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François Lesure (1923-2001) was an exceedingly erudite French librarian and musicologist who wrote about the French Renaissance, Mozart, Haydn, Boccherini, Viotti, Cherubini, Falla, Varèse, Ravel, Stravinsky, Boulez and Berlioz. Yet posterity remembers him for his landmark publications on Debussy. He edited the composer’s letters and this biography was carefully developed over decades until a much-esteemed volume appeared in 2003 from Éditions Fayard. Since Lesure’s death, there have been further noteworthy books in English on the subject, from Paul Roberts’ Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (2003) to Stephen Walsh’s Debussy: A Painter in Sound (2018).

Piano lovers will have also noted a flood of new musicological research over the past decade or so. Does this plethora of material mean we now fully understand Debussy, or are we simply realising that some questions about the inscrutable musician may never be answered? It also raises the thorny issue of whether pianists genuinely devoted to the French repertoire should learn enough French to read essential books such as Lesure’s in the original.

At any rate, Marie Rolf of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, a Debussy specialist in her own right, was an ideal candidate for the task of translating and thoroughly annotating Lesure’s musings. Although, as she readily admits, she is not a professional translator, she knew Lesure and worked with him. She alludes to the book’s quasi-omniscient tone, as if murmured at a dinner table during a noisy soirée, with as many hints and suggestions as outright statements in the very epitome of Parisian subtlety.

An early chapter about Debussy’s childhood is ominously titled ‘Failure of a Pianist 1872-79’, almost suggesting that the reason we have Debussy’s piano compositions today is that he was insufficiently diligent as a conservatoires student. It is a matter of record that despite evident talent at the keyboard, Debussy failed at performance competitions in 1878 and 1879, which eliminated the possibility of continued piano studies. He was left with harmony, solfège and composition as alternate choices.

Despite the overarching theme of pianism in Lesure’s narrative, his book is not a compilation of insights about Debussy’s most celebrated keyboard works. So ‘Clair de lune’ is barely mentioned. ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’ likewise goes unanalysed, although the suite it belongs to, Children’s Corner, earns the description of an ‘anglomaniacal portrayal of a child’s universe’ – referring with a certain Gallic monolingual hauteur to the fact that Debussy chose English language titles for its works and movements.

Indeed, sometimes Gallocentrism may skew the portrait given here, as in a description of the premiere of Children’s Corner in 1908 by the English pianist Harold Bauer. Debussy remained outside the hall during the performance, relying on Bauer to inform him how it was received, but Lesure quotes another biographer who ‘apparently’ attended the concert, complaining that Bauer played ‘in a slightly Romantic way, with what some [French] people felt were unnecessary contrasts and affectations’. Knowing Bauer’s exemplary artistry on recordings, we might assume that a certain chauvinism or jealousy may have been operative among petty-minded Parisian piano fans. Nor is the American pianist George Copeland, an early friend and interpreter of Debussy, mentioned here in a performance context.

Instead, we have much mulling over the ongoing mysteries of Debussy, such as why he suddenly stopped giving evocative titles to his piano works, instead producing the generically named Préludes from 1909 to 1913. Equally enigmatic is why Debussy’s handwritten dedications of piano works, particularly those presented to women, contain elementary errors in French language, omitting accents or spelling the name of the dedicatee wrong. Did this imply that for the composer, inscribing the score of a piano work was an act of Dionysian disarray? Such a cause surely could not have caused the omission of a grave accent in a dedication written to Erik Satie.

This whimsical albeit fully informed study matches the confounding nature of Debussy himself. All pianists know the cakewalk ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’ from the Préludes. One wonders if the title contained personal echoes, as Lesure notes that in 1880, Debussy was graded by Auguste Bazille, his instructor in piano accompaniment, as ‘good at harmony, a bit eccentric, much initiative and spirit’.

In a letter from 1911, the novelist D H Lawrence exploded: ‘Damn Debussy, and his averted face.’ Lawrence was exasperated with Pelléas et Mélisande, but later generations have had to accept that as a piano composer, Debussy’s greatness is accompanied by secretive aspects that will surely abide.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing