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Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque

Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque
By Catherine Kautsky
Rowman and Littlefield
A review by R.C. Speck

Catherine Kautsky’s Debussy’s Paris treats the reader to the sights and sounds of Paris during the Belle Époque, as seen and heard through the timeless music of Claude Debussy. What an idea for a book! The author takes the reader on a cultural history tour of one of the most fascinating and rich periods of European history.

Starting in the 1870s and ending with World War I, the Belle Époque has been characterized by the optimism and excitement that accompanied this period of peace, scientific and technological innovation, and cultural dynamism. Indeed, Kautsky picked the right subject, given that Debussy lived during the entire Belle Époque and has been seen in the years since to epitomize the age.

After offering a brief, moving biography of Debussy, the author goes on to focus on different cultural elements which either affected Debussy or were affected by him. For example, one chapter takes us into the artistic underworld of circuses and describes how lowbrow meets highbrow in some of the most unexpected places. Debussy’s arrangement of Robert Schumann’s Carnival and his Children’s Corner Suite appear in this chapter.

In another chapter, Kautsky connects Debussy’s “Ondine” prelude (the character Ondine is a beautiful mermaid) with thematically similar works by Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin as well as with stories, poems, and operas from the period to show how the motif of the sea was part of the zeitgeist. Kautsky breaks the music from “Ondine” down on a technical level to show how this motif plays out. As one would expect, Kautsky discusses Debussy’s La Mer in this chapter as well.

Kautsky does not forget to include chapters on Edgar Allen Poe (whom Debussy and many others intensely admired), Debussy’s interest in Eastern music (a French fad at the time), the ‘cakewalk wars’ (you’ll have to read the book to learn about these), and the nationalism which would soon engulf Europe and effectively end the Belle Époque in 1914.

One big treat in Debussy’s Paris is the inclusion of sixty-nine sketches, paintings, cartoons, and photographs from the era. These do much to impart a visceral impression of Debussy’s world during the this period. Another nice touch is how Kautsky links Debussy with the other artists of the day. Indeed, Central Europe during this time might represent the high point of artistic accomplishment, and Kautsky gives us a glimpse of much of it. Included are other composers such as Maurice Ravel and Camille Saint-Saëns, poets such as Paul Verlaine, and painters such as Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso. Such lists do not do Catherine Kautsky justice, however, because in Debussy’s Paris she gives us a lot more.

This book review appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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