The Tradition of Sensibility

Debussy: His Life and Mind (Volume II)

by Edward Lockspeiser
Macmillan, 337 pp., $8.00

Georges Bizet: His Life and Work

by Winton Dean
Dent (London), 304 pp., 42 shillings

Alban Berg

by Willi Reich, translated by Cornelius Cardew
Harcourt, Brace & World, 231 pp., $5.95

The Path to the New Music

by Anton Webern, edited by Willi Reich, translated by Leo Black
Theodore Presser Co. and Universal Edition, 67 pp.

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy; drawing by David Levine

Claude Debussy, our century’s most original composer, was ill-born, ill-bred, and virtually uneducated save in music. In that he had the best (Paris Conservatoire) and earned his prix de Rome. Though an autodidact in the non-musical branches, he was alive to painting and to poetry, including the most advanced. Already in youth he had made friends with the difficult and demanding Mallarmé; and he himself had literary gifts. He wrote about music as Monsieur Croche, antidilettante (a personage fabricated after the Monsieur Teste of his friend Paul Valéry); he indited “proses lyriques” and set them; and he carried on with all those close to him a correspondence phrased in racy language. Those close to him included the poet Pierre Louys, the romancers Marcel Proust and André Gide, the composers Ernest Chausson and Erik Satie, later Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Edgar Varèse. And if eventually he broke with virtually all of these but Satie, or they with him, Debussy was for all his bearishness, bad temper, and constant money dramas, a delicious friend and tender companion, even to his wives and mistresses, two of whom tried suicide when he moved out.

Abstention from personal discipline, organization, and plan was part of his working method, for sensibility cannot be maintained by rule. It needs to be coddled, teased, caressed, enraged. The eye that can see through fog, the ear that can penetrate a din, the instinct for pain that can lead one on touch his own nerve knots—these faculties were sought out in Debussy’s time. One need only remember Whistler’s London landscapes, the Elektra of Hoffmannsthal and Richard Strauss, the Salomé of Oscar Wilde, to realize that on a still grander level Proust, Monet, and Dr. Sigmund Freud were also dealing with the dark, and using more highly sensitized antennae.

The disciplines of sensitivity are in every way exasperating. And the highly sensitized Debussy was not an easy one to bear with, for he lived at both the geographical center and the time center of a movement in all the arts that required the artist to vibrate constantly. The epoch was for dredging the unconscious, for catching a moment of truth on the wing through awareness of some fleeting impression, through keeping one’s senses sharp and clear, one’s emotions undefined. To live by intuition and to create through a sensuality intensely imagined is not easy for youth, still overpowered by childhood’s traumas and by bourgeois prestige. And after thirty-five, vibrancy cannot always be depended on; it may need the help of drugs or drink or of elaborately varied sexual fun and games.

From Baudelaire through Rimbaud, the best poets have not in general made good husbands. Not in France. Nor yet the composers there—Fauré, Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, Ravel. And painters everywhere are the very prototypes of bohemia. But simple roistering is not enough. I am talking of an art seemingly fluid and…

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