Debussysme in French music

This project began several years ago as an attempt to describe the phenomenon of debussysme in France around 1900 in a relatively systematic way, after seeing repeated reports in primary sources that large numbers of composers were imitating Debussy soon after the premier of Pelléas et Mélisande. As laid out in the introduction to the dissertation, my general aim was a corpus study of hundreds of compositions by nearly 3 dozen composers in which I synthesized mainstream musicological cultural history and score analysis with heuristics from music cognition and sociology. Although the resulting markedly quantitative and empirical approach has raised the objections of some historical musicologists, it was in my opinion the necessary methodology to properly treat the basic questions of the who, how, when, and why of French debussysme; as much as possible, I have tried to respond to these critiques in subsequent projects. In the first chapter of the dissertation I described the compositional techniques included in my definition of debussysme. The chapter concluded with an analysis of these components in light of findings from music cognition as a way to explain why  this particular combination of sonic objects and processes may have had such appeal in this seminal period of the debussyste sound, and why the sonic combination is still so satisfying to contemporary listeners. The second chapter, on debussyste ideology, privileged the practice of the earliest creators of debussyste music such as Debussy, Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Déodat de Sévérac, and Raymond Bonheur. In it I offered a possible semantic frame for debussyste scores that contained an integrated use of the majority of the techniques, namely the contemporaneous descriptions of the unconscious mind articulated by Pierre Janet, Henri Bergson, and like-minded later scholars. The third and fourth chapters turned to the temporal dimension of debussysme in terms of the diffusion of innovations paradigm developed by social scientists. I attempted to apply the five adopter categories, key social roles such as the opinion leader, and some of the processes of diffusion through social networks summarized in Rogers’s (2003) Diffusion of Innovations. I found evidence that composers, critics, and other music professionals were taking part in the music and discourse of debussysme as a means of social positioning. Many of the earliest adopters considered the sounds to be analogue to an elite sphere within French intellectual society, causing them to try to publicly distance themselves from composers that I named “pop debussystes.” The latter group adopted the techniques after Debussy became popular, in selective ways that left conventional French formal and expressive techniques intact, and occupied socio-professional positions that were more entrenched in French cultural institutions.

Following the dissertation phase, I have sought to extend this project in several directions:

  1. More rigorously empirical tests of my description of the debussyste set of compositional techniques. In collaboration with other researchers, we are now building the components of a large project that follows my corpus study of debussyste scores with web-based perceptual experiments and computational analysis of scores using the Humdrum Toolkit. Our basic hypothesis is that the strong social network linking the closest and most stable group of composers taking part in debussysme, those of the Apaches circle, will be correlated to significant stylistic similarity of these composers’ scores. While this project will take multiple years to complete due to the large number of scores to be analyzed, we believe it could provide important insight into the social nature of shared musical styles.
  2. Deeper and more critical engagement with the diffusion of innovations paradigm, which can allow music researchers to reconsider instances of supposed imitation among artists as collaborative creativity. I am currently writing an article based on the classic adopter survey developed by Ryan and Gross (1943) that I have modified to suit the professional conditions of the debussyste adherents and to suit deceased rather than living adopters. The survey will be interpreted with a multiple regression analysis by using the “R” application. The article will also discuss the possibilities that open up and the limits that need to be dealt with if one wants to treat Eurogenetic (Reigle, 2014) composers as adopters and musical creativity as innovation in the sense of this paradigm. I intend to approach one version of this study for sociologists and a modified one for historical musicologists.
  3. Application of Bourdieu’s notions of field of cultural production, distinction, and homology to debussysme, as in past conference papers where I have continued to explore the social conflicts that arose when by 1904 very different kinds of composers were using debussyste sounds at the same time and to diverse ends. Currently in press, I have written an article that proposes some reasons for the striking similarity many authors have found between Claude Debussy’s music and Henri Bergson’s philosophical writings, by situating them both within the spiritualiste movement. With the aid of Bourdieu’s field theory, Bergson’s and Debussy’s leading positions as spiritualistes are shown to be homologous. Eschewing institutional and political power and instead focusing on creative works that emphasized individual freedom, the philosopher and the composer took relatively autonomous positions with high symbolic capital in their fields. The alignment of their positions may explain the stylistic, substantive, and functional connections others have perceived in their works.