Posts Tagged ‘Debussy by Stephen Walsh’

‘Debussy’ by Stephen Walsh

September 25th, 2018

WHO: Claude Debussy

A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh

WHEN: Published by Knopf October 23, 2018

WHERE: The author lives in England.

WHY: “A richly detailed life of a modernist master.
“Drawing on many fine studies of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Walsh 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 sensuous portrait of an iconic composer.” –KIRKUS, a starred review

Walsh discusses nearly every one of Debussy’s compositions and points out their innovations and their narratives.” –Roy Olson, in a starred review for BOOKLIST


It is never easy to locate beginnings, since even beginnings come from somewhere else. Even the big bang had its causes. But if we want to argue, as some do, that twentieth-century music began with Achille-Claude Debussy, then it is by no means absurd to suggest that it actually began in the prison camp of Satory, just south of Versailles, late in the year 1871.

There were naturally causes of this cause. If an aspiring young composer by the name of Charles de Sivry had not somehow got himself implicated in the activities of the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, or if Manuel-Achille Debussy had not lost his job as a print worker with the firm of Paul Dupont in November 1870 and in desperation taken work as a siege provisioner at the mairie of the first Paris arrondissement, a seemingly innocent post that led inexorably to his promotion to the rank of captain in the 13th battalion of Communards less than six months later, these two more or less insignificant pebbles in the stream of Parisian revolutionary history might never have collided, and life might have taken a very different turn for Manuel-Achille’s supposedly but not yet demonstrably musical nine-year-old son.

. . . . .

Knopf. With 16 pages of photos. 336 pages. $28.95 ISBN 978-1-524-73192-2

Author photo
Media Resources:
About the book and author | Download the jacket | Download the photo of Debussy | Download the author photo

To interview the author, contact:
Abigail Endler | 212-572-2015 |