Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography

New from the University of Rochester Press is the long-awaited first English translation and revised edition of François Lesure’s acclaimed biography of Claude Debussy, originally published by Fayard in 2003. Our thanks to translator and Debussy authority Marie Rolf for taking the time to provide a few words of introduction about this seminal work.

Claude Debussy

A great composer deserves a great biography. Debussy got his due in 2003, but the English-speaking world hardly knew about it. Written by François Lesure, Claude Debussy: Biographie critique instantly became the most comprehensive and reliable study of this astounding composer’s life and creative career. Yet it received few reviews outside of the French-speaking world, and so has been familiar mainly to specialist scholars.

Several years ago, Lesure’s widow Anik Devriès (herself an important musicologist) gave me permission to translate her late husband’s book and to revise and update it. This project proved to be immensely gratifying, despite numerous challenges.

I offer below a few paragraphs (slightly adapted) from my Introduction to the book, giving a sense of its formidable scope and of Lesure’s unique skill set for his chosen task. Now music lovers worldwide can profit from new discoveries and insights into the life and work of one of France’s greatest composers—and relish Lesure’s sly wit, and distinctively French perspective, along the way.

Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography is Lesure’s magnum opus. As director of the département de la Musique at the Bibliothèque nationale de France for nearly twenty years, he was in a unique position to study primary materials that were often unavailable to other scholars. Situated at the hub of Debussy research, he fostered and absorbed the pathbreaking work of many other experts in the field. His critical biography of Debussy thus consolidates sources and scholarship that advance our knowledge and understanding of the composer and his works far beyond any other biography to date. At last, the present English translation makes this seminal work accessible to the wide audience it deserves.

Lesure himself acknowledges his debt to earlier biographers of Debussy, including Léon Vallas, Marcel Dietschy, and Edward Lockspeiser. Nonetheless, his access to primary source materials—items such as the journals of Madame Hébert and Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, and especially letters, such as those to and from Debussy’s first wife Lilly as well as to his early publisher Georges Hartmann—that were unknown by these biographers enabled Lesure to explode a number of long-held beliefs and myths about the composer. The reader can almost imagine the author methodically working through Debussy’s life experiences, day by day, following the composer’s copious correspondence. Unlike previous biographers, who tiptoed over some of the more unsavory aspects of Debussy’s life, Lesure objectively chronicles his professional and personal activities in addition to his opinions of other composers and performers. Lesure’s account, like that of Vallas, documents the critical reception of Debussy’s works, and, more than most biographies, fleshes out the cultural context in which the composer developed.

François Lesure’s legacy of Debussy scholarship is breathtaking in its scope and impact. His lifelong passion for Debussy’s music and creative development manifested itself in numerous activities and publications, including his painstaking assemblage of thousands of letters written by and to the composer; his founding and oversight of the Œuvres complètes de Claude Debussy, a complete and critical edition of his works; his publications of a catalog of Debussy’s compositions and a collection of the composer’s music criticism; his organization of exhibitions devoted to Debussy; and his launch of the Cahiers Debussy, a journal devoted to Debussy scholarship.

The present revised edition builds on the remarkable foundation established by Lesure. It includes new or updated information regarding, for example, the circumstances surrounding the composition of Debussy’s Marche écossaise and Suite bergamasque, the completion of L’isle joyeuse, and his relationship with Alice Peter. It provides chronological details of the dissolution of his marriage to Lilly and his conflict with Maeterlinck over Pelléas, and newly discovered annotated sources for the text of Crimen amoris. Nearly 2,000 new endnotes furnish or complete bibliographic details and often provide crucial contextual information for readers beyond the French-speaking world, resulting in a book that is more than a third larger than Lesure’s original French text. And yet, the book—despite its length and richness of detail—never feels a word too long.

This guest post was written by Marie Rolf, the translator of Claude Debussy. Marie Rolf is senior associate dean of graduate studies and professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music and a member of the editorial board for the Ouvres complètes de Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography
by François Lesure; Translated by Marie Rolf
Hardback / 9781580469036 / £30 or $37.46

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