Rethinking Debussy

By Bloom, Allison K. M. | Notes, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Debussy


Bloom, Allison K. M., Notes


COMPOSERS

Rethinking Debussy. Edited by Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. [xvii, 277 p. ISBN 9780199755639 (hardcover), $99; ISBN 9780199755646 (paperback), $45.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Rethinking Debussy, an essay collection born of the 2006 Claude Debussy Inter - national Congress held at the University of Texas at Austin, was published in 2011, just before the 150th anniversary of Debussy's birth this year. Editors Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon write that its aim is to fill lacunae in Debussy studies, inspire new research, and offer "new perspectives with which to consider and reconsider Debussy's music" (p. xiii). It acts as an overview of current Debussy research by leading scholars, and as such, demonstrates varied approaches to music analysis and interpretation, biography, and reception history. Organized chronologically and grouped into four broad topics, the ten essays span Debussy's career from the influences of "Early Encounters" (the title of the first section) to posthumous reception in the Tombeau de Claude Debussy, with an entire section dedicated to Pelléas et Mélisande.

Though the essays are diverse, unifying themes thread through the book, highlighting some of the most important questions in French fin-de-siècle studies today. These themes include how composers differentiated French music from that of Germans and Austrians to claim a particularly French musical history as their own; how symbolism influenced Debussy's musical trajectory, notably in the concept of "fate" or "destiny" that permeates Pelléas et Mélisande ; and how the composer's attitudes toward his art and legacy changed over time. Other essays revisit traditional themes: Debussy's creative process; sources of inspiration (the poetry of his early Prix de Rome compositions, Russian music, classical antiquity and the classicism of the eighteenth century), and biographical details (debt and ill health).

The first section of Rethinking Debussy concerns the composer's early musical development, and covers influences less frequently cited than Tristan und Isolde and the Javanese gamelan. In her essay "Debussy's Rites of Spring," Marie Rolf traces musical concepts that Debussy first developed as a student in competition for the Prix de Rome. Three assigned texts for the competition related to "printemps," a subject which prompted Debussy to develop new musical techniques for expressing spring's delicacy. Rolf argues that he first used cyclic composition and motivic transformation in these student pieces, and that the 1887 orchestral Printemps should thus be considered a landmark in his compositional development. Roy Howat's "Russian Imprints in Debussy's Piano Music" shows how Debussy's musical imagination was enhanced by his experiences with Russian music. Russian musical gestures signaled both an "exotic" Russian East and an affinity between Russia and France that distinguished their music from that of Germanic composers. Howat listens in particular for one such "Russian" gesture, the nega, which uses a static bass accompanied by chromatic motion in the inner voices and traces its appearances in Debussy's music from the 1880s onward.

The second section of the book is its longest, with four essays on Pelléas et Mélisande that call into question the opera's performance history and its ultimate meaning. Jann Pasler's essay "Mélisande's Charm and the Truth of Her Music" connects the opera with French musical history, arguing that "charm" can be understood as a traditionally French aesthetic quality, opposed to the virility of supposedly "Germanic" values. Mélisande's clear voice allows her to embody charm and evoke desire in others, but she also represents truth and transcendence. Pasler regards Mélisande as a double figure, connecting Debussy to both past and future, since her transcendence could serve as "a conduit to a new kind of music" (p. …

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