Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh

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Debussy: A Painter in Sound
Stephen Walsh 
Knopf, 2018

 

Much like his subject, Stephen Walsh writes a biography of the great French composer Anchille Claude Debussy with an eye towards emotive understanding and deceptively simple elegance. Debussy: A Painter in Sound is less a deep-dive into the life of the composer or a jargon heavy examination of his work than it is a descriptive biography attempting to grant readers the most real and vivid image of Debussy as he grew and developed. There is a profound honesty to this kind of writing, one that embraces the banalities of living while understanding they build to sustained periods of genius.

For example, early on in the book Walsh gives us one of those scenes that could be spun into some grand romantic narrative, Debussy’s father Manuel meeting the man who would led his son to the piano lessons that would shape him, but instead is given its truly human face:

“Manuel himself knew nothing much about music and had taken little trouble over his children’s education. Achille had not gone to school, and his only lessons had been with his mother, the daughter of a cook and coach-builder. Probably Manuel mentioned the music only because de Sivry had told him he was a musician himself. So it must have taken him by surprise when de Sivry announced that his own mother was an accomplished pianist, a pupil–she claimed–of Chopin himself, and insisted that little Achille be taken to see her and her advice sought. The suggestions can hardly have been prompted by any evidence Manuel was able to supply as to his son’s unusual talent, and may simply have been intended to give pleasure to a father at a low point in his life.”

These are the reason we read biography, to have moments such as this revealed to us and wonder ‘what if…’ What if Manuel hadn’t said anything? What if de Sivry had felt that casual surge of kindness to simply say something to make a momentary connection?

As Walsh continues we are drawn into how Debussy’s living influenced his compositions but more interestingly, we are presented with context allowing to understand why these compositions were so unique. There is less awe in Walsh’s prose than is common in biography but no less appreciation for his subject and its works. Readers with no substantive knowledge of musical theory or the language of classical music, those like myself with simply an ear, will find Walsh’s exegesis easy to follow and illuminating. 

Debussy: A Painter in Sound demonstrates how  the composer broke with the formulaic without ever giving himself over to mere experimentation for experimentation’s sake, as many so-called radicals do. Rather, we trace the events, interactions, influences, and thoughts leading Debussy to craft an individual style, one that became one of the templates artists of all genres draw on to this day.

About the Author

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STEPHEN WALSH is Emeritus Professor of Music at Cardiff University and author of a number of books on music including Musorgsky and His Circle and the prizewinning biography of Igor Stravinsky, selected as one of the ten Books of the Year by The Washington Post. He served for many years as deputy music critic for The Observerand writes reviews for many journals. He lives in Herefordshire, England.

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