Conference Review: Claude Debussy in 2018: A Centenary Celebration

  1. Debussy Perspectives, 1918-2018
  2. Debussy’s Late Work and the Musical Worlds of Wartime Paris

This conference, from 19 to 23 March 2018, welcomed delegates from at least 12 countries and several continents to the RNCM and the University of Glasgow for the biggest scholarly and musical centenary commemorations worldwide of Claude Debussy’s death.  The conference aimed to do two things: to reassess the state of research on Debussy 100 years after his death, including research from emerging as well as established scholars; and to focus on Debussy’s late style and legacy.  The two interlinked events were a great success.

There was considerable range in evidence in the Manchester celebrations, with paper sessions on diverse themes such as Debussy’s Style in History, Debussy in the World, analytical approaches, the ‘arabesque’, perspectives on particular works, such as Syrinx and Jeux, and Musical and Literary Aesthetics.  These sessions mixed approaches and generations, showing a new interest in diverse analytical approaches and a desire to understand Debussy’s place within artistic western traditions and well beyond.  There were also practical workshops, on Debussy’s Mélodies with RNCM singers who responded to Helen Abbott’s (University of Birmingham) literary and musical insights and a composer’s workshop on new works inspired by Debussy’s late sonatas led by Adam Gorb (RNCM) and Gary Carpenter (RNCM).

Concerts and recitals were also prominent and varied, with an orchestral concert given by RNCM students devoted mainly to arrangements of Debussy (Colin Matthews, David Horne and John Adams); a recital of clarinet repertoire from the Conservatoire tradition by Nicholas Cox (RNCM) and Roy Howat (RAM, RCS); a piano recital of Debussy and his major pianistic sources of inspiration (Rameau, Grieg, Chabrier, Fauré, Liszt and Chopin) by the renowned French pianist, Philippe Cassard; a recital of Debussy’s early and late string duos and trios with Peter Shepherd-Skaerved (RAM), Neil Heyde (RAM) and Roy Howat (RAM, RCS), and an after-hours treat of jazz music inspired by Debussy and other compositions by Bruno Heinen.  Denis Herlin (CNRS, RNCM) gave fascinating new insights in his keynote on ‘Debussy as Reader’.  The roundtable on ‘… de temps et de couleurs rythmés…’ involving Jonathan Dunsby (Eastman School of Music), Marie Rolf (Eastman School of Music), Richard Langham Smith (RCM) and others was particularly spirited under David Code’s chairmanship.  Some aspects of the conference, including the Mélodies workshop were captured on Radio 3’s Music Matters on Debussy, which came from the college on 24 March 2018 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09x82td).

The Debussy celebrations continued at the University of Glasgow with delegates taking the much anticipated ‘Debussy bus’.  These events focused on ‘Debussy’s Late Work and the Musical Worlds of Wartime Paris’, with sessions on the Chamber Sonatas, the Études, Debussy and humour, Debussy and his Contemporaries, and Debussy’s Legacy.  The roundtable addressed the question of the historical significance of Debussy’s wartime compositions with contributions by Matthew Brown (Eastman School of Music), Marianne Wheeldon (University of Texas at Austin), chaired by Barbara Kelly (RNCM).  Alongside these papers and discussions were a series of composer workshops leading to a highlight of the celebrations, the Chamber Concert ‘In Memoriam Claude Debussy’, consisting of new works by Drew Hammond (University of Glasgow), Gary Carpenter, Adam Gorb, Thomas Butler, Étienne Keppelen, Martha Sullivan, Gregor Forbes and Ailie Robertson, which were performed by members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  The keynote, given by Marianne Wheeldon, shed new light on the reception of Debussy’s music immediately after his death and its defining impact on shaping the composer’s legacy.  The five-day conference gave delegates and multiple audiences the chance to reflect on Debussy’s significance from our current perspective and to discover new scholars and approaches to the study of this influential and elusive composer.

These Centenary Celebrations were generously supported by the Royal Musical Association, RNCM, University of Glasgow, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Royal Academy of Music, Music & Letters, Eastman School of Music, IReMUS and North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership.


Barbara L. Kelly (RNCM) and David Code (University of Glasgow)

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