Debussy Conquers the World


It’s true. As Steve Reich said in an old issue of The Wire, 20th century music was an argument between Debussy and Schoenberg, and Debussy won. That is, tonality endures (atonality has turned out to be a passing mania) while form and structure have opened up dramatically.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Warner Brothers Complete Works box:


Dipping in to its contents over the past few months has convinced me that this is essential, not only for completeness but the quality of the performances inside. Everything has been great, the orchestral recordings of course, but the Preludes and Etudes are gorgeous, and this version of Pelléas et Melisande (which was new to me) has become my favorite.

So how does this DG box compare? It’s $8 or so dollars cheaper, and that gets you 9 fewer discs, so no bargain. And with 9 fewer, is it really complete? The WB box is everything Debussy left on paper, including obscurities that had never before been recorded and works discovered only recently. The caveat from the DG description is that this is the complete “published” works, i.e. everything previously known and extant—with a bonus DVD performance of Pelléas.

Musical quality is equal between the two. Debussy’s work is some of the best recorded in classical music in terms of performance and sound quality—the great musicians have loved this music and produced great documents. If the money saved is valuable enough for you, the DG box is an excellent purchase, but overall the WB Complete Debussy is superior.

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I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.