London and New York: Phaidon Press. 2008.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Musicien francais.
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 Bartok,
Stravinsky, Martinu, 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
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
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
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'Orleans.
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
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