He was a notoriously stubborn man, a perfectionist indifferent to deadlines. “I write solely for myself, and other people’s impatience doesn’t concern me,” Debussy responded when queried about delivering on time. As a youth he was unwilling to yield to the rigid orthodoxies of French musical education. His teachers scolded him for his willful bucking of the rules while still acknowledging his keen ear and his exceptional sensitivity to sound and musical gesture. A classmate described him seated at the piano when class was over “producing monstrous successions of weird, barbarous chords — that is to say, chords that were not classified in the official treatises of the Conservatoire.”
These provocations turned out to be much more than mere student hubris. Rather, they were the genesis of his greatest contribution to classical music: the liberation of harmony from the straitjacket of tonic-dominant attraction. Conventional tonal music, whether it’s a Bach fugue or a Beatles song, is bound together by the magnetic attraction of chords, which, reduced to their essence, function as question-and-answer, the “grammar” of music, as it were. If we think of the first two phrases of the song “Happy Birthday,” we experience the first as the “question,” and the second as the “answer.” Almost every familiar musical motto obeys that polarity. What Debussy did was to pull apart the epoxy-strength attachment those chords share and allow them to float, not entirely free from each other, but in a more polyvalent, even ambiguous relation to each other. The result, especially when combined with his use of whole-tone scales, produced a music that felt exceptionally free of the angst and highly charged emotionalism of most of the Romantic repertoire. No surprise, then, that so many of his signature pieces embody or evoke nature, and that, as with many of the Impressionist paintings by his contemporaries, there are often no humans in the frame. A Debussy title is more often than not an image of a natural event: a warm sirocco moving across a plain; a seascape at dawn or at noon; dead leaves rustling in the breeze; early morning mists; moonlight reflecting off the surface of an old ruin.
Walsh’s subtitle, “A Painter in Sound,” amplifies those features that Debussy’s aesthetic shared with seminal 19th-century painters, not only his French countrymen, but also the American James McNeill Whistler and the Englishman J. M. W. Turner, who may have had the most in common with his painterly approach to composing. “Lit from behind,” Debussy’s description of what struck him about the scoring of “Parsifal,” is an apt way to understand his delicately luminous treatment of the orchestra in works like “La Mer,” “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” “Trois Nocturnes” and especially his enigmatic late ballet “Jeux,” a work written in 1913 that languished in obscurity until it was championed a half-century later by Pierre Boulez, who found in it an entirely new invention of “irreversible” musical form.
The young Debussy’s penchant for unorthodox harmonies was given an unexpected shock stimulant when he encountered a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. He described his delight with this strange and wonderful music as containing “every nuance, even those one can no longer name, in which tonic and dominant were no longer anything but empty ghosts for use on naughty little children.” He responded to these exotic sounds in evocative piano pieces like “Pagodes,” which imitate the sonorous and stately movement of that music from a faraway culture he could only imagine in his mind’s eye.
Debussy revitalized and radicalized almost every musical form he wrote in. He composed songs to texts by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and other French poets throughout his life. His one full-length opera, the epochal “Pelléas et Mélisande,” that moody chiaroscuro drama of spiritual impotence, made him, at the age of 40, suddenly famous. His catalog of orchestra works is small but canonic. “La Mer” and “Faune” in particular enjoy a popularity that has never diminished. But the true revelation of his imaginative range rests with his piano music. Here, in piece after piece, most no longer than a few minutes, his pictorial and sensorial powers were truly liberated. “It seems that in contact with the piano Debussy could write freely, exploring the implications of his unique idiom in a completely uninhibited way,” Walsh writes. Two books of “Préludes,” each with a cryptic title affixed to the final bar, range from slow, graceful dances to sultry nocturnal serenades to images of footsteps in snow, gardens in the rain, and to the evocation of a mythic underwater cathedral. These alternate with witty, puckish character sketches and the occasional virtuoso breakout piece that explodes like dazzling fireworks in the night sky.
It is said of Debussy that he “orchestrated with the pedal down.” In other words, he made the orchestra resonate with the same sense of depth and glow that one obtains by playing with the sustain pedal engaged, allowing the tones to decay naturally rather than arbitrarily cutting them off. Hence his sound world echoes and shimmers and vibrates, expanding outward like the rippling waves of a pool when a pebble has been dropped into it, an image that he sought to depict in another piano piece, “Reflets dans l’eau.”