Debussy and the Fragment

Debussy and the Fragment

Debussy and the Fragment

Debussy and the Fragment


[Gifted as he was, there was nothing cosmic or inspired about Debussy's work, as is proved by the fact that he never produced anything incomplete.] These words of the Berlin critic Adolf Weissmann, written in the early 1920s—dated, opinionated, no doubt nationalistically prejudiced—echo Friedrich Schlegel's description of the Romantic literary work from his often-quoted Athenaeum Fragment 116: [the romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.] Weissmann's equation of the inspired with the incomplete identifies him as an heir of German Romanticism and indicates the extent of the influence held by certain aspects of that movement more than a hundred years after Schlegel's writings gave it direction.

Stefan Jarocinski, writing in the 1960s with a different agenda—the promotion of Debussy as a creator of the modern in music—continued to rely on the authority of the incomplete. Justifying his praise of Debussy's music by the presence of that very element Weissmann found missing, he reiterated the Romantic ideal of the forever becoming: [Sa musique ne commence ni ne finit. … Sa forme n'est pas close. … [Elle] se forme, se renouvelle sans cesse …] [His music neither begins nor ends. Its form is not closed. It forms itself, it renews itself without ceasing.]

Other critics of Debussy's time agreed with Weissmann's negative assessment of the composer, but for the opposite reason, decrying Debussy's music because of its fragmentation and referring, for instance, to [fragments of the tonal wreck,] [la décomposition de

Adolf Weissmann, The Problems of Modern Music, trans. M. M. Bozman (London:
J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1925), 171. Originally published as Die Musik in der
, 1922.

Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments, ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 175.

Stefan Jarocinski, Debussy: impressionnisme et symbolisme (Paris: Éditions du
Seuil, 1970), 74-75; my translation.

Louis Elson, Boston Daily Advertiser, March 4, 1907, quoted in Nicholas
Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since
Beethoven's Time
, 2nd ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), 93 (of La
, [We clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck …]).

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