After Debussy: Music, Language, and the Margins of Philosophy

PDF After Debussy: Music, Language, and the Margins of Philosophy © Oxford University Press 2020

Author in the category "Miscellaneous"
  1. Julian Johnson
After Debussy

Classical music shows a close relationship to language, and both musicology and philosophy have tended to approach music from that angle, exploring it in terms of expression, representation, and discourse. This book turns that idea on its head. Focusing on the music of Debussy and its legacy in the century since his death, After Debussy offers a groundbreaking new perspective on twentieth-century music that foregrounds a sensory logic of sound over quasi-linguistic ideas of structure or meaning. Author Julian Johnson argues that Debussy's music exemplifies this idea, influencing the music of successive composers who took up the mantle of emphasizing sound over syntax, sense over signification. In doing so, this music not only anticipates a central problem of contemporary thought--the gap between language and our embodied relation to the world--but also offers a solution.

With a readable narrative structure grounded in an impressive body of literature, After Debussy ranges widely across French music, demonstrating the impact of Debussy's music on composers from Fauré and Ravel to Dutilleux, Boulez, Grisey, Murail and Saariaho. It ranges similarly through a set of French writers and philosophers, from Mallarmé and Proust to Merleau-Ponty, Jankélévitch, Derrida, Lyotard and Nancy, and even draws from the visual arts to help embody key ideas. In accessibly tackling substantial ideas of both musicology and philosophy, this book not only presents bold new ways of understanding each discipline but also lays the groundwork for exciting new discourse between them.


This book had its origins in a project funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Foundation (2014–16) titled ‘Music, Voice, and Language in French Musical Thought’. I am grateful to the Foundation for funding two years of research leave, away from the pressures of teaching and administration, which enabled me to negotiate a move from my previous work on Austro-German musical culture to the current study of French music. I am also grateful to Royal Holloway, University of London, for a period of sabbatical research leave immediately preceding the commencement of the Leverhulme Fellowship.

This book has much deeper roots however. They reach back some thirty years to an earlier part of my career when I was still a composer and when the idea of music I have tried to articulate here informed the daily business of my creative work. In this respect, I owe a particular debt to Jonathan Harvey, my teacher for a year (1988–89), subsequently a colleague for several more, and a much-loved friend and mentor until his untimely death in 2012. I would dearly have liked to discuss the content of this book with him, and I would be delighted if I have managed, in some small way, to bring into the realm of discourse an idea of music he so richly embodied in his own creative practice and life.

After Debussy is a wide-ranging book and is necessarily shaped by a host of intellectual exchanges impossible to list. Those who exerted the most direct influence on my thinking are cited in my text, footnotes, and bibliography. But for their particularly close encouragement and support, and for opening windows onto ways of thinking that I might not otherwise have come across, I would like to single out for thanks Jeremy Begbie, Federico Celestini, Jonathan Cross, Erling Guldbrandsen, Tomas McAuley, Jean-Paul Olive, Stephen Rumph, and Nikolaus Urbanek. I am especially grateful to colleagues and friends in the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the Royal Musical Association with which I have been associated since its inception in 2010 and without whom I would never have been so exposed to current debates in the fraught but fascinating borderland between our two disciplines.

I thank the two anonymous readers from Oxford University Press, the first readers of this work, who offered invaluable detailed comments and saved me from some serious omissions. I owe a special debt to Benjamin Walton who not only kindly read the whole of the typescript but also offered me a level of encouragement that is rare in academic life. His gentle but perspicacious insights saved me from errors of judgement far worse than those I have chosen to leave in.

In the course of pursuing my work on Debussy I have been fortunate enough to try out some of its materials on various groups of students – at Royal Holloway, University of London, the Liszt Academy in Budapest, the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien, and at the Université Paris 8. I thank all of them for their engagement with the topic, their challenging questions and their insightful comments. I am also grateful for some wonderfully rich exchanges with my PhD students, past and present, in particular to Sam Wilson and Clare Brady whose wonderful theses I cite in the text.

To those unnamed friends and family who, in ways both academic and not, helped me find the re-orientation of my work reflected in this book, I offer special thanks. I am grateful, as ever, to Jeremy Hughes for the precision and musicality with which he has set the music examples. Finally, my thanks to Suzanne Ryan and her team at OUP: without Suzanne’s quiet encouragement, patience, and faith in my work, I may never have brought this book to completion.

I am grateful for permission to reuse material that has previously appeared in slightly different form elsewhere:

My discussion of Debussy’s ‘Fêtes galantes’ in Chapter 4 draws on material that originally
appeared as ‘Present absence: Debussy, song, and the art of (dis)appearing’, 19th-Century Music 40, no.3 (2017), 239–56. My discussion of Debussy’s ‘Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé’ in Chapter 3 reproduces material that originally appeared in ‘Vertige!: Debussy, Mallarmé and the edge of language’ in Steven Huebner and François De Médicis (eds), Debussy’s Resonance(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2018). My discussion of Debussy’s Études in Chapter 7 draws on my chapter ‘Le corps en jeu: Debussy et “L’art de toucher” ’, which appears in Joseph Delaplace and Jean-Paul Olive (eds), Le corps dans l’écriture musicale (Arras: Artois Presses Université, 2019). My discussion of Debussy’s La mer in Chapter 6 appears as part of a chapter, ‘Debussy, La mer, and the aesthetics of appearing’ in Andreas Dorschel and Emmanouil Perrakis (eds), Life as an Aesthetic Idea of Music, Studien zur Wertungsforschung (Vienna: Universal Edition, 2019).
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