Images of Spain

By Collins, Chris | Musical Times, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Images of Spain


Collins, Chris, Musical Times


Images of Spain Debussy's 'Iberia' Matthew Brown Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure Oxford University Press (Oxford & New York, 2003); xvi, 177pp; £50. ISBN 0 19 816199 9.

FALLA ONCE SAID that whenever he looked at Wagner's music, he tried to forget about the man who composed it. How times have changed: we Ve grown so accustomed to thinking of works as autonomous phenomena that sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the human creativity that brought them into existence. This is what makes Matthew Brown's welcome survey of Debussy's Iberia particularly refreshing, for it is his stated aim to show how sketch studies, allied with musical analysis, can reveal something of the composer's thought processes as he set about his task. Hence the convoluted methodology, with terms borrowed from the discipline of cognitive psychology, which fills the first ten pages of his book: ten pages in which Debussy's name, let me warn you, is mentioned only once.

With the Introduction out of the way, however, it becomes clear that Brown's musicological practices are actually fairly traditional. And this is one of the beauties of this book: anyone turned off by the psychological terminology can skip the tricky bits without forgoing a word of Brown's commentary on Iberia.

And what of that commentary? Well, it improves as the book progresses and at its best is very good indeed. A description of the manuscript evidence and brief discussions of genesis, compositional chronology and programmatic context (on which more later) lead to fine structural analyses of each of the three movements in their final, published forms. Brown then proceeds to his tour de force: a thoroughly convincing attempt to establish, through detailed study of the manuscripts and of precedents in Debussy's earlier works, the precise sequence of thought processes that resulted in the musical structures already described. Particularly striking is Brown's cogent use of Schenkerian theory to account for aspects of Debussy's compositional method. he demonstrates, for example, that the cyclic allusions which disrupt the thematic and tonal flow towards the end of 'Les parfums de la nuit' were in fact added as an afterthought. And his observations about Debussy's use of auxiliary cadence patterns and tonal modelling are equally revelatory. Indeed, Brown's arguments are so persuasive that it's easy to forgive him for forgetting to point out that many of his deductions are purely hypothetical.

Alas, other things are less easy to forgive, not least the random fluctuation between British and American spellings. There are no excuses for multiple references to 'Filippe' Pedrell, to the beautiful Andalusian city of 'Grenada' (seven times!), or to that archetypal Cuban dance the 'habanera' (the tilde is there purely for effect: what Schenkerians might describe as a surface-level interpolation). Rather more irritating is Brown's failure to include a universal table of motifs: does he really expect the reader to remember that motif 'w', for example, is reproduced in ex.3.ic?

But it is in the second chapter, dealing with the Spanish contexts of Iberia, that Brown really disappoints. The discussion here focuses on a limited selection of specific Hispanicisms in the work, then proceeds to examine at unnecessary length the nature of Debussy's exposure to Spanish folk music. (As Brown acknowledges, the Spanish elements in Iberia were rife in French music of the period. What he doesn't note is that nearly every one of them may be found in Carmen.) he concludes that Iberia's Spanishness is entirely due to 'surface cliches' (p.6i), and, moreover, that these cliches are Often almost identical to those found in his Javanese or Indian styles' and, indeed, in 'Debussy's style in general' (P.O/L). So the chapter is effectively short-circuited, and Brown proceeds to the next one, leaving us none the wiser as to why it is that Iberia sounds profoundly, relentlessly and unmistakeably Spanish. …

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