- Le style de Claude Debussy. Duplication, répétition et dualité dans les stratégies de composition by Sylveline Bourion
“Le style bègue”—the “stuttering style”—is a phrase that keeps rearing its head in discussions of Debussy’s music. Roger Nichols notes in his recent biography of Ravel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011, p. 353) that Ravel “lumped Debussy and Poulenc together as practitioners of ‘the stuttering style,’ too reliant for his liking on immediate repetitions of material.” In her penetrating analysis of repetition in Debussy, Sylveline Bourion avoids this phrase, preferring André Schaeffner’s less loaded statement that “reduplication” is central to Debussy’s language. She believes this topic “bears witness to probable descent from Rimsky-Korsakov” (p. 15; all translations of quotations from the text are my own). Repetition of material is a central device in the Russian music Debussy is known to have admired, such as Balakirev’s Islamey (a significant influence on “L’isle joyeuse”) and the Coronation Scene in Boris Godunov. Though the topic of repetition in Debussy has been handled by authors from Schaeffner to André Boucourechliev to Nicolas Ruwet, Bourion’s is the first detailed study of the phenomenon.
In a chapter published in 2006 (in Musique et modernité en France, eds. Sylvain Caron, François de Médicis and Michel Duchesnau [Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal]), Bourion quotes all three of these authors and suggests that Debussy’s fondness for repetition has its origins in pleasure: “the desire for a second opportunity to hear something, for the repetition of a pleasing sonority or chord progression” (p. 232). This chapter puts her argument in the very wide context of twentieth-century history, at one point suggesting that repetition represents “skepticism about the notion of progress” (p. 232). At the start of the book under review, Bourion hints that it will be, like her chapter, an ambitious, wide-ranging project: “we urgently need to reconcile not only analytical musicology with its historical and hermeneutic sisters, but also those who wish to separate analysis into as many different branches as there are parameters of sound. Harmonic analysis, morphology, formal analysis can only be melded and homogenized in style analysis” (pp. 32–33). With this in mind, it is a shame the author missed the opportunity to situate Debussy’s music in the wider context of his musical ancestors or critics. And, while there is an interesting comparison of the themes of “Ondine” and “Canope” (p. 312) and of other subtle connections between works (e.g., the rising fourth/falling third motif heard in Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and “La cathédrale engloutie,” pp. 297–8), I would have liked more on Debussy’s style, drawing together the different strands of her analysis: the author herself admits that her overview of the topic on pages 449–55 is “too short.”
Bourion’s analytical affiliation is unsurprising for a scholar based at the Université de Montréal: semiotic analysis forms the backbone of her methodology, and indeed Jean-Jacques Nattiez is the author of the preface to the book. On page 9 the author acknowledges the roots of her work in Nicolas Ruwet’s analysis of Debussy (in Revue belge de musicologie 16 ; reprinted in Langage, musique, poésie [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972]), Nattiez (e.g., his paradigmatic analysis of Syrinx), and Marcelle Guérin. Her Ph.D. thesis analyzed [End Page 122] songs by Debussy, and this book demonstrates that duplication is employed extensively in the piano part rather than the vocal line in Debussy’s songs—though, oddly, the notion that repetition could here have a specifically accompanimental function is not addressed. Here, Bourion extends the analysis to other works, including large-scale orchestral pieces and act 5 of Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Rather than providing a detailed paradigmatic analysis of each work, the book has...