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Classical 101

Book Review: 'Debussy, A Painter In Sound'

Painted by Donald Sheridan
Wikimedia Commons
Claude Debussy

I’m late getting to the Debussy year, the centennial of his death in 1918. 

A new biography – Debussy, A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh – is an engrossing read but it was, for me, a commitment.

Don’t be discouraged from seeking out this book. Walsh writes with clarity and scrupulous detail in connecting the composer’s music to his life and to the world around him.

And what a world! Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Paris of Monet, Cezanne and the young Picasso. It’s not an accident that Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is known as a musical colorist.

What does that mean? How can music have color?

Color is achieved by program and by harmonics. Program relates music to a story or a situation. When a sweeping orchestral work is called La Mer (The Sea) and movements have titles like From Dawn to Noon on the Sea, the listener is primed to hear waves, light and air.

What is less obvious is the harmonic structure, the whole note scales, the modal sounds that this 20th-century composer uses. Devices dating from medieval times.

Credit Penguin Random House
Book cover for 'Debussy, A Painter in Sound' by Stephen Walsh

Debussy was not the first composer to make the old new again. He was the most prominent musician to make unconventional scales a signature of his mature work. He was not one to follow the pedantic teaching of the Paris Conservatoire.

Rather, Debussy used his talent to illustrate the world around him. His world was one of ciganes, sex and unconventionality.

Debussy’s first big success was Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This 10-minute orchestral study scandalized Paris when danced by Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes in 1909.

Prelude is a work without bar lines. The rhythmic pulse is less important than the long musical lines and the trance-like stasis of the music. This something-new music vibrates but seems not to move.

Debussy could write stillness in music.

If women were Debussy’s passion, the piano was his muse. His two volumes of preludes are a good place to begin learning a love of Debussy’s music.

In each miniature, you hear mood, and the piano keys are used as a paintbrush. The sound of the keys themselves are often integral to the musical line. No limits. Debussy approaches the piano as if it were an 80-piece orchestra.

Walsh offers detailed analysis of a lot of this music. While that could be challenging to digest, the composer’s life and loves offer plenty of entertaining leavening.

Debussy was married twice. His one opera, Pelleas et Melisande (1902), was an exploration of forbidden love based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

Debussy’s music, like the painting around him, encouraged listeners to make of it what they would. Clues may be there – programs, harmonics and dynamics – but in the end, Debussy never tells a listener how to react. Listeners are dared to react at all.

P.S. Here's Debussy at the piano with soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967) in the first Melisande:

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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