Debussy’s Radical Search for Simplicity

A biography published 100 years after the composer’s death reveals the worldly trials of an artist known for his airy fantasies.

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In 1889, Achille-Claude Debussy, then in his mid-20s, was one of 30 million people to walk through the iron arches of the newly completed Eiffel Tower. Throughout that year, the arches served as the grand entryway to the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair celebrating the cultural, technological, and colonial prowess of France a century after the revolution. A stunning variety of sights greeted visitors: a sharpshooting Annie Oakley, some 16,000 ultramodern machines (housed in the largest indoor space ever constructed), and, of course, the Eiffel Tower itself, the world’s tallest and possibly most bizarre building at the time. But Debussy seems to have been most impressed by something he heard—the work of musicians from what was then French Indochina and is now Vietnam. More than 20 years later, he raved about the opera they performed, in which “a furious little clarinet directs the emotion, a gong organizes the terror … and that’s all! … Nothing but an instinctive need for art, needing ingenuity to satisfy; no hint of bad taste!”

As Stephen Walsh shows in Debussy: A Painter in Sound—published in 2018, 100 years after the composer’s death—Debussy craved this simplicity and directness, but he had trouble finding it in his own musical milieu. He admired older French music—its “clarity of expression, that precision and compactness of form”—but felt it had been corrupted by German influences. French color, lightness, and concision were at odds with the drama, severity, and burdensome forms of Bach, Beethoven, and, most recently, Richard Wagner.

This imperfect union was foisted on generations of musicians in France’s conservatories, the most prestigious of which Debussy attended at the ripe age of 10. Blessed with an extraordinary ear, he had an intuitive grasp of sound that outpaced his assimilation of theory. The result was a young student who bewildered his instructors. While evaluating a composition exercise, one commented: “Obviously, all this is hardly orthodox, but it’s very ingenious.” Another, though impressed with Debussy’s “initiative and verve,” dismissed him as “a bit of a fantasist.” School assessors, less equivocal, accused Debussy of being “preoccupied solely with creating the strange, the bizarre, the incomprehensible, the unperformable.”

For Debussy, these were the first of many critics. The respect of the Parisian establishment was long in coming—an appreciation deferred by his musical heterodoxy, as well as a series of romantic indiscretions. (His tendency to mock mainstream artists didn’t help, either.) Only decades after his death was he lauded as the pioneering genius he’s considered today. Walsh—who previously authored a biography of Debussy’s younger contemporary, Igor Stravinsky—explores that genius with erudition and style. Tracing the evolution of Debussy’s methods and imagination, he also probes the toll the composer’s labors took on himself and those around him. The fantasist experienced his share of worldly trials.

“It seems to me that music can make itself more human, more lived, that one can excavate and refine the means of expression”: As a recent conservatory graduate in his early 20s, Debussy voiced this hope before quite knowing how to realize it. But he was convinced from very early on that the musical grammar he learned in school—its thematic structures and harmonic rules—stood in the way. So he set out to create his own grammar: a new system of musical language that preserved the stabilizing virtues of classical theory while escaping its aesthetic limitations.

Walsh’s subtitle, “a painter in sound,” points to Debussy’s primary concern: to elicit an image in the mind of listeners. TakeReflets Dans L’eau” (“Reflections in the Water”), a piano piece from a collection aptly titled Images. In Debussy’s words, it opens as “a little circle in water, with a little pebble falling into it.” He conjures the resulting concentric waves with a series of D-flat major chords that build harmoniously on one another. First they ascend to the upper register of the piano, as the waves ripple outward. Then they return to a resonant D flat, just in time for a second pebble to fall. As the piece progresses, the waves and their reflected light grow in breadth and complexity, becoming more dissonant and more radiant, too, through the use of intricate flourishes. The pebbles, I think, turn to stones. The water shimmers, unwieldy and brilliant, before settling finally into a new stillness.

Throughout, the image dictates the form. The same is true ofLa Soirée Dans Grenade” (“Evening in Granada”), another composition for piano, which evokes the nocturnal bustle of an Andalusian street. Opening in the rhythm of a slow habanera dance, the piece changes suddenly into a haunting melody reminiscent of a traditional Moorish song. Next comes the work’s capering theme, which, like a passerby in the street, recedes as quickly as it arrives, only to reappear with greater energy. Woven throughout are bright, guitar-like arpeggios and various other rhythmic motifs, bells or dancers perhaps. The result is captivating and unpredictable, but never disjointed or confused (the disparate elements of the piece subtly echo one another; the habanera rhythm attenuates without disappearing). By imbuing his music with a sense of improvisation, Debussy disguises the technical skill its composition demanded. He simulates simplicity, the same feat that awed him in the Vietnamese opera. When composing his own opera, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story), he wrote: “How much has first to be found, then suppressed, in order to arrive at the naked flesh of emotion.”

That opera, like much of Debussy’s work, was never completed. By his own admission, he suffered from “a sickness of delay … and this curious need never to finish.” It was as though the emotional expression he sought resisted closure, with the ironic effect that daily life closed in. Rarely meeting deadlines, he was chronically in debt. According to one observer, small chocolate bars sufficed for lunch during a period when he “couldn’t afford to eat or clothe himself.” Close to the end of his life, when his reputation had spread across the continent, he wrote music in exchange for coal to heat his house one winter. When he died at 55, he owed 66,000 francs to an angelically patient publisher, who seems to have forgiven the debt entirely.

Debussy’s emotional and moral trials cast a shadow, too—better suited to Wagner’s dark romanticism than to his own airy oeuvre. After abandoning his first wife to have an affair, he wrote to her: “Do you see! my poor darling, an artist is, all in all, a detestable, inward-facing man and perhaps also a deplorable husband? Besides, if you turn it round, a perfect husband will often make a pitiful artist.” She attempted suicide by shooting herself in the stomach. He wrote to a friend: “In the end I’ve suffered a great deal in my morale. Was I having to pay some forgotten debt to life?” he asked. “I don’t know, but I’ve often had to smile so that nobody suspected I was about to weep.”

Debussy’s final years were plagued by rectal cancer, the debilitating effects of which often prevented him from composing. Expensive and humiliating medical treatments compounded his debts. All the while, World War I raged, driving him to temporarily flee his home when the French government abandoned Paris. He contemplated suicide, resisted, and died from the cancer before the armistice.

At the time of his death, Debussy’s legacy was uncertain. His later music suggested a retrenchment of sorts, as he embraced some of the traditional forms that he’d earlier rebelled against. (He even wrote a piece for his alma mater to use at the exams he’d found so dogmatic as a student.) Meanwhile, successors such as Stravinsky (whom Debussy appreciated) and Arnold Schoenberg (whom he didn’t) moved still further from the old grammar by making increasing use of atonality. Though Debussy’s late works resisted this trend, Walsh contends that some, particularly the two-piano suiteEn Blanc et Noir (“Black and White”), rival the composer’s best and inaugurated what could have been a fruitful period had it not been cut short.

Indifferent to convention, Debussy wrote neither to please critics nor to confound them. His style, which Walsh characterizes as “without ideology and without doctrine,” belongs to no particular tradition. His images do not contain hidden truths, but are, in his own word, “naked.” His music enchants like the sea or the light of the moon.

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