated at the end of the book. It's a pity there isn't a chronological list of works. Walsh has several fine publications under his belt, including a two-volume biography of Igor Stravinsky and Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure.
The 22 December 1894 witnessed the premiere of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, inspired by a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, in Paris. The composer was 32 years old. It was adapted into a ballet 18 years later. It was ground-breaking, stretching tonality to the limit. Pierre Boulez has said that its impact is immense, and it changed the musical world.