The Cambridge Companion to Debussy
Nearly a century after Claude Debussy's death, his music remains much loved and frequently performed, but nonetheless often perplexing to study. Committed to intensely [End Page 403] personal forms of innovation while cultivating complicated roots in tradition, Debussy wrote music that still baffles as well as seduces. This is, for editor Simon Tresize and the other contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, "a satisfying mystery"; the fact that Debussy so successfully defended his compositions against "the intellectual rationalization of music" continues to serve as a tantalizing challenge to the academic community (2). Although the fourteen essays in this collection take up the challenge in a wide variety of ways, they are united in celebration of the Debussyan paradox that, as Tresize puts it, a composer "who pleased himself, who eschewed an intellectual style of composition in favor of instinct and pleasure, should have necessitated such a feast of intellectual activity" (2).
The volume opens with a three-chapter section entitled "Man, musician and culture." In "Debussy the Man," Robert Orledge reviews the major ingredients of the "prevailing melancholy" (10) that made Debussy's character as hard to decipher as his compositions: his troubled family background, his self-destructive persistence in spending beyond his means, his abrasive and manipulative attitude toward friends, his damaging reputation for affairs with married women. Barbara L. Kelly then turns to "Debussy's Parisian affiliations," mapping the evolution of Debussy's career onto the geography of fin-de-siècle Paris's musical scene. After sketching Debussy's early years at the working-class margin of Parisian cultural life, Kelly traces his path through the Conservatoire to Italy, where he spent two years as the 1884 winner of the Prix de Rome, and back to Paris, where he wove his way – often uneasily – through both private artistic circles such as Mallarmé's Mardis and official institutions such as the Opéra-Comique (which premiered Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902). Focusing next on the critical voice that emerged in the course of this trajectory, Déirdre Donnellon's essay on "Debussy as musician and critic" usefully gathers the main topics that preoccupied Debussy between 1901, when his first pieces of music criticism appeared in the Revue blanche, and 1918, when he died prematurely from cancer. Although she emphasizes that Debussy's writing on music was "hard-hitting, uncompromising, and, on occasion, deliberately inflammatory" (43), Donnellen also shows the complexity and nuance of his opinions, especially concerning Wagner, the symphonic tradition upheld by Debussy's French contemporaries, and – as World War I intensified debates about patriotism – the revitalization of French music.
In the Companion's second section, "Musical Explorations," six essays set out to chart the ways in which distinctive moments bring some of Debussy's most enduring concerns into relief. Donald Grayson's "Debussy on Stage" examines the pull that the theater exerted on Debussy's imagination, suggesting how the uncompromising intensity of this "lifelong fascination" (83) led him to abandon more theater-oriented projects (operatic settings of Banville's Diane au bois, Flaubert's Salammbô, Mendès's Rodrigue et Chimène, Poe's La Chute de la Maison Usher, and many other works of literature) than he realized (the "ode symphonique" Zuleima and most spectacularly the opera Pelléas et Mélisande). With a wonderful discussion of "The Prosaic Debussy," Roger Nichols sheds light on the composer's "prose patch" (85), the anomalous interval from 1892 to 1898 during which Debussy, despite his prevailing taste for strict verse, set only free-verse and prose texts to music. In a chapter on "Debussy and Expression," Nigel Simeone follows "clues" (101) that connect expression marks in Debussy's scores with passages in his correspondence and other writings, attempting thus to interpret [End Page 404] the composer's "search for a precise musical evocation of an imprecise image" (103) and hence his ties to impressionism. In an effort to characterize the particular "erotic tinge" that simultaneously situates and isolates all Debussy's work within the context fin-de-siècle sexuality (119), Julie McQuinn's meditation on "Exploring the Erotic in Debussy's Music" picks out several compositions (among them La Damoiselle élue, Syrinx, and Les Chansons de Bilitis) that amplify their disruption of musical syntax in order to produce an "eroticism of uncertainty" (122). Caroline Potter focuses on "Nuages" and La Mer in her chapter on "Debussy and Nature," arguing that Debussy's "love for music and nature were one and the same" (151) and that both set him at odds with academic conventions for the musical evocation of natural phenomena.
The volume's third section, "Musical Techniques," includes four chapters that illustrate a range of theoretical approaches to Debussy's music. Boyd Pomeroy , in "Debussy's Tonality: a formal perspective," considers why both music theorists and general listeners still disagree about the extent to which Debussy drew on tonal harmony. Citing a variety of tonal practices, non-functional tonal structures, and overtly post-tonal techniques to be found throughout the Préludes and other compositions, Pomeroy shows how rigorously Debussy's probing of traditional tonality accompanied his invention of "wonderful new sound-worlds" (178). Mark DeVoto next takes up in more detail "The Debussy Sound: Colour, Texture, Gesture" with an essay that discusses the typical "heterophony" of Debussy's music, showing how its complication of colors and textures paradoxically functions to "blur the melodic line, but at the same time to strengthen it with added ornamentation in mixed timbres" (181). In "Music's Inner Dance," Richard S. Parks inquires into the listener's compelling sense of movement in Debussy's music. With minute studies of "Syrinx," "Première rapsodie," and "Sirènes" – chosen for their differences in complexity – Parks proposes graphic imaging techniques to capture "subsurface rhythms" (230) not otherwise traceable among the successions and accumulations of musical events. Simon Tresize then calls on a wide variety of works in order to listen more closely to "Debussy's 'rhythmicized time,'" teasing out relations between, first, the chronometric time of Debussy's musical notation and the integral time of his performed music, and second, the interlocking levels of the pulse (or beat), the meter, and the hypermetrical units of Debussy's compositions.
The book closes, perhaps a little hastily, with two brief chapters in a section called "Performance and Assessment." Charles Timbrell's discussion of "Debussy in Performance" surveys both Debussy's magically idiosyncratic prowess as a pianist and his evocative, sometimes explosive ways of coaching those who played, sang , or conducted his works. Arnold Whittal then advances an evaluation of "Debussy Now," arguing that because today's music theorists and composers have not yet moved beyond the main question already raised in the early twentieth century – how to interpret Debussy's "ambivalent, unstable balance between the traditional and the innovatory" (279) – it is vital to find historical and analytical means for keeping Debussy within the realm of "unfinished business" (282).
On the whole, the essays in this collection work together in a successful ensemble. Without overwhelming a general audience, they offer a broad and suggestive panorama of current concerns within Debussy scholarship. Nonspecialist readers may find the third section's combination of technical terms and graphics a little off-putting, although the main points of every theoretical argument are accessible. Similarly, some [End Page 405] readers may feel a bit bewildered (as I did) by the book's persistent scattering of references to large concepts (impressionism, symbolism, modernism, classicism) that the various contributors clearly understand in different ways but rarely define with precision; a rigorous, synthetic chapter devoted to Debussy's possible place(s) among the major –isms of his time and ours would have been welcome. But it is surely a good thing that this Cambridge Companion leaves the reader wanting more: it thereby lives up to Whittal's challenge, not just by creatively admitting the enigmas that still result from Debussy's entanglement of the old with the new, but also by communicating the hope that Debussy's music will remain productively puzzling into the indefinite future.