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Debussy’s influence since 1945: French compositional descendancies

Campbell, Edward and Rae, Caroline ORCID: 2024. Debussy’s influence since 1945: French compositional descendancies. Code, David and Kelly, Barbara L., eds. Debussy Studies 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

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With the onset of World War 1 Claude Debussy adopted a position of almost fervent nationalism, adding the appendage ‘musicien français’ to his name. That he would go on to become one of the most influential composers for later twentieth- and early twenty-first century composers not only in France but also elsewhere was by no means evident in the years immediately following his death, despite his clear influence on works by Stravinsky, Bartók and Puccini. While his music endured in the interwar years, his musical and aesthetic concerns were replaced with alternative preocupations more welcome in the post-war situation. The story of Debussy’s eclipse by Ravel and Satie, both of whom outlived him, and Les Six, who rejected much of his aesthetic, is well known. What has not been so well explored is the story of how over time the power of Debussy’s music and ideas implicated themselves within the work of later practitioners, from Messiaen, Jolivet, Dutilleux and Ohana through the work of Boulez and Barraqué to his continued influence on various branches of contemporary French composition, not least the Spectralists. Debussy’s ongoing impact on later French composition can be viewed in relation to a series of significant themes. He catalysed what has now become a traditional interest associated with French composers in colour and timbre, enhancing the texture with his passion for innovative pitch resources (scales and modes); an interest in the sounds of various other cultures and musical systems (Javanese, Vietnamese, Chinese); rhythmic and metric flexibility combined with a radically different sense of musical time which owed much to the East and which catalyzed a growing preoccupation with ideas of the incantatory; an unprecedentedly free approach to musical form and an insatiable search for ‘le sonorité juste’, evident in his innovative use of instruments and orchestration. His lament that the Western percussion of his age did not enable him to actualise the kinds of sounds he imagined was undoubtedly taken up by composers from Varèse onwards to all those who have written more recently for Les Percussions de Strasbourg, one of France’s finest instrumental ensembles. It was Pierre Boulez in 1956 who identified Debussy as forming part of a peculiarly French axis of aesthetic modernists – ‘Debussy-Cézanne-Mallarmé’. In this view, Debussy is not merely a ‘musicien français’ in the limited way he himself imagined in 1915, but is appreciated as an artist of much greater significance: simultaneously, as Boulez remarked, ‘a solitary church spire … one of the most isolated of all musicians’ and ‘an excellent ancestor’.

Item Type: Book Section
Status: In Press
Schools: Music
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Last Modified: 10 Jan 2024 10:45

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