Debussy: The Transitive Years

September 22, 2012

During the late 19th century, the influence of Wagner was immense in France. Since his music was banned in France at that time, many French composers took the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to enjoy Wagnerian opera performance there. Debussy was no exception. He went to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889, with the first time deeply touched by Wagner’s music, and the second time finding that Wagner’s music is the end of the older tradition rather than the beginning of new style. The year of the second pilgrimage was also the very same year in which he went to the Universal Exhibition and saw the live performance of Javanese gamelan ensemble, and was deeply influenced by its music since then. He also became aware of the music of the past, especially the French operatic tradition, and was greatly involved in the Symbolist movement.

The “Le Balcon” of Cinq Poems de Baudelaire (1887-9) shows the most Wagnerian-Debussy style: the harmony is luxuriously presented in the piano part which is like an orchestral reduction with thick texture and chromaticism, the voice has a dramatic melody, very operatic and has a wide range, and is full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic declamation. This set of five songs has the poems by Baudelaire, who was one of the main Symbolist poets. The “Mon pleure dans coeur” is composed of traditional lines. Here the words are placed to suggest subtle meaning, e.g. the falling of “rain” (“pluie”) implies the tears (pleure) falling down too; and the poet used the sound of the words to give musical resonance, like “pleure” and “coeur”. The “Le Balcon” is avery erotic poem, with twelve traditional lines. It also has the same symbolic effect, with musical treatment of words and subtle suggestive meaning.

The Javanese gamelan ensemble’s live performance definitely gave a tremendous influence on Debussy’s music. The ensemble is of big size, with typically percussion instruments (mallet-type), two-string rebab (played like lute), flute, gongs, and drums (with dancers only). The music is free of metrical rhythmic sense, with free flowing movement, circularity and fluidity. It has a sense of being static as it focuses on vertical movement instead of linear movement. In Suite Bergamasque (1890)on, one can see the musical sense applied from gamelan music, being moving and circular, and concentrating on vertical moment. In String Quartet (1893), the influence of gamelan music is most prominent in the second movement. It has the main features of gamelan music: the fixed melody (2-bar pattern) is played by cello (bowed) with other instruments playing pizzicato around it in terms of various elaboration, like augmentation and diminution. This resembles the gamelan music that has a fixed melody by string instrument surrounded by other instruments in variation, in an improvisatory way.

These two pieces discussed above also show the influence by the music of the past. The Suite Bergamasque has four pieces: the second and fourth are dance pieces (minuet and passapied) and both are French Baroque dance. The third piece “Clair de Lune” replaces here the sarabande, and all these are led by the “Prelude” as the opening piece, resembling the 17th century French clavecinist pieces. The String Quartet has a cyclic form of Franckian style other than gamelan music gesture. It was named “Op.10”, the only opus number Debuss had ever given to any piece and it was written for the Societé Nationale. It has the traditional title (“String Quartet”) and form in terms of movements, yet it is definitely innovative.

The Symbolist Movement was popular among the French elite group and especially the literary figure. This was originally a literary movement, being especially prominent in poetry and novels. The leader of the movement, Mallarmé, invited Debussy to join his Tuesday evening meeting since he got back from Rome for his Prix de Rome. And Debussy since then regarded himself as one of the circle members.

The Prelude á l’Apres midi d’un faune (1894) is based on the poem by Mallarmé. Originally he planned to write three parts: Prelude, Interlude, and Finale. Then he changed to write only one whole piece, following the rise and fall of the poem. The poem is about an ancient Greek myth, with the mythological figure faun, sleeping and awakening in the mid-afternoon, and dreaming about the nymph, being in a state between awakening and dreaming. This is a very symbolic poem, as it is all about the state between dreaming and reality, the inner state of feeling and mind, the subtlety and implication of meaning in several layers, and ambiguity and uncertainty. As a word has different meaning, a chord in music gives ambiguity to the harmony. Indeed, the tonality here is weakened and whole tone scale is used. The chords follow the progression of the melody instead of vice versa. Melody here has a primarily AA’BA form. The music does not have any climax or ending, as Debussy tried hard to avoid. It has a sense of circularity and fluidity, without forward movement. In fact, it focuses on vertical movement and has a lot of static moments. This also suggests the deep influence by gamelan musical style.

“Nocturnes” (1898-9) is a set of three pieces- three tableaux with similar materials and motive. It is the first piece without a coherent program or external inspiration of any kind since the “Prelude”. It is naturally a symbolist, and also naturalist piece. The first piece, “Nuages” has a very sparse texture. The opening suggests the wide distance by sparsely-structured orchestration. There are two-part counterpoint and double octaves, also to give a sense of distance and ambiguity. The English horn is prominent here to suggest the image of the “bateau monocles”. “Fêtes” has an interesting momentum with exciting moments yet not dramatic. It resembles the festival music probably heard by the composer in his childhood. It is overtly very descriptive in terms of symbolism by the orchestration and use of motivic materials. “Sirenes” has a two-note motive with a tone apart. It has a wordless chorus and movement of freedom in metrical and rhythmic sense. In fact, it is very symbolist as the motive is used to suggest the sirens and the waves. The chorus gives an ambiguous atmosphere in the background.

Perhaps the most symbolic of all works around this time is “the Pelleás et Melisande” (1902). It was actually written in 1895 as the first version, yet Debussy rejected it as it sounded too “Wagnerian”. The “new” version has a libretto of a play by Maeteslinck, another important symbolist figures. The story is medieval, and the characters are actually very “mobile”, without own will and follow the fate as it goes along. Only active character is Goland, Pelleas’ brother, but his action was left to no avail. The opera is in five acts, with each scene having its own distinctive group of motives. The use of leitmotive can be found, but it is different from Wagnerian one. Here it is used to give information, but not associated with the characters all the time as they are on stage. Motives are rearranged and juxtaposed together, as influenced by Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”. The orchestra gives an atmospheric background to the whole opera, with the libretto (/words) being the most important elements here. This is in fact a tradition of French opera. The other thing is French is set here as a spoken language, as a means for natural declamation, like what Rosseau suggested and Rameau did. It indeed has an influence of Wagner, like the opening harmony of Tristan, the plot and so on, and also the atmosphere and language of Parisfal. Yet here Debussy managed to cooperate all these in his own style with all other influences mentioned.

From all of the above, we can see Debussy was establishing his own style through the acception, rejection and readaptation of Wagner with the gamelan music, the music of French tradition and the symbolist movement. He was going to breakthrough to an even more mature Debussy style from Pelleás onwards.

Teresa Wong

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