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Music Without a Destination

Henri Manuel/Getty Images
Claude Debussy, circa 1910

The world of classical music loves an anniversary to celebrate the already-celebrated. The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006 brought performances of all twenty-two of his operas in his hometown of Salzburg, among innumerable other festivities worldwide; the 225th anniversary of his death in 2016 prompted the release of a two-hundred-CD set of his complete works. In advance of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, the German government has declared him a “matter of national importance,” as if he were a precious, rapidly disappearing natural resource. One could be forgiven for wondering exactly why the most-performed composers in history need these promotional blitzes.

The subjects of this year’s two most prominent classical-music anniversaries could hardly be more different from each other. One hundred years ago this past August 22, Achille-Claude Debussy died in Paris. Three days later, in less glamorous Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein was born. For listeners worldwide, each has become a kind of metonym for his time and place: Debussy for the languorous refinement of the French fin de siècle; Bernstein for the brash, brassy extroversion of mid-twentieth-century America. In life, Debussy was an elusive personality, feline and withdrawn; he seems to have been unscrupulous in his love life and not entirely trustworthy in financial matters. His mature music, however, bears the stamp of an unmistakable sensibility: sensual, tender, alternately delicate and lush, it reveals a wizardly gift for draining familiar tonal harmonies of their usual stability and suspending them gorgeously in midair.

As a musician, Bernstein is practically Debussy’s photographic negative. He seems to have made a seismic impression on everyone he so much as shook hands with, and as a conductor he was uniquely, extravagantly gifted: he had a singular ability, through sheer passion and panache, to make classical music exciting, even sexy, to middlebrow American audiences. But Bernstein’s own compositions are a frustrating mélange of defanged American popular idioms—jazz, vaudeville, Broadway—and undercooked rehashings of the music he conducted so brilliantly: Mahler, Copland, Ravel. He was, by his own admission, a compulsively social animal; it wasn’t in his nature to withdraw from society for extended periods to compose. Here Debussy’s reticence was a major advantage: his seeming aimlessness, which kept him in perpetual financial peril, afforded him the time to write La Mer, Pelléas et Mélisande, and an exquisite body of chamber music.

It’s curious, then, that this shared centennial has been heavy on Bernstein and relatively light on Debussy. The “Bernstein at 100” press release on the official Leonard Bernstein website boasts of “more than 4,500 events on six continents,” including multiple productions of extravagant evening-length pieces, like his Mass. It could be argued that much of Debussy’s music is already central to the classical repertoire, while Bernstein’s concert music has been neglected, justly or not, and is thus ripe for revival. But the sheer loudness of the publicity has felt like force-feeding, and the music has sounded as thin as ever.

What a pleasure, by contrast, to have an excuse to study the music of Debussy, who would likely have curled up into the fetal position at the idea of a blaring PR machine pushing his works in every corner of the globe. Fortunately, it speaks for itself—quietly, yet authoritatively. This year has brought some appropriately thoughtful celebrations of Debussy’s life and work, notably Stephen Walsh’s Debussy: A Painter in Sound.

Walsh’s major scholarly achievement is his epic two-volume Stravinsky biography, a sweeping, exhaustive guide to the composer’s flabbergastingly rich life, which stretched from tsarist Russia in the 1880s to New York City in 1971. A Stravinsky biography is a Herculean task: the man had an insatiable wanderlust, coupled with a tendency to move wherever the action was, from Paris in the 1910s to the expat communities of midcentury New York and Los Angeles.

Debussy’s life is, by comparison, a much simpler assignment: he lived only into his late fifties, spent most of his life in France, and was not known internationally as either an enfant terrible or a public intellectual, as Stravinsky was. Walsh’s joy, and maybe his relief, at having such a manageable subject is palpable on every page of his book, which is written with an aptly Debussyan lightness and attention to detail. Perhaps most impressively, Walsh has managed the rare tightrope act of describing and analyzing widely beloved music in ways that will neither seem simplistic to connoisseurs nor confuse a general audience.

Walsh also makes the astute decision to focus on Debussy’s music, rather than on his social life, precisely to the degree that Debussy himself neglected personal obligations in favor of the inner world of his work. Walsh announces in his introduction that he has set out “to treat Debussy’s music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life”; he has an understandable horror of his book amounting to “a slightly annoying series of incidents.” In this, he sounds for a moment like his subject: to a near-pathological degree, Debussy regarded most of life’s responsibilities as mere annoyances, which could surely be wriggled out of with the right blend of slyness, reticence, and charm. Those three qualities are also essential to Debussy’s music, and we would be naive to ignore the analogies between the composer’s worldview and his still-influential aesthetic.

For modern listeners, Debussy practically defines French music, by which I mean that the essential qualities of his music—not only his sensuous delicacy but also his aversion to the harmonic behavior characteristic of late-nineteenth-century German music, a dense chromatic motion that tends to constantly, restlessly build to orgiastic climaxes, as in Wagner and Strauss—have come to be seen as also essentially “French” qualities. Walsh makes clear, however, that Debussy, far from simply amplifying or exemplifying the dominant tendencies of his musical milieu, consciously and stubbornly swam against the current, especially when it came to the heavy influence of German music on French composers. Wagner was the unavoidable presence in late-nineteenth-century Paris, but Debussy traced the blame for that influence further back, to Gluck. Debussy was quietly radical in his preference for Rameau’s “delicate and charming tenderness” over what he perceived as the Germanic “affectation of profundity or the need to double underline everything.”

It’s comical to imagine Debussy as a chest-thumping nationalist, but Walsh demonstrates how he insisted that certain qualities—delicacy, charm, tenderness—are fundamentally French, and that French composers would do better to respect their cultural inheritance than to imitate the formal logic and dense textures of German music. He was as good as his word: Debussy’s music has both the refinement and something of the omnipresent sweetness of the language he spoke.

No matter the form his music takes—from sparkling, quicksilver piano pieces to grand orchestral essays—there is across Debussy’s entire oeuvre an extraordinary unity of texture. Its essential quality is a spacious beauty, a lushness without thickness, which Walsh intelligently ascribes in part to Debussy’s preference for whole tones. Music whose basic interval is the whole tone—an interval of two half-steps, that is, two piano keys—is inherently spacious; there is more room for light to filter through. In Walsh’s words, “whole-tone harmony…lacks that onward push that we associate with tonal music.” This is another essential quality of Debussy’s music: late-Romantic harmonies that tend, in Wagner’s hands, to strain sweatily toward a climax are transformed through Debussy’s alchemy into mysterious floating oases, worth luxuriating in for their own sake. In Wagner—at least until Parsifal, which Debussy lovedthe music seems constantly to be asking itself what its destination is, and how it can get there. Debussy, much like the faun of his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, wants to find somewhere beautiful in the shade and stay awhile.

It is hard to imagine a better guide than Walsh to the delights of Debussy’s sound world. Clearly he loves it, yet he’s refreshingly unsentimental about it. Many of Walsh’s main ideas have been expressed before, but rarely with such clarity: the harmony of Debussy’s early music “feels as if filtered through parts of Tristan und Isolde, absorbing its colours but not its processes”; one of the risqué, indulgent Trois Chansons de Bilitis has “a quiet intensity that verges on the private”; another has “the curious mixture of intensity and inconsequentiality we associate with dreams.”

Walsh also has a keen ear for the processes that underlie this music, and he recognizes a unity of process even between works that seem, on the surface, totally unlike each other:

There is a curious immobility about [one of the Ariettes oubliées, a song cycle for voice and piano], a sense of peering into deep water. Even in more obviously mobile pieces…there is something either hypnotic or mechanical or circular about the motion—movement without a destination.

It takes a sensitive ear to notice the likeness between these forms of motion. Whether a particular piece skates briskly along or simply lounges in bed, Debussy’s mature music prefers to inhabit a space and explore its depths, rather than to constantly evolve or transform.

Clearly Walsh has some practical experience as a musician: of the Children’s Corner suite, which is a staple of the intermediate-piano-student repertoire, he accurately notes that “mostly it has the virtue of sounding harder than it is, which of all instrumental qualities is probably the one that pleases show-off children best.” The movement Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum “lies so well under the fingers that it hardly works as a study at all.” I wince to recall how many times, as a ten-year-old, I trotted out exactly that movement, since it was indeed much easier than it sounded; I thought it made me sound like a fearless, blazing virtuoso.

Walsh is particularly illuminating about Debussy’s only finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and his unfinished adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Pelléas, an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s frustratingly enigmatic play, was the work that made Debussy a cult figure; indeed, the flocks of young listeners who attended the opera again and again seemed, to some observers, to be members of a cult. Walsh is very funny about the play’s pretentiousness: its characters “have neither past nor future but merely exist in a misty dynastic but apolitical present…. The characters seem not even to know their own environment. Golaud gets lost in his own forest.” Another, unseen character amounts to “a sort of Bunbury figure concocted as an excuse for Pelléas to be always about to leave.”

This fairy-tale timelessness is, however, a perfect match for Debussy’s compositional technique: he makes use of “more or less conventional chords of tonal harmony,” but treats them “as isolated events or colours without past or future, much like Maeterlinck’s dramatic personae.” As Walsh notes, it was vitally important for Debussy to show that his music, experienced over the course of an entire evening, had a trancelike power and inner logic of its own; it confirmed “the validity and workability of ideas that might previously have seemed not much more than the gurglings of a baby pulling the plug out of its own bath.”

But there is a dark side to Debussy’s languorous suspension of time. Any artist who succeeds in creating a self-contained world may eventually suffer claustrophobia from living there too long (“My prison cell—my fortress,” as Kafka put it). Debussy was remarkably candid, in letters to friends, about his periods of boredom, gloom, and lack of inspiration: “Ah! the ‘magician’ you loved in me, where is he?” Debussy laments in one from 1914. “All he is now is a builder of gloomy towers.” Those “gloomy towers” might as well be the towers of the House of Usher, and Walsh traces a fascinating evolution in Debussy’s work from Pelléas to Usher, from one mysterious castle to another.

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy; drawing by David Levine

Every musical world has its risks, and the risk in Debussy’s is that the music will simply run out of energy and decide there’s no point in existing at all. Wagner may sometimes be boring, but his music could never admit as much; it would ruin his grand scheme. Debussy is more willing to confess his ennui. When he feels uninspired, his music tends toward lethargy and navel-gazing, and Walsh notes that he seems to have found, in Usher, the perfect dramatization of this tendency: a young, “pale, sickly and neurasthenic” man and his “ghostly” twin sister, Madeline, both “the product of constant inbreeding,” waste away in a musty old house. The story is, in Walsh’s words, “strong on atmosphere and situation, low on incident”; he also quotes a section from Poe that compares the sensation of gazing at the house to “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium.”

It is disturbing, yet understandable, that Debussy became obsessed with this piece during a period of creative difficulties: Usher’s atmosphere is essentially that of Pelléas, but with the life sucked out of it; Madeline might as well be Mélisande’s ghost. For my fellow composers who have been influenced by Debussy—and there are a lot of us—it’s worth noting that ending up in Usher’s dank vaults is an occupational hazard. The childlike dreaminess of some of Debussy’s music, his tendency to caress his musical materials like a kitten sitting in his lap, can veer into a sickly sweetness. And in the course of reading a biography like Walsh’s, it’s hard not to find similarities between Debussy’s seductively sensual musical world and his disconcertingly amoral personal conduct.

Walsh calls his book “a biography of sorts,” an equivocal label that tells us that he is well aware of the substantial gaps in his account of Debussy’s life; the real through-line is to be found in his musical analyses. Still, the gaps can be jarring: fifty-odd pages into the book and twenty-four years into Debussy’s life, Walsh casually mentions his “seventeen-year-old brother, Alfred,” of whom there has as yet been no mention whatsoever. Debussy’s parents, too, make only fleeting cameos; Walsh’s description of Debussy, as a Conservatoire student, “still living in his parents’ two-roomed apartment” made me realize that I had no sense at all of who his parents were. When they are finally mentioned again nearly two hundred pages later, it is startling to be reminded that they had been alive through the intervening decades.

On a first reading, this might look like sloppiness on Walsh’s part, but a deepened familiarity with Debussy’s personality convinced me otherwise. These lacunae are not mistakes; rather, they perfectly match Debussy’s own blind spots, his tendency to act as though other people didn’t exist unless he wanted something from them. Walsh notes that Debussy often seemed to act on “the instinctive feeling…that emotional ties are a nuisance unless kept firmly in the drawer marked ‘when I need them.’” Whenever he was caught behaving badly and had to suffer the consequences, he evidently reacted with annoyance at the inconvenience of other people’s emotions. Caught having an affair, Debussy, in a letter to Pierre Louÿs, impatiently referred to his wife’s anguished reaction as “bad literature”: “All this is barbarous, pointless, and changes absolutely nothing.”

Debussy lost friends, as well as lovers, to his habits of deception and unreliability; he had expensive tastes but never held a steady job, and had to beg friends for loans that he rarely repaid. It is surreal to read of the composer Ernest Chausson attempting—unsuccessfully—to get the thirty-year-old Debussy a job as an assistant conductor at a casino. (Debussy repaid Chausson for his generosity by flagrantly lying about an affair he was having, while continuing to ask him for money. Chausson, hurt and confused, ended the friendship.) The better we get to know Debussy, the stronger the contrast between the richness of his musical world and the sordidness of his personal life—and yet, in both music and life, he liked things to be beautiful, rich, and sensually pleasing, and he wanted these things without having to work too hard or too regularly. (Debussy admits that he suffered from a “sickness of delay…and this curious need to never finish” his pieces.)

It’s curious that Walsh, who is clear-eyed about Debussy’s personal flaws, seems to have a blind spot about his artistic integrity. Walsh, despite citing evidence to the contrary, paints him as an uncompromising perfectionist, a freethinking, anti-institutional rebel: “Everything depended on his own sensibility,” Walsh writes, “and he could not—would not—fall back on traditional best practice to help him over awkward joins or moments of failing inspiration.” At one point, Walsh quotes a friend of Debussy’s who claimed “he would more readily have agreed to forge banknotes than write three bars without feeling the imperious need to do so.” And when it comes to Debussy’s musical education, Walsh describes a person with a “well-honed detestation of musical institutions.” “Well-honed” indeed: Debussy studied at the Paris Conservatoire for a dozen years, starting at age ten; he was hardly an outsider.

The reality is that Debussy wrote many less-than-inspired bars of music for less-than-noble reasons, and though he was cutting and dismissive in his critiques of the French musical establishment, he benefited from years of training within it. In Walsh’s account, during his student years Debussy first failed to win the coveted Prix de Rome “despite carefully tailoring his setting of the prescribed text…to the supposed conservative stylistic preferences of the judges”; on a second attempt, he made it to the final round by composing “a studiously unadventurous piece of writing” in which he “reined in any inclination he might have had to liven up…somewhat dull verses with innovative harmony.” On his third try, he triumphed, “but only by suppressing his natural impulses and subduing much of his individuality.” And when he was informed that he’d won, how did young Achille-Claude react? In the composer’s words, “I can assure you my heart sank! I saw clearly the tedium, the anxieties that the least official recognition fatally entails. Above all, I felt I was no longer free.” All this after kowtowing repeatedly to the Conservatoire’s taste in the hopes of achieving its approbation.

This willingness to compromise didn’t end on graduation day. Late in life, Debussy spoke dismissively of writing music for the drama Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien “with the regularity of a machine for manufacturing hats.” As for the risqué subject matter of the ballet Jeux—the choreography was intended to imply a gay threesome, according to Vaslav Nijinsky—“Debussy did not like the subject either, but he was paid 10,000 gold francs for this ballet and therefore had to finish it.” None of this is to discredit the revolutionary work that he achieved, at his best; but the fact is that, even in musical matters, Debussy was not a saint. Walsh, usually so astute, never reckons with this recurring contradiction.

One of this book’s guilty pleasures is the inclusion of Debussy’s unfailingly accurate, often brutal summations of other composers’ music. Schubert’s songs, in his eyes, are “bits of faded ribbon, flowers forever dried, and photographs of the departed”; Richard Strauss has “the frank and decisive appeal of those great explorers who walk among savage tribes with a smile on their lips.” When Debussy noticed real talent, though, he seems to have put aside all feelings of petty competition. He was an early admirer of Stravinsky and Ravel, and one letter to Stravinsky is both generous and prophetic: a particular passage of the newly premiered Petrushka, Debussy writes, contains “a sort of sound magic, the mysterious transformation of mechanical souls who become human by a magic spell, of which you so far seem to me to be the sole inventor.” A magical transformation of the mechanical into the human: I can hardly think of a better description of the alchemical power that is one of Stravinsky’s essential gifts.

The thought of Debussy sending that letter to Stravinsky is, I think, my favorite image from this book. Debussy, nearing the end of his life, having helped invent a new world of sound for the new century, reacts to the music of a brilliant younger colleague not with resentment or suspicion but with pure delight. With matchless wit, intelligence, and taste, here is Debussy at his best, welcoming with open arms the future he helped usher in.