In the...outstanding Debussy, Walsh offers yet another kind of book about a composer, a work-life with just enough extramusical detail to claim being a biography ... Walsh discusses nearly every one of Debussy’s compositions and points out their innovations and their narratives, so to speak—and speak pertinently, for Debussy was as concerned with literature as any great musician ever has been.
Walsh... treats Debussy both as a creature of his own time and as a harbinger of 20th-century modernism ... While acknowledging the composer’s 'unsatisfactory treatment' of [the women in his life], Walsh is hard put to find reasons any of them are quite deserving of the great composer’s (or our) respect, often referring to them in cringeworthy descriptions ... Even worse, he analyzes the composer’s behavior by applying the old-school 'genius card' myth, to wit, that behind this bad treatment 'lay the instinctive feeling — which ordinary men usually manage to suppress — that emotional ties are a nuisance unless kept firmly in the drawer marked "when I need them."' Walsh’s study is focused on the music, less so on the historical and cultural setting. As an exposition of this unique and original music it does great service to the composer. Nonetheless, a casual classical music fan may find it daunting, as most of it is devoted to analyses of a lifetime of compositions.
This year has brought some appropriately thoughtful celebrations of Debussy’s life and work, notably Stephen Walsh’s Debussy: A Painter in Sound ... Walsh’s joy, and maybe his relief, at having such a manageable subject is palpable on every page of his book, which is written with an aptly Debussyan lightness and attention to detail. Perhaps most impressively, Walsh has managed the rare tightrope act of describing and analyzing widely beloved music in ways that will neither seem simplistic to connoisseurs nor confuse a general audience ... Walsh also makes the astute decision to focus on Debussy’s music, rather than on his social life, precisely to the degree that Debussy himself neglected personal obligations in favor of the inner world of his work ... It is hard to imagine a better guide than Walsh to the delights of Debussy’s sound world. Clearly he loves it, yet he’s refreshingly unsentimental about it. Many of Walsh’s main ideas have been expressed before, but rarely with such clarity.