Debussy and His World (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 370-372



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Fulcher, Jane, ed. Debussy and His World. The Bard Music Festival Series. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2001 . Pp. xii + 396. ISBN 0-691-09041-6 (cloth); 0-691-09042-4 (paper)

Claude Debussy's listeners brought his career to a high point in 1902 with their enthusiastic reception of Pelléas et Mélisande, and this collection of essays appeared just in time to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the opera's premiere. As editor Jane Fulcher emphasizes in her introduction, however, the volume avoids lingering too much over Debussy's mid-career success because "our culture has constructed a facile, 'impressionist' Debussy, achieving mastery in his 'middle' period, thus implying a devaluation of his earliest and last works" (2). The book's nine contributors aim instead to explore the "inconsistency and complexity of Debussy's real development" (2), his "restless search for a music authentically reflecting experience against the background of the litigious, factionalized, and politicized musical world of his period" (3). Presumably to this end, Debussy and His World is divided into three parts, with the first devoted to several decisive moments in his compositional trajectory, the second to the social dynamics impinging on his professional life, and the third to the challenge of documenting his volatile relations with the musical institutions of his time.

Part 1, "The Evolution," opens with John R. Clevenger's study of the four cantatas (Daniel, Le Gladiateur, L'Enfant prodigue, and La Damoiselle élue) that the young Debussy composed during the 1880 s in connection with the Prix de Rome com-petition, which he first entered in 1882 and won in 1884. While he signals infelicities resulting from the composer's inexperience and the contest's onerous conditions, Clevenger nonetheless insists that these cantatas all foreshadow the works of Debussy's maturity, especially Pelléas et Mélisande. Marie Rolf makes a similar case in her essay on "Les Papillons," an unpublished, recently discovered song setting of Théophile Gautier's poem. Arguing from physical, stylistic, and biographical evidence that Debussy composed the song in 1881 while a student at the Conservatoire, Rolf outlines the ways in which this early effort points toward Debussy's later approaches to text-setting. David Grayson then turns to one principal song series from the middle of the composer's life, the Trois Chansons de Bilitis published in 1899. Although Grayson's essay does not complement Rolf's with specific analysis of text or music in these songs, it offers a vivid account of events leading from the writing of Pierre Louÿs's Chansons de Bilitis (1894) to the composition of Debussy's incidental music for a recitation of Louÿs's poems with tableaux vivants (1901). The affinities between Debussy and the visual arts subsequently surface in an essay by Leon Botstein, founder of the Bard Music Festival from which this volume stems. Botstein enlarges and refines the received view of Debussy as the musical counterpart of French impressionists by sketching relations between his music and the painting of Whistler, Manet, Turner, pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Hunt, and symbolists Denis, Redon, and Khnopff. Such a panorama inevitably sacrifices depth to breadth, so that [End Page 370] allusions to particular pieces and pictures are scattered and fleeting, but it also conveys a sense of the composer's interactive embeddedness in fin-de-siècle visual culture. In contrast, an essay by Brian Hart progressively tightens its focus from a single genre to a single work, discussing the revival of the symphony among competing composers from the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum as a background for Debussy's work on the "trois esquisses symphoniques" of La Mer (premiered in 1905). Part 1 ends with "Speaking the Truth to Power," Jane Fulcher's eloquent study of Debussy's compositional practice during World War I, when his impending death from cancer made it difficult but also urgent to respond with integrity to the propagandist call for a return to French musical classicism.

Part 2, "The Context," is considerably more limited...


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