The Austin Chronicle

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

What does it mean to be a classical radical?

Reviewed by Graham Reynolds, December 21, 2018, Music

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), one of the most influential composers in the Western canon, lived his life as the gentle radical. Musical radicalism brings to mind aggressive, almost violent music, whether that be the Clash or Beethoven. "Cutting edge" describes insurgent art and ideas viscerally, and while Debussy remains revolutionary, his edges are round and delicate, quiet and beautiful. Consider him and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as the impressionists of music composition. Stephen Walsh's engaging and thorough book isn't a David McCullough-style biography, where the characters and story sweep the narrative along. Instead, Debussy: A Painter in Sound offers a chronological analysis of its subject's output with historical and biographical context. Walsh proves less interested in the details of an affair the young composer had and more invested in the impact it had on his evolving musical style. On the spectrum from general reader to specialist, this book leans to the specialist direction but remains accessible to motivated general readers. A passion for Debussy, or at least for classical music, counts as a requirement either way. In the age of streaming services, a reader can listen instantly to any musical reference made, and this aids immensely in understanding the meaning of the text. Given that, Walsh's biography will become a valuable companion to deep listening.

Debussy: A Painter in Sound

by Stephen Walsh
Knopf, 336 pp., $28.95

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