- Debussy's Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque by Catherine Kautsky
The piano was Claude Debussy's instrument, and we know from numerous contemporary sources that he was an outstanding pianist, even though he seldom performed in public. Beginning in the mid-1890s, and especially with the composition of the three orchestral nocturnes, Debussy, like Robert Schumann sixty years earlier, began to give descriptive or extramusically suggestive titles to his works, eventually to the point that titles became "impressionist" in the manner of the works of French painters—and this as much as any other factor influenced his being identified as an "impressionist composer." Characteristic titles appear in La mer and in his piano music, beginning with the Estampes and two series of Images and becoming exaggerated in the two books of preludes.
Catherine Kautsky, a pianist who teaches at Lawrence College, spent a year in Paris doing on-the-scene research for this new book, which examines the artistic and intellectual environment within which Debussy's extensive output of piano music came to birth—"to view [Debussy] through the lens of his piano music and the city he so fully embraced" (p. xvii). Previously, other authors made comparable efforts, notably Edward Lockspeiser (Debussy: His Life and Mind [2 vols. (London: Cassell, 1962–65)]), who explores especially Debussy's aesthetic against the background of literature. Kautsky is more concerned with the visual arts and popular theater. Her text is amplified by more than fifty reproductions [End Page 96] of paintings, feuilletons, posters, and book illustrations. All of these make a strong case for the sources of Debussy's inspiration in the exotic, popular culture, and entertainment: vaudevilles, the cabaret, circuses, acrobats, children's books, commedia dell'arte, and icons of classical antiquity. Relatively little in the book deals with specific analyses of music; there are eighteen music examples pointing to musical influences and details of style, less often to structure.
Merely listing some of Debussy's titles shows how some subjects became recurring themes in his work: "Clair de lune" (a single movement from the Suite bergamasque as well as two different vocal settings of a Verlaine text); "La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune" (Preludes, bk. 2, no. 7); "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut" (Images, 2nd ser., no. 2). Another recurring theme is the African Negro as an element of popular theater, such as in imported American minstrel shows ("Minstrels" [Preludes, bk. 1, no. 12]) and in toys ("Golliwogg's Cake-Walk," from Children's Corner; La boîte à joujoux, a children's ballet incorporating an earlier short piece, "Le petit nègre")—realizations that today would be considered socially insensitive but which Debussy always treated with wit and affection. Kautsky examines this subject in chapter 4, "The Cakewalk Wars," using illustrations from posters and offering an analysis of the cakewalk as a popular style of dance.
"Fair-haired Maidens" forms the topic of chapter 11, with "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (Preludes, bk. 1, no. 8) at the forefront, but there are also the various treatments of Pierre Louÿs's Chansons de Bilitis, as well as the moment that everyone remembers in act 3, scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande, when Mélisande's "longs cheveux" (long hair) tumbles out of her tower window, inspiring Pelléas to tousle her tresses into the adjacent willow branches. The book includes a rarely reproduced frontispiece by Maurice Denis from the original edition of Debussy's La damoiselle élue (Paris: Librairie de l'art indépendant, 1893). Kautsky sees a parallel with an earlier painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (1879), and Aubrey Beardsley's Salomé (1893), a symbolist foreshadowing of art nouveau; perhaps her pursuit of this relationship is exaggerated, but Debussy's Prélude à l'aprèsmidi d'un faune, a quintessential art nouveau actualization in music, comes from just that time, in...