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Reviewed by:
  • Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and: Debussy’s Letters to Inghelbrecht: The Story of a Musical Friendship
  • Robert Orledge
Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. By Annegret Fauser. pp. xx + 391. Eastman Studies in Music, 32. (University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY and Woodbridge, 2005, £40. ISBN 1-58046-185-9.)
Debussy’s Letters to Inghelbrecht: The Story of a Musical Friendship. Annotated by Margaret G. Cobb. Trans. by Richard Miller. pp. xxii + 131. (University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2005, £45. ISBN 1-58046-174-3.)

In retrospect, the Universal Exhibition of 1889 showed Paris at the crossroads between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is to Annegret Fauser's credit that she has been the first to produce a comprehensive book on the vital role that music played in this transition, both as entertainment and as an invaluable indicator of French socio-political views on Europe and Empire. The prevailing attitude of the many official organizers was to show French supremacy over the rest of the world, and most critics reiterated their nineteenth-century prejudices about race and gender to please a like-minded bourgeois readership, but there were a few who looked ahead, such as the ethnographically aware Julien Tiersot of Le Ménestrel, who led the way towards a universal music theory, and Claude Debussy, who alone probed beneath the surface trappings of the Javanese and Vietnamese contributions and integrated the multi-layered gamelan textures, together with what he derived from the official Russian concerts, into a new heterophonic musical language.

'Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World's Fair' is an ideal subject in various ways. Just as the Fair itself offered a safe, self-contained world tour to the travel-wary Parisian bourgeoisie in a good deal less than Jules Verne's '80 days', and inspired much-needed feelings of patriotism and supremacy during a troubled political period for President Carnot's Third Republic, so it provided Professor Fauser with a self-contained subject, focused on a six-month period, in which she could display her undoubted skills as a historical musicologist and use a high percentage of her meticulous research into the bargain. Then, just as the Fair raised important issues for its critics in terms of the exotic Other, race, gender, sex, and politics, so it provided Fauser with the opportunity to interpret these views with the benefit of hindsight, and to reveal her prowess as an up-to-date and extremely widely read cultural analyst. If it might be said that there is a dichotomy in style between the directness of her objective historical reportage and the complexities of her socio-political reflections (which often drove me (unsuccessfully) to my dictionary to check the meanings of neologisms such as 'acousmatic' or 'xenotopic'), then her treatment of the obvious feminist issues in chapter 3 about Augusta Holmès and her grandiloquent Ode triomphale was entirely balanced and, if anything, understated. If her desire to appropriate the latest American concepts into the world of 1889 (such as Bruce Smith's 'historical phenomenology' (p. 231 n. 36), or Mateer and Cullens's 'discourse networks' (p. 288 n. 16)) seemed artificial at first, then it has to be said that Fauser proved their relevance admirably. If one might observe that a potentially fascinating press argument about [End Page 627] the role of words and music is underexploited in chapter 3 (including the wonderful comment from François Coppée on p. 111 that 'True verses . . . never do suit musicians. I have worked for some of them, I know what it is like'), and that the changes in sound perception engendered by the telephonic transmission of opera were somewhat repetitively overexploited in chapter 6, then I suspect that her main aim as an author was in both cases to preserve an overall chapter balance. Moreover, her chapters follow in a logical order and the book becomes ever more fascinating as it unfolds, saving the exotic best and the activities of 'le roi Edison' till last.

After an overview of the Exposition Universelle, which was designed to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution of 1789 from...