Music cannot be learned (Claude Debussy)
film by Georges Gachot, produced by
Metropolitan Munich, 2000 [57.59]
Children’s Corner played by Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
This documentary includes 3 language versions (English, German, French)
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9
Sound formats DVD: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0
Languages: English, French, German
Booklet notes: English, French, German
EUROARTS 2066718 DVD [74.00]
From time immemorial - certainly since the days
of Plutarch and Suetonius - biographies have been basically divisible
into two types. There is the hagiography, treating its subject as a
quasi-saint whose every instinct is impeccably right and who can do
no wrong; and there is the hatchet job, putting the worst possible construction
on every aspect of the subject’s actions and thoughts. Studies
which ostensibly take a more balanced view are nevertheless frequently
watered-down versions of one sort or the other. Documentaries on the
lives of composers inevitably fall into the same two categories. Some
authors have vehemently doubted whether the study of the life of an
artist of any description actually sheds any light at all on their works.
Tolkien was notoriously one such, and the multitude of studies and biographies
which have followed on his death simply go to show how misguided he
This documentary by Georges Gachot on the life of Debussy basically
falls into the class of the hagiography, typified by the inclusion of
Ravel’s remark that Prélude à l’après-midi
d’un faune was the “only perfect piece in all music”.
It takes its title from a saying of Debussy, which can be taken either
as a truism - music is a natural instinct rather than an acquired one
- or as palpable nonsense for if it is taken literally, what is the
point of ‘studying’ music at all? A documentary which took
this assertion as its starting point might have been a very interesting
- and possibly profitable - examination of the nature of musical inspiration
itself. Here we are simply asked to accept the contentious statement
as fact, as an element in a brief overview of Debussy’s life.
Over half of the documentary itself is spent looking at Debussy’s
origins and early career - before the success of Pelléas et
Mélisande - and no more than the last six minutes looking
at his final years after La mer where his music began to explore
the more remote territories of tonality. We are told nothing whatsoever
about Jeux, or the late chamber works, or Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien.
It is described as a ‘film’ but much of the visual element
comprises still photographs, with occasional inserts of period films.
The presence of the completed Sacré-Coeur in the shots of Montmartre
confirm that these probably postdate Debussy’s death. Add to this
some modern videoscapes of Paris which say nothing about Debussy at
all. Thankfully, there are no interpolated shots of actors pretending
to be Debussy or any of his contemporaries, so it is not a ‘biopic’
type of film. It is simply a brief overview of Debussy’s career
illustrated with excerpts from some of his earlier scores. Most of the
dialogue is provided by reminiscences of Debussy by his friends and
colleagues, with some sections drawn from the composer’s own letters.
Unfortunately we are only occasionally told whose words we are listening
to, until the final credits reveal this information; it would have been
more interesting and illuminating if screen credits had been given at
the time the quotations started - as we are told when listening
to the opinions of Satie and Stravinsky, for example. The documentary
was originally shot with German commentary, but the French and English
versions substitute narrations by different actors which sound fine
since at no stage are any of the speakers shown on screen. The exception
is Manuel Rosenthal, whose French words are given with subtitles.
The musical excerpts are fine, given by the likes of Eugene Ormandy,
Sergiu Celibidache (a stunningly slow and beautiful Prélude
à l’après-midi d’un faune), Sviatoslav
Richter (surprisingly reading from a score), Zoltán Kocsis and
excerpts from Peter Stein’s Welsh National Opera production of
Pelléas (uncredited until the end, and with no details
given of the singers involved). There’s also a piano roll made
by Debussy himself. No subtitles are provided for the Pelléas
excerpts, which renders them effectively meaningless. Interestingly,
we are given the text of part of the Mallarmé poem which inspired
the Prélude. As a bonus to the documentary we have a complete
performance of Children’s Corner by Zoltán Kocsis.
This is not the Philips award-winning recording but what appears to
be a television transmission - and very good it is too.
The booklet notes by Janina Rinck make some big claims for what is puzzlingly
described as “this first documentary film about Debussy”
- surely not? These state that the film “devotes itself to [the]
question of Debussy’s identity.” Sadly, it hardly begins
to scratch the surface of that issue. At first one suspects the translation,
but the original French seems to make the same claims. As an introduction
to the music of Debussy for those unfamiliar with the composer’s
life and work, it would be a valuable asset. As an exploration of Debussy’s
whole ethos it leaves too much ground unexplored. During the
documentary Stravinsky quotes Debussy’s words to him about The
Firebird: “One has to begin somewhere”. This film is
similarly a beginning, not an end.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A brief overview of Debussy’s career illustrated with excerpts
from some of his earlier scores.