Musicologists have long recognized that “sensation” played an important role in the musical culture of debussysme. Close readings of the writings of Debussy and his circle in the first decade of the twentieth century reveal that a key, though often overlooked, aspect of Debussyist sensation is a specifically auditory one—a special mode of attentive listening that claims a privileged knowledge of the natural phenomenon of sound. This account of sensation and listening, which both recapitulates and critiques central components of Helmholtzian sensory physiology, puts Debussy and Debussyism in dialogue with a network of late-nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century discourses on the limits of sensory knowledge and resultant problems of representation. Considering Debussyism in this light demonstrates the extent to which musical culture in this period negotiated a modernist crisis of representation salient across high-art culture around the turn of the twentieth century even as it inflected this problem specifically toward issues of sound and listening.
The Debussyist Ear: Listening, Representation, and French Musical Modernism
Alexandra Kieffer is assistant professor of musicology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She received her PhD in music history from Yale University in 2014 and spent the 2014–15 academic year as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University. Her current book project explores constructions of sensation, listening, and affect in early-twentieth-century Debussyism in the context of emerging scientific discourses on the body. Her article on the intersection of Riemann's music theory with early-twentiethcentury French intellectual culture is forthcoming in Music Theory Spectrum. Her research has been supported by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation and the American Musicological Society's M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet fund.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to Brian Kane, James Hepokoski, and Gundula Kreuzer, whose advice and critiques were invaluable in the preparation of this article.
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Alexandra Kieffer; The Debussyist Ear: Listening, Representation, and French Musical Modernism. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2015; 39 (1): 56–79. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2015.39.1.56
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