Debussy: A Painter in Sound took me months to read. Far longer than it should have, really. Why? As a high-school trombonist, I’ve played loads of loud, boomy orchestral pieces (think Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky) and softer, more delicate, lower-pitched pieces, mostly originally meant for cello (like Bach’s Cello Sonatas). Debussy is most emphatically not that kind of music.
He, like all musicians of his day (late 1800s – v early 1900s), was creating in reaction to 2 main things: Wagner – a bombastic style to be avoided – and Impressionism – a lightness to be embraced. His works are shorter, some only a few bars long, and are largely for instruments like flutes, violins, and pianos. Ergo, the first stumbling block for me was my unfamiliarity with his music.
Debussy is less a biography of the man and more a history of his music. Walsh talks about his rejection of the Conservatory and its standardized notions of what a musician should do, the spareness and lightness of his music, and how it evolves over time. He talks about the spareness of the sound, the arpeggios, the scales, and while I understood the words, I couldn’t hear the music.
Thank god for YouTube, where I could learn about things like octatonic scales, and Spotify, for its numerous recordings of Debussy’s music. Without them, I would have understood so much less. I listen to Debussy regularly now. His music is light and delicate and I’m not sure I would have ever taken the time to listen closely before.
I want, at some point, to learn to play some of his pieces on the piano (and take the years of piano lessons that would render that possible), to listen intensively to all of his music, to go to concerts when we can do that again, and to re-read Debussy with a much more knowledgeable ear and eye.
That’s all you can ask of a book sometimes: to make you want to go down the path it has laid out before you. this one does its job.