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Book Review

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy by Roberts
Paul Roberts
London and New York: Phaidon Press. 2008
ISBN-10: 0714835129
ISBN-13: 9780714835129
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Musicien français.

Claude Debussy stands as the first composer wholly of the Modern era, one of the major influences on much of the music that came after. A partial list of composers he touched includes such heavyweights as Bartók, Stravinsky, Martinů, Ravel, Szymanowski, Vaughan Williams, Messiaen, Boulez, and Schoenberg. Debussy essentially redefined music: harmonically, rhythmically, and formally. He aimed to create a "free music," which obeyed only its own inner logic, rather than a set of pre-ordained conventions. Music after Debussy sounds substantially different from the music that came before. Not bad for a composer whose stated aim was mainly to write a music "without sauerkraut."

Debussy, despite a very brief infatuation with Wagner's music, disliked most German music as too much by-the-numbers. He resented, for example, sonata form. He was allergic to Beethoven's music since his days as a piano student. In order to find himself, he sought out different sources: Wagner, the French harpsichord school of the eighteenth century, Grieg, Musorgsky, Borodin, and the Balinese gamelan, among others – hardly anybody's idea then of a standard lineage. From all this, a unique music emerged.

Paul Roberts, a concert pianist who has also produced a book on Debussy's piano music, has written a biographical-critical study aimed at the intelligent general reader. You will find no musical examples, other than illustrations of Debussy's exquisite calligraphy. Roberts concentrates on the artistic and intellectual currents that touched Debussy, rather than analyzing an individual work in depth. I suspect that reducing Debussy to mechanics and graphs wouldn't yield all that much fruit. The analyses I've read on the later scores especially have all drawn different conclusions. The mystery of Debussy's music remains, as does that of the man himself, equally elusive and even reclusive.

Roberts describes the general affect of works and how it relates to what was happening in other contemporary arts, and he assumes that a listener knows these works pretty well. One reads a long account of the French Symbolists, essentially where Debussy starts to become Debussy. He also shows – in, for me, the best part of the book – how the composer changes as he encounters new ideas. He portrays a figure who wasn't simply a reed blown by the wind, but a supremely self-conscious artist, perhaps overly so.

It took Debussy a long time to finish works. He had early on diagnosed his chief artistic problem as a too-easy "facility," and he distrusted what came easily. It's also a tough job redefining music. As a result, he lived in debt all of his life, surviving on "advances" from his chief publisher, Durand.

Roberts goes into the details of Debussy's life and gives us a composer of outrageous charms and faults. Roberts doesn't make a special plea when his subject acts badly, as he did when he left his long-time mistress Gaby and his first wife, Lilly. On the other hand, he also shows you why at least some people stuck by the composer. Above all, he avoids the mechanical application of Psych 101 to the composer and in general keeps the artistic self separate from the ethical one. The fact that Debussy was for most of his life a self-indulgent, narcissistic sensualist doesn't seem to have much to do with his cello sonata, for example, or with the radiantly beautiful Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orléans.

Roberts makes use of primary materials and secondary French sources, most unavailable in English. This book doesn't displace Lockspeiser's standard study, but it's not as rough going either and adopts more contemporary scholarship. Furthermore, Roberts writes elegant prose. His descriptions of specific works evoke some of the music's scent without resorting to hot air. If you know the music, Roberts should recall them for you and should tell you something you didn't know about them, besides. Roberts is a real musician, rather than some guy blowing purple smoke. The book will likely increase your love and your understanding for Debussy.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.