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.
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