Debussy on Music: Critical Writings collected and introduced by François Lesure

Translated and edited by Richard Langham Smith Secker & Warburg


It doesn't take a Socrates to work out that writing and thinking about music will be best performed by those who are best at writing and thinking; hence the pre­eminence of (say) Shaw and Schopenhauer, respectively. Yet composers have also made their voices heard, often at full volume; thus Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Cornelius and Wolf, as well as Debussy, have all left extensive prose writings. It's no accident that each one was a specialist in verbo-musical ideas, or that this hybrid evolved and flourished in the 19th century. It was then that music and words first became really intimate; and the letters and notes they exchanged still delight the Romantically-minded.  That category often includes the artist-critic, who tends to tell his own personal story. Eliciting a composer's opinions on music is like sounding out an Artesian well's views on hydraulics; the result is a spontaneous outpouring or the purely subjective element.

    Debussy is totally typical. As this book puts it, he places his immediate reactions at the centre of his writings. Further, his prose composition is very like his music; nuanced and laconic, yet direct and intense. And here, in 350 well-produced pages, including about 100 of notes and commentary, is the most complete collection of his writings and reported sayings about music ever published in any language. So all students or devotees of Debussy will thirst after these new sources, whether for detailed analysis or simple refreshment.

    But I fear that the waters have been so muddied as to be obscure or unpalatable. Not even the publishers can quite make out whether Mr Smith is an editor (title-page) or just a translator (end-papers). Copyright is claimed only in the latter function; and the catalogue description misleadingly im­plies that the work is in fact a straight translation of Monsieur Croche et autres écrits, 1971. But even a quick flick suggests that Mr Smith must be responsible for some of the notes; thus a French editor would hardly have garbled Vigny's best-known line, let alone ascribed it to Lamartine (p.162).

    Closer comparison confirms that the copious glosses, often if only surface appli­cation, are indeed mainly Mr Smith's, though some of the original notes have been adopted or adapted. The introduction offers an oblique pointer to these wayward pro­ceedings, which should surely have been far more carefully signposted. “For the English reader the book should fulfill [sic] a very different function from the French scholar's Urtext, and the text has been amplified with material that fills in the background…” But even the primary material has been chopped and changed about, both tastelessly and unfittingly. Taking a hint from the blurb, I checked the well-known 1901 review of a Mussorgsky song-cycle (Lesure 1971, p.29) as having special interest and relevance. I found that nearly a score of Debussy's words are just omitted, while over a score of Mr Smith's own words are included, together with some equally gratuitous punctuation. The style and significance of the original are correspondingly distorted.

    Further comparisons on other pages all yielded similar malpractices and misreadings. As the translator's Foreword incautiously observes, “those searching for a clear picture of the composer's artistic tastes will frequently be frustrated…” Instead of Debussy on Music, as announced, here comes Mr Smith on Debussy; and one wishes he would dismount. In my judgment he loses points heavily for repeated refusals to confront the obstacles of translation fairly and squarely; and no amount of hopeful cantering round the periphery, can compensate for those fatal faults.


© the new statesman, 1977