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 unseizable but which yet remains in memory because it comes out of unnamed feelings intensely experienced. And this was the art that centered in France between roughly 1850 and World War I. This was the art, moreover, that in all its forms—Impressionism and the Fauve in painting, diabolism and psychological acuities in literature, helped out by the philosophico-sensual music-dramas of Richard Wagner—shaped the life and mind of Claude Debussy, the time’s only musical mentality capable of carrying on the Wagnerian ecstasy.

“His life and mind” is the subtitle of Edward Lockspeiser’s two-volume account, the second volume’s debut being today’s occasion. Lockspeiser has been about his Debussy research for more years than I could certify. His Debussy in The Master Musicians series bears a Preface date of 1936; and since that time he has issued amplified editions and other books, Volume I of the present study having come out in 1962.

The work completes, corrects, and binds into a bouquet all previous studies of this composer, of which there are many in French and English, only a few in German. It is footnoted entertainingly, copiously illustrated, and elaborately appendixed. Among the rare materials included are (in French) Mallarmé’s article on Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a stenographically reported conversation about German music between Debussy and his former teacher, the composer Ernest Guiraud, a ten-page account of Debussy’s project for making something operatic out of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (a plan that occupied him from early youth till death without any of the music ever getting written), and an article by Manuel de Falla on Debussy’s uncanny ability to evoke Spain. The only error I noted anywhere is the statement that André Caplet was musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1910 to 1915, instead of the Boston Opera Company.

It is not my desire to reduce Lockspeiser’s rich volumes to a digest. But mention may be made of his perspicacious treatment of the painting influences on Debussy, since a parallel with Impressionism has long been current. Nor is this wholly without meaning, especially when applied to the piano music. Lockspeiser, however, assures us that Debussy’s attitude toward painting as a style-source was no mere fixation on the Impressionists, but rather an awareness that evolved with modern art itself. Throughout his youth, for instance, he was attached to the composition-style of Hokusai and to the Japanese-inspired lay-outs of Degas, both of which got into his songs and piano pieces. Of the three great tryptichs for orchestra—Nocturnes, La Mer, and Images—the first, composed in the early and late 90s, bears surely an imprint of the painter Monet; while the second, though through its fragmented continuity still (1905) an Impressionist work, is suffused by luminosities out of Turner. Images, from 1911—consisting of Ibéria, Rondes de Printemps, and Gigues—reflects the sharper colorings of Fauve painting, though in all three of its sections literary origins dominate, especially in the tragic Gigues, probably inspired by a poem of Verlaine.


Though Debussy himself was reticent about strict parallels in his work, he actually said, or wrote, as I remember, regarding the early Nocturnes, which have always seemed to us so “coloristic,” that his intention had been to create with orchestral timbres the equivalent in music of an all-gray painting method known as grisaille. This surprising remark can only mean that he was using timbre contrasts as the Impressionists used colors, for their ability, by seeming to come forward or to retreat, to give an illusion of foregrounds and distances. In this sense the work is only incidentally coloristic, like Monet’s early landscapes of the Normandy coast, brightness being merely a by-product of color’s functional use for creating luminosity and perspective.

The opera Pelléas et Mélisande breathes quite another air. The Merovingian family of Maeterlinck’s play can be imagined as seated somewhere north of Rouen, perhaps in the sunny and fertile country around the Abbey of Jumièges, which is after all not far from Saint-Wandrille, where Maeterlinck himself had an establishment. Debussy’s characters and score, on the other hand, are hardly Romanesque at all, but rather out of art nouveau. This form of decoration (known in French as le modern-style), coming from the pre-Raphaelites by way of Barcelona and Holland, had found in France its ultimate sinuosity of line, its coloristic pallor, its devitalized females and giant floral forms.

And the people of Debussy’s opera, just like those in 1900-manner art, are ineluctably enmeshed and intertwined with their décor. Not with outdoor scenes of sheep and meadows, as in the play, but with wells and parapets and slippery stone stairs and tidal caves and tower bedrooms from which long blond hair let down till it enwraps brings on the only climax in the score. This opera is not landscape music but passion music about people who feel intensely all the time. And their watery medieval residence is neither Metrostyle nor Romanesque nor Gothic. It is actually, it would appear, Poe’s House of Usher, a theme the composer had cherished from his youth.

One should not go too far with the visual-arts approach to Debussy’s music. It is useful as a stylistic reference, but his main source was literature. Even when inspired by sea views, landscapes, weather, perfumes, architecture, night, or fireworks, his music is no direct transcript of experience. It is more likely to be an auditory evocation of a verbal evocation of some sensuous delight, and that delight itself a dream of art. Debussy’s evocations, whether visual or not, are immobile, the emotion that holds them in suspense being a response to style itself, une émotion d’art. And his most vibrant pages are those in which a literary transcript of some visual or other sensuous experience has released in him a need to inundate the whole with music. This music, though wrought from a vast vocabulary of existing idiom, is profoundly independent and original. This is as true of the piano music as of the orchestral pictures. None of it really sounds like anything else. It had its musical origins, of course; but it never got stuck with them; it took off.

The most remarkable of these flights is that of the opera Pelléas, which for the first time in over a century (or maybe ever) a composer gave full rights to subtleties below the surface of a play, not merely to action and to verbal discourse. The result is a union of music and poetry inspired in general by Wagner’s ideal (itself straight out of Schubert) and specifically by the sound of the orchestra in Parsifal, of which Debussy declared that it glowed “as if lighted from behind.” And the sensitivity with which the whole is knit, also an ideal that dominated European art for upwards of a century, never again produced so fine a fabric.


Richard Strauss, taken to Pelléas by Romain Rolland, remarked that if he had been setting that play he would have used a different kind of music. I’m sure he would have, and no doubt much louder. But Pelléas is part of music’s high canon in a way no Strauss opera is. And if opera today is to be saved from itself (and Strauss)—for its present enslavements to “theatrical” values and mere plot are suicidal—there is no other model so propitious as this work, which is at the same time, and intensely, both poetry and music.

The last time it was in repertory at the Metropolitan, quite several years ago, a well-meaning person is said to have asked the conductor Pierre Monteux, “Do you suppose Pelléas will ever be really a success?” He answered, “It was never intended to be.”

The composer of Carmen, France’s other impeccable opera (this one thoroughly successful), is the subject of biographical treatment in Georges Bizet, His Life and Work, by Winton Dean. Bizet had been little studied before 1948, when Dean published his excellent 250-page biography, with musical examples, in The Master Musicians series (J.M. Dent & Sons, London). Then ten years later came Bizet and his World, by Mina Curtiss (Knopf, 1958), twice as long and twice as wellinformed. Mrs. Curtiss had through the last heir of Bizet’s widow come upon basketfuls of musical manuscripts, letters, and diaries; and though not a musician herself, she found their panorama of Roman and French artistic life between 1855 and ’75 tempting to write about.

She had hoped that Marc Blitzstein might work with her by analyzing scores, but he was writing an opera of his own and did not care to take on a job of scholarship. So Mrs. Curtiss, omitting judgment on matters musical, simply wrote a Life and Times. A fine book, too, it turned out to be, as all books about the French nineteenth century are that are prepared with love and carefully.

Winton Dean, working from the Curtiss book, as well as from some supplemental sources, has put together a biography that includes textual examination of the scores, a book for musicians that is not gigantic (300 pages), but that is sound and sensible. Mrs. Curtiss’s volume, longer and more detailed, gives a grander panorama. Hers is the one for Comp. Lit. students. And what is Comp. Lit. anyway but nineteenth-century France?

Across the Rhine and down the Danube, we encounter again the sensibility tradition, this time out of Vienna and restated in our century. To Willi Reich, a pupil of Alban Berg, now author of his musical biography, this sensibility is only in the music. For his hero seems to have led a proper family life, spent summers in the mountains, frequented no dangerous companions. He depended rather on the German classic masters to guide him through the dark forests of abnormal psychology. And indeed they got him handsomely through two operas suffused with it—Wozzeck (after Büchner) and Lulu (after Wedekind)—actually our century’s only runners-up to Pelléas.

The fact is that Berg’s master, Arnold Schoenberg, did with the sensibility tradition what Central Europe always does with anything regarding art, which is to organize it for pedagogy. In that state it can be packaged and sold. Debussy, even at the height of Debussyism, had refused all truck with reproducing his musical kind, also with propositions for freezing his own sensibility at yesterday’s level. When a jacket blurb begins, “Alban Berg is one of [Oh, those weasel-words “one of”!] the most important composers of the twentieth century,” then later ties together his humanity, his “high spirtuality” (not my quotes), and his artistic sense of responsibility, it tempts one to put the whole thing down as advertising.

Nevertheless, out of my own perverse fascination with the Germanic view of music as something strictly for scholastic temperaments, I read the book, found it informative and no doubt useful for reference. Willi Reich, I may add, is a reputable Swiss critic and almost a founder-member of the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern conspiracy to make the past and future read their way.

Alban Berg, I am sure, was less dogmatic than this book depicts him, though with Germanic types, with all of them, there is a tendency to think in simplified alternatives—black or white, right or wrong, our team against all the others in the world. And this is what leads them to present any art work as a case to be argued, usually with emotionally weighted words.

Willi Reich’s book shows Berg doing just that in three articles from the early 20s—“Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” “The Musical Impotence of Hans Pfitzer’s ‘New Aesthetic’,” and “Two Feuilletons,” an attack on Schoenberg’s critics. These are polemical writing involving musical illustrations, music analysis, and German puns. And though I do not really believe that art can be effectively defended by vilifying those who do not understand it, these pieces are admirable for the aptness of the musical quotations analyzed and entertaining for their sheer pugnacity.

Anton Webern’s tiny book of lectures given privately in 1932 and ’33 and here transcribed from shorthand notes seem to me without value as musical theory and quite irresponsible in their use of terms, at least as these are translated (though I find the charming word Zusammenhang quite neatly rendered as “unity”). Their interest lies in the stammering state of mind with which matters of musical usage are discussed, as if all the composer’s predecessors were right there egging him on and at the same time holding him back at the slightly sinful game of let’s-invent-something. Actually something had been invented, though not by Webern, by Schoenberg; and Webern’s self-conscious astonishment about it is hard to believe.

Debussy had said forty years earlier that tonality should be got rid of (“il faut noyer le ton“). And Webern had learned from Schoenberg how to do exactly that. He was a dainty composer and a modest man who should never have got mixed up with the steam-roller aspects of twelve-tone-serial propaganda. But with Schoenberg and Berg for chums, how could he not?

This Issue

December 9, 1965