Stephen Walsh’s fascinating study shows the composer progressing from ‘dainty’ sketches to extraordinary works of our time
The young Claude Debussy wrote a dainty music redolent of pink lampshades and rustling frou-frous. His piano sketches from the late 1880s caress the ear in an undeniably gorgeous way, but leave an impression of dilettante sensation. Debussy only found his voice with his 1905 sea symphony La Mer and the hauntingly strange orchestral fantasia Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune. These are among the most extraordinary works of music of our time. The hushed intensity of the Debussy sound left its mark on Miles Davis, for one, who saw in the French composer a pre-jazz master of the sonic impressionist sketch.
This excellent new biography of Debussy, subtitled A Painter in Sound, looks at a composer in thrall to Javanese gamelan music and other eastern sonorities (among them the Japanese koto used by David Bowie to ambient effect on his Heroes album). Debussy’s thirst for “un-French” music put him at loggerheads with the Paris old guard, who found him fandangled and foreign as a pagoda, says Stephen Walsh. Debussy’s ability to create new possibilities in sound is, of course, what makes him so modern. Walsh is a superb guide to this music, but he is rather less interested in the details of Debussy’s life. (His groundbreaking biography of Stravinsky likewise concentrated more on the music.)