Claude Debussy, by Paul Roberts

The key to an enigma: a revealing portrait of a composer who set the tone
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The Independent Culture

Debussy's life is well documented, but he remains an enigma. In his quest to unravel this, Paul Roberts has aimed to win new insights into the music of which, as a concert pianist, he's a distinguished interpreter. He has succeeded, distilling a lifetime's reading, listening and thinking to create an intimate portrait that takes us nearer to the heart of that music than any biography before.

"Charming child, true artist's temperament; will become a distinguished musician; great future." Noting these qualities in the awkward 12-year-old loner who became his pupil, Debussy's tutor Antoine Marmontel was prophetic. As expressed through what one critic described as his unforgettable voice – "strange, slightly veiled, articulated with a light staccato" – and a gaze described by another as "caressing and inclined to mockery, sad and full of languor, passionate and thoughtful", charm was Debussy's weapon. Though he was no virtuoso, his touch on the piano bewitched. To the composer Alfredo Casella, "he gave the impression of playing directly on the strings... the effect was a miracle of poetry".

Roberts adroitly chronicles the way Debussy took up with wives and lovers, and then discarded them in his uneasy social climb. If he found relative happiness with Emma Bardac and her children (to whom he became a devoted step-father), one senses that no sexual relationship touched his curiously aloof core. His passion for the Oriental prints and "objets" he collected – and which served as inspiration – was deeper and more constant. It's interesting to see a picture of "Arkel", the Japanese porcelain toad named after the king in his opera Pélleas et Mélisande, which he carried everywhere.

Roberts is excellent on the artistic connections that fed Debussy's genius: on the bookshop salon he frequented, the soirées chez Stéphane Mallarmé, and on the pilgrimages with his Symbolist friends to the church where Palestrina and plainchant were sung. Debussy's friendship with Satie, and the admiration (tinged with fear) he felt for Stravinsky's work, get revealing analysis, as does his labelling as an "Impressionist". He wanted to echo Whistler's dreamy paintings, and the exuberance of Hokusai's waves, but his real goal was a mystical suggestiveness.

With copious quotes from the composer's letters and articles, Roberts charts the unstoppable evolution of his subtly revolutionary art – designed, as he observed, for just five friends, but defining the course of Western music.