When an artist like Debussy writes about his colleages, one must expect a specialized point of view; his attitudes are likely to be those of the producer rather than the consumer, and his basic concern will center on the status and development of the art rather than on what you are likely to enjoy in an evening of casual listening. This angle of approach has its own value (we are, after all, in the presence of a master), but for the average concert-goer that value emerges only when the remarks are seen in context.
Thus, when Debussy dismisses the Brahms Violin Concerto with a single word ("boredom") and waxes ecstatic, two paragraphs later, about Rimsky-Korsakov's splashy symphonic poem, Antar, he is not setting down a considered judgment for the ages but making a tactical gesture; he is indicating what should have excited French composers (and the audiences which nourished French composers) in the spring of 1903. And I might add that he was tactically quite correct: Brahms, in that year, might have been all right to enjoy but he was deadly to imitate, and Rimsky knew a thing or two about orchestration and the lossening of form from which young composers could learn.
Despite this tactical orientation, and despite the passage of six or seven decades, it is remarkable how many of Debussy's observations (mostly short reviews for magazines or - when he began to be well-known - interviews for the daily press) are still rewarding for the ordinary music-lover to read. Within his area of interest (a broad one, ranging from Jannequin to Mussorgosky and even the brash, young Stravinsky), his taste is sure. If he overestimates the Piano Sonata of Dukas, for example, that is the sort of problem no critic wholly escapes, and he suffers such lapses very seldom.
Today, he is best-known for his epigrams, quick and usually caustic ("Mendelssohn, that elegant and facile notary"), but he was also capable of pure, lyric enthusiasm: "[A Bach concerto movement] haunts us long after it is ended, so that coming out into the street one cannot but be astonished that the sky is not more blue . . ." In either vein, he strikes a readable tone for the browsers of his time while providing meat for serious readers today and tomorrow.
This is the first fully adequate collection of his music criticism, with critical commentaries, notes, and a glossary of less-known figures that significantly enhance its usefulness . (Knopf, $15).