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by Eric Frederick Jensen
Published: August 2014
Oxford University Press
Master Musicians series
ISBN: 978-0-19-973005-6

I’ve always considered the approach and configuration of the Master Musicians series pragmatic and functional. This newly-published volume is no exception, similarly adhering to the well-established format of its predecessors. I was brought up with Edward Lockspeiser’s Debussy, a useful resource in my early musical studies. It’s difficult to realize that this biography, familiar to many, is now nearly eighty years old, having been published in 1936. Jensen’s recent publication is long overdue.
With a doctorate in musicology from the Eastman School of Music, the author has several musical publications to his name, including a biography of Schumann in the same series. The advantage of this latest volume is that Jensen has had access to new research and draws on recent scholarship, correcting inaccuracies and misconceptions. The result is an up-to-date biographical account of the composer and a reassessment and cataloguing of the Debussy oeuvre, with the inclusion of previously obscure compositions unearthed in the process.
Set against the backdrop of the cultural milieu of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jensen paints a portrait of a composer who was a loose cannon, with a strong sense of independence right from the start. His rebellious nature manifested itself even as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, where his nonconformity drove him to explore different avenues, breaking away from tradition. He favoured dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon by the establishment, much to the exasperation of his teachers, leading one professor to declare his music ‘bizarre’. As a student he could also be lackadaisical and undisciplined. Debussy’s war against convention, his spirit of innovation and the desire to go his own way are a constant theme running through the book. These factors were common to both impressionism and symbolism and helped shape his music. He thus became one of the most significant composers of the period, influencing subsequent generations.
In order to keep pace with his extravagant lifestyle he was later forced to take up criticism and conducting his own music. This paid well when composing alone could not meet his financial needs. He made his conducting debut with La Mer in 1908. It was a task he did not enjoy, with nerves and lack of confidence adversely affecting him. Anecdotes abound and Jensen gives us the Italian conductor Vittorio Gui’s assessment of his conducting skills: ‘His beat was uncertain, his head was always buried in the scores … .woodenly, mechanically, without fire ... no poetic feeling’, and this was Debussy in his own music. His ineptitude even led him to turn over the pages of the score with the hand that held the baton.
Debussy’s turbulent private life is another thread running through the biography with a series of failed relationships. His philandering eventually alienated him from friends. In 1899 he married Rosalie Texier, but she didn’t meet his expectations intellectually or musically. Another affair with Emma Bardac, who bore him a daughter, resulted in a second marriage in 1908. By 1915, he had succumbed to cancer and his final days were numbered. He died 25 March 1918, aged only 55.
Jensen provides chronologically detailed analyses of Debussy’s compositions, beginning with the early student works. Discussing the music in the context of form, harmony and structure, he sheds many insights and provides many musical illustrations. These discussions are aimed at a general readership, music students and scholars.
A useful chapter outlines the composer’s fascination with and discerning tastes in the arts. These were an inspiration to him. He took a great interest in the designs of the covers of his music publications yet he tended to befriend writers rather than visual artists. Jensen's discussions address the impact Impressionism and Symbolism had on Debussy’s music. He also devotes a chapter to the composer as critic, a poorly paid job he did reluctantly to boost his income. He left it until he was forty before taking up the reins of this role, which took up valuable time that could have been spent in composition. An alter ego emerged in the form of a certain Monsieur Croche, a shock-absorber almost for possible retaliation against his more contentious pronouncements.
Three useful appendices are included. A calendar, which I have always found very helpful in this series, charts the composer’s life parallel to those of contemporary musicians and events. This is followed by a list of the composer's works, including dates of composition and publication. Finally, a personalia provides a time-saving factual resource giving details about people of significance. Jensen ends with a comprehensive bibliography for those wishing to explore further.
This long-awaited biography is a handsome and stimulating publication, including a fascinating stock of black and white photographs, chronologically sequenced and grouped together in the centre of the book. Particularly favourable is the inclusion of page-by-page footnotes as opposed to annotations consigned to the end pages. This is a convenient arrangement, relieving the reader of the burden of constantly having to turn to the back of the book. The later sections, analysing the composer’s works includes musical examples, mostly in full score. These chapters presuppose some musical knowledge and familiarity with terminology.
Jensen speaks with knowledge and authority and adopts a fluent and eminently readable writing style. This is certainly the finest and most comprehensive Debussy biography I have read to date. It merits enthusiastic endorsement and ranks as a highly desirable acquisition.
Stephen Greenbank

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