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This group of ten essays grew from formal presentations and informal discussions at the University of Texas Claude Debussy International Congress. The recent publication of Debussy’s correspondence from the years 1872 to 1918, bringing together previously scattered, difficult to access or completely unknown letters, and running to some 2,300 pages, has ‘provided a more complete picture of the composer and his career than ever before’.

In the first essay Marie Rolf shows how Debussy’s three early spring-inspired works, culminating in Printemps, form an evolutionary progression. Next the composer’s earliest formative influences – including some Russian ‘melodic-harmonic gestures’ – are examined: this essay by Roy Howat is easily the most entertaining of the collection. Of the four essays on different aspects of Pelléas and Mélisande, Richard Langham Smith’s deals with Maeterlinck’s original play which Debussy saw in 1893 and the qualities which may have prompted him to write the opera. Jann Pasler shows how the opera emerged from a distinct French tradition, David Grayson examines its early performance history – in particular the role of Pelléas (tenor or baritone?) – and Elliott Antokoletz explores the ‘psychodramatic symbolism of the Maeterlinck play’ and demonstrates how the various polarities within the scenario interact with the music.

In a revealing essay on the composer’s often depleted finances Dennis Herlin produces numerous lists and accounts. Here we learn how much Debussy was paid for his compositions and to what extent his creative choices were governed by financial need. The final two essays cover the reception of Debussy’s music in the USA during 1902-18, and the early reception of his late works.

This type of collection will be of great interest to those with special interest in Debussy, but hopefully the composer’s immeasurable historical significance should encourage many other more general readers. This is an excellently produced volume, thoroughly recommendable.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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