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Jensen devotes the first half of his book to Debussy’s life – the hardships of his youth, ‘the “bad” pupil … who takes nothing on trust!’ (a Boulez quote), his sometimes scandalous personal life, especially when he left his wife lily to begin a new life with Emma Bardac, and his terminal cancer of the rectum. After an 11-page chapter ‘Debussy and the arts’ the latter half is divided into six chapters dealing with the compositions – student compositions, compositions 1888-1893, etc. Finally there is the 12-page chapter ‘Debussy as critic’ to complete this insightful study of one of the most important and original composers in history.

Jensen’s discussion of the music is comprehensive, though perhaps a little more comment on individual Études would have been welcome. This is a tiny niggle. Considering the concise format (about 250 pages of text) one can scarcely imagine this endlessly fascinating composer being better served. Jensen provides generous coverage of such landmark works as Pelléas (11 pages), La mer (ten pages) and Jeux (seven pages). In the case of La mer he compares Debussy’s masterpiece with an 1892 work of the same title by Belgian Paul Gilson. This is a useful parallel, emphasising Debussy’s exclusion of human presence – unlike Gilson’s work – and concentration on the sea itself. Such broadening of perspective is just one instance among many throughout the book. Often I was grateful to find my understanding of a given work enhanced by additional information or a new angle. I am sure many readers will be equally appreciative of Jensen’s treatment of less familiar areas such as Debussy’s pianos and his unique style of playing (‘impossible to duplicate’ – Alfredo Casella), his increasing concern with the visual presentation of his published works (cover, typeface, etc), and his views on orchestration.

There are dozens of music examples, customary master musicians features such as calendar, list of works, personalia and bibliography, and 15 illustrations. How can it be that OUP allows this thoroughly recommendable book to be marred by several schoolboy errors of grammar? ‘Another characteristic of Debussy’s music are...’ is one example.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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