The French composer was once dismissed as a Romantic or ‘impressionist’ who prioritised mood and feeling. This life digs deep into his innovations
Compelling profile … Claude Debussy. Photograph: Alamy
It turns out that Claude Debussy lived exactly as any self-respecting artist should. He drank too much, showed unwise taste in women, never got the hang of money and assumed that anyone who didn’t see music exactly the same way as he did was a duffer. He often thought of taking his own life but it was actually his first wife who pulled the trigger on herself, standing in the Place de la Concorde to make sure everyone noticed. Finally, the great composer died young, or youngish, leaving posterity to speculate about just where his genius would have taken him next.
Don’t imagine, though, that Stephen Walsh’s compelling new biography, published to coincide with the centenary of Debussy’s death, consists simply of one slack anecdote after another. As Walsh himself says in his introduction, the lives of composers are all too often told as if the music were an incidental afterthought to be wedged untidily between stories about bad debts and great parties. Walsh, by contrast, insists on pulling Debussy’s compositions into the heart of this biography, treating them as the essential register of emotional and intellectual existence. Life, on this occasion, finds itself in the novel position of being required to fit around art.
As a sulky Paris Conservatoire student in the 1870s, Debussy had been apprenticed to a tradition in which all the great questions of form and content had been decided at least a century earlier. The boy’s job, as his masters saw it, was to absorb these inherited templates, add his five sous-worth of fancy, before handing them on duly refreshed to the next generation of nimble-fingered prodigies. Debussy, instead, aimed to do nothing less than rebuild music from the bottom up or perhaps, more accurately, from the inside out. He would produce sequences of what he called “colours and rhythmicised time” that expressed his inner vision, rather than ready-made sounds to be crammed into some pre-arranged shape. Form would follow content, even if that meant that the form had no beginning or end, no climax or lull, but instead appeared as an uninterrupted weave held together by its own dense internal logic.
Contemporary critics were quick to call Debussy an impressionist, the musical equivalent of Monet, for the way he prioritised mood, feeling and scene over story and message. Debussy loathed the label, and Walsh agrees that this impulse to slot the composer into an existing grid is ironic, given that his habitual non-compliance is exactly what drove him to strike out for the borders in the first place. All the same, Walsh suggests, that’s no reason to dismiss the more general point that Debussy was, as this book’s subtitle has it, “a painter in sound”, a composer for whom the visual was worked into the very marrow of the music. Debussy’s off-duty hours were spent at the Louvre rather than the Opéra, while at the salon of his great friend, the painter Henry Lerolle, he was most likely to make a beeline for Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Walsh digs deep into Debussy’s innovations to show ‘colours’ that had not been heard, or seen, before in French music
To demonstrate how this painterliness was manifested in the music, Walsh offers a series of close readings of Debussy’s best known pieces, showing sight and sound cross-wired to the point of synaesthesia. For example, he explains how in Nuages the drifting chords, fragmentary melodies and layered (rather than blended) harmonics become rather than describe a high grey sky with a blurred, shifting cloudscape. Elsewhere Walsh digs deep into Debussy’s stylistic advances – the pentatonic scales, the unresolved chords, the eccentric pedalling – to show that the result was a set of “colours” that had not been heard, or seen, before in French music. To follow the argument it helps if you know your chromatic from your whole-tone, although Walsh is careful to keep the really technical stuff to a minimum. Instead he deploys a delightfully fluent prose to carry the general reader along in the right direction.
If Walsh can do small, he can also go large and he finishes his finely tooled biography by squaring up to that old question of whether Debussy represents the end of one musical epoch or the beginning of another. For while the audience at the first night of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 might mutter about its radical formlessness and harmonic jumble, the fact is that by the time of the composer’s death 16 years later he was being written off as distinctly old hat. Indeed, for sharp young critics such as Jean Cocteau, Debussy was nothing but an ageing Romantic whose murmurings about nightingales and moonlight seemed to belong to the last gasp of the 19th century. Not until after the next world war did the mists clear and it became once again possible to take the long view. Debussy was no longer regarded as an impressionist, producing washy metaphors of fauns or waves. Rather, the way was clear for him to be restored to his proper place as a sonic modernist, whose music not only made its own meaning but also pointed the way ahead for the next 100 years.