University of Northern Iowa

Claude Debussy, Poet and Dreamer
Author(s): Lawrence Gilman
Source: The North American Review, Vol. 183, No. 602 (Nov. 2, 1906), pp. 877-886
Published by: University of Northern Iowa
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yet it was not the of Wagner. . . he spoke a language which was as a strange tongue in our day is summed up in the to those for whom Gallic music Massenet of Saint-Saens.134 on Tue. . His utter diversions ances bore the authentic stamp of modernity. or thy LAWRENCE OILMAN. . definition. . best. This content downloaded from 109." and of other orchestral and * He choral works. He eluded modernity nor was at first his school. over there .* born at St.CLAUDEDEBUSSY. impression singularity A Frenchman. BY " Whom mother. a Prix de Rome Claude Debussy. positive glance. or less vigilantly at post Those whom duty keeps more of been late critical watch-towers have the upon increasingly an artistic figure of aware of that none too frequent apparition: of a musician who made wholly novel physiognomy?precisety. of the Prelude k l'Apres of Mallarme. winner et Pelleas composer of a music-drama based upon Maeterlinck's of Melisande. nor of Brahms. an of immediate and distinction. enigmatical brother?" say. no longer use* chamber-music. and their kind. thy thy friends?" "Thy " Thy ?" fatherland "Gold?" " / love the marvellous clouds clouds. .63. This perplexing in 1862. man.-Germain " in 1884. father. the clouds which pass . 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . thy lovest thou sister.POET AND DREAMER. nor of Strauss. after the Eclogue Midi d'un Faune. the first of these piano given pieces and names. now living in Paris. the ?Baudelaire.121." play." . altogether and eccentric personage was Achille obvious. " " " the Trois Nocturnes for orchestra.

" curieux. this tres-solitaire Claude Debussy. that is at least a sufficiently clear indication as an active of the he is not regarded precisely exemplar aware one of is all who at doctrines he has avowed. is the man's natural idiom. exceptionnel. music that persuades and insinu enslaves the mind. Yet this de he does the mob of loungers on the boulevard. an influence that is already far from negligible. and abundantly. achieved. Any his essential quality knows that no artist ever more uncompro in his tower of ivory than does Debussy. . with a kind of shy and wistful pathos. that music us be "should immediate give joy". it is him otherwise. to conceive writing impossible It is a point of approach which has already. outspoken and naivete is known to his opponents champion of obviousness as the most of precieux.63. this aversion to direct communication. " et itself. best seen against imagined tapestries against re whose com shadows and tragic glooms and radiances" vealing One is here aware of pulsions are very actual and very poignant. masterpiece: a twilight beauty and glamour. In Paris to-day he shares with Vincent songs. the mind. elect. Melisande"?undoubtedly. Pelleas is marvellous music in his There justified of his music thus far. is one of those dream-colored dramas of . . Philip crowd as he "shuns the harmonically agreeing malignant". as has been said " of a kindred art-work. d'Indy the place of honor among the musical imitated. with what one must Debussy. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . " as the tres has accurately characterized tres. admirable jest from one whom his colleague. Hale has which is. should "perceptible"?an Alfred Bruneau. as in America he is exercising and in England. and the esoteric. elemental forces working of a secret and haunting the shadowy figures who move beauty inhabiting dimly. He exhibits as Mr. is wholly sincere?it once one has become fully cognizant of his personality. shut himself misingly an abhorrence of the easily of the commonplace. regard as an impish endeavor to confound of those who would too confident the understanding ly appraise his art. For M. and those who misun incorrigible call him un his method derstand his purpose and dislike as an epithet while cerebral ? inaccurate that. in silence and indirection.134 on Tue. that persistently Here. through a no less This content downloaded from 109. grotesquely a definition. ates. he is industriously and elsewhere. gravely enough.878 THE WORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.121. has observed. justly observed." this passion for tachment.

134 on Tue. the psychic world. half in the mood of reverie.. hue and quality of moods which are the result of vague or specific re emotional stimuli. which is ex It is music quisite enough in itself." comparable felicity set. POET AND DREAMER. land of his soul that he discerns men know as passion and emotion. "Sirenes" (written for orchestra and women's voices). Here. for want of an apter equalled intensity is colored. lies. but with everything that this word includes in " the way of impressions and special lights. but. Herein distilled the thing alembicated. the composer is not concerned with the form of the nocturne. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . exactly " music itself as in Debussy's Movement. in a way." In the first. It is made clear throughout his later and characteristic work and with an un that this unique tone-poet lives almost wholly. the secret of his remarkable art.. their astral images?their he gives you. entirely of a concept so subtle as quite embodiment dinary fantasy?an to defy exposition. " himself explained. as it were. with bursts of brusque light?luminous in total rhythm. rhythm cryptic exegesis: dancing in the atmosphere. and evanescent." are his words for it. of what other any certitude In his eager and insatiable and interior. This content downloaded from 109. One savors it." is "the unchangeable appearance of the sky. a through an is extraor It and chimerical magical procession. of of a dream: there is the suggestion. of of the most most aerial the inveterate refinement. Nuages. subtlety." is no less impalpable the sea and its innumerable rhythm sea and its voices of seduction is the key-note of its mood?the " a l'Apres-Midi and command. is as elusive and bafflingly suggestive as the fading actuality own words. not with the His music term.63.CLAUDE DEBUSSY.121. in brief. thirst for all beauty that is fugitive. " . 379 The and ecstasies of griefs and fatalities. consciousness: flection in the supersensuous to the last degree. I believe. and is moved and enthralled but stated in the it implies is as evasively what by it." "a festival and passing it. The dust participating third piece. in what one must call. is. with the slow and march of clouds "?a melancholy conception realized with an in and restraint. recognizably. in Debussy's and its blended music. transfigured. pageant "shadowy for orchestra are conceived half in the spirit of Nocturnes" as Debussy has landscape. For him the visible is only upon the border exist?it world does not. yet it grips and abides. In the Prelude d'un Faune" ?an earlier work?Mallarme's famous rhapsody. the second of the "Fetes.

kept himself conspicuously free." than to the thrall of a luminous and absorbing of reality is at His contemplation world of dream and fantasy. Wagner was censured for modu authority with every beat of the lating in every bar. From of the ascending half-tone of the dominance which progression " " Tristan the pattern. gave modern musicians Wagner's in his later and representative work. of diatonic procedure. altogether It pays tribute neither to the elder traditions system of expression.63. It is the signature of his style. William He is like him in his supreme unconcern with those Butler Yeats. it may be. Certain of its roots strike deep into the fertile soil of Wagner. emotional gestures that are traditional and immediately signifi cant. and he has attained thereby an order of fluid and utterance untrammelled that is capable of an unimagined elo quence. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . for it involves a complete overthrow of those canons of tonal integrity which. have seemed to have the force and of immutable law. for so long. in a narrow and pedagogic sense." But he worships at an altar whose true significance. His system is.121. He has contrived day. hearts must burn and beat.THE NORTH AMERICAN 880 REVIEW. subversive. singular style arresting enough gest to the most casual the presence of a new voice among the clamorous tongues of contemporary music. he has. nor to the ungoverned chromaticism whose formulas have obsessed the music of the last half-century. yet from that source of immeasurable richness Debussy has won a product that is. His is less the adoration of beloved things than of the priestess of beauty who discloses their immortal substance.134 on Tue. Hence it is that he is far less responsive to that region of " the spirit where of many hearts the multitudinous beatings become one. to an entirely novel his own. he reminds one of that most sensitive of modern poets. This content downloaded from 109. He has broken down almost the last of the artificial barriers that a restricted inter set up between the pretation of musical principles has arbitrarily different keys. sug itself. he does not fully apprehend. but Debussy modulates measure. once clairvoyant and ecstatic: " You need And bind And but up all men's lift a pearl-pale hand your long hair and sigh. This spiritual attitude of a is revealed through the medium to which in and is.

merge music the key relationships established by long tradition are no for our ears. " " " " and in the Nocturnes Pelleas et Melisande in. There are not a few contrapuntal no but they impress one as incidental. He has demonstrated particular capacity. ably enlarged and enriched the expressional material does not hold so significant a place The melodic element in his scheme. impinging and tides. so to speak. yet we are not sensi are invited merely to yield ourselves to ble of being adrift?we a new control. His harmonic hues are not so much juxtaposed as mixing refract. and has measur of music.63. to alter the figure. one becomes aware of a Yet. to a wayward-seeming whose pilot understanding. a new harmonic idiom. But one must immediately qualify such a state ment by the observation that Debussy is very far from turning deliberate worked he has vol. bility. it may be. in certain songs Almost twenty years ago Debussy was employing ideas that. Instead. they cease to exist at all. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . an ideal of form. his tonal combinations one another. reecho blended. seem little short of anarchistic. perceives deeper currents and subtler winds than does our own. for the as are of such polyphonic miracles accomplishment Strauss with so superb a mastery. upon a changing and multicolored we are are and conscious of waves there sea. as the dominant notes of the painter's color scheme For in this into and react upon their complements. when his idiom is comprehended. ?he does things that. and. for those whose chosen or hieratic function it is to uphold the elder codes. He has shown no especial fondness for intricate poly felicities in his writing. for example. 56 This content downloaded from 109.121. or perhaps one should say no liking.CLAUDE DEBUSSY. by his preoccupation with specifically harmonic effects. He is the shifting apparently underlying a the the first composer to suggest completely analogy of painter colors. phony. ggl of invention and artistry. perplex and disconcert many harmonic and in his maturer work? minds not unreclaimably orthodox. Debussy marks a return?how broadly significant one need not now inquire?to a method essentially homophonic. POET AND DREAMER.?made natural enough. flexi the art of purely harmonic utterance. 602.134 on Tue. by Eichard carried to a point of almost incredible adroitness.?no. no doubt. lawless and structure. his style is a marvel Harmonically. inexorable delicately uncompromising logic. indeed. even to-day. The familiar buoys are absent. currents. We are. and resourcefulness He has invented. longer apparent?indeed. clxxxiii.

cavil whether the But initial stirring episode why or of the for his music need Da Vinci's be Mona money impulse " in this sense. bouquet picture. with extravagant -finesse and most subtle to his own intensely yet unlabored sophisticated art. he acquired some minor traits For any marked which he is happily unlearning. though less often. it partakes of the deep-seated and influential magic that informs his musical personality. traces of the influence of Berlioz. It has dramatic. without marked character of its again." ly allegiance From Massenet his own quality. situation. he has applied understanding. own. He has gone far on the path of his own destiny. at the much he learned well and that He acquired all start. and it is not wholly curve. a a in novel. but Wagner Occasionally has been his fountain-head. melody which native to to is be his melody genius impeached because it will not stand the absurd test of being listened to without its harmonic support. deeply." " his to creator of the full as they are of Tristan. guiltless and inevitably. One wonders for what field of creative musicianship his gifts for what we amusingly best fit him?whether call "absolute" or for that whose primary music. and its persuasions nor is the type of out-of-doors. proceeds from a inspiration or emotional stimulus. it is but the border of his harmonic design. flexibility. of the sentimental and quite properly Sometimes. com that Wagner could teach him of the potency of dissonantal of of structural chromatic and binations. no one since Wagner himself.882 TME WORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.134 on Tue. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . he is a indeed ? Undoubtedly. of Brahms. "insupportable. His melody is emphatically There individual. the lesson. one searches fruitlessly. it has both saliency and beauty. Lisa ?" Why liter This content downloaded from 109. concretely " ' " a been said of him that he is composer obviously literary' "his brain must first be excited by the contemplation ?that of a a dramatic a of beautiful verse. he makes one think of Cesar Franck. He has owed Debussy's ancestry much to Wagner?whom in print he has called.63. with diverting The early songs show quite clear vehemence. pictorial. are times when it verges upon obviousness. evolved for himself of modern music-makers but the greatest taught him. has a style more richly dyed with personality.121. relationships. of Liszt. musical is not obscure. it asserts itself with potency and at its best. not even Strauss. and then distinction. or is more rhythmic than melodic.

" composed and in his et most and "Pelleas Melisande. piano that dates from what may be called piece of writing fascinating " his middle period "?it was composed in 1893 and produced in In lyric form there Paris by Ysaye's quartet in the same year. an impression purest own use to his ist: a sensitive recorder.63. for of all he. and three sketches.134 on Tue. "La Mer": chromatic harp and orchestra. ?lue." " in 1884. it will seem otiose to record the fact that. he was ideally fitted. There are to the period between 1889 and 1906. that he is. title. songs.CLAUDE DEBUSSY. His only considerable works that are not avowed ary " Fan external stimulus are his ly associated with a particular a his and for and tasie" orchestra. apt phrase. songs: Prodigue. has revealed in this. he is anything writing emplar of "programmatic" a a to slave delineation." are contained His doctrines in esse?have and prepossessions " a as He et focus?in Pelleas to Melisande." Eome. are contained much that is rare and typical. however natural an ex he may be. a l'Apres-Midi d'un Faune the "Prelude already mentioned) full it its de S. Mouvement)". as in no other work. all belonging are a more numerous of the characteristic which piano pieces. 883 " composer. Yet. the "Trois Mallarme)"?to give (Eclogue a a for Profane" and "Danse "Danse Sacree" Nocturnes". I the in evident enough think. Hommage Eameau. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . in advance of the event. curiously string Quartet. his distinguishing traits. " " La dans Soiree Suite Bergamasque. POET AND DREAMER. only one in listening to his music best fitted. was best fitted to write music was and exacting He not beautiful Maeterlinck's play. in which for whom This is. sense that outworn and misdirected of term. "Images (Eeflets dans Pluie). quite evidently. were." (Pagodes. Estampes sous and la Jardins Grenade. living composers. Nowhere else is he so completely and disarmingly himself. that in his medium. catches oneself imagining that it and the drama issued from the This content downloaded from 109. important " " Fantasie For orchestra there are (besides the dicative work. so happy One would have said. It has been made but tonal realist. La which won him the Prix de Rome at the Institut in four later after Demoiselle years Eossetti." a are many and there l'Eau. the output of a music-maker the most engaging function of his art is its capacity for emotional and dramatic representation. for those who know him. of "im pressions and special lights.121. in the foregoing pages." it come. " an early cantata L'Enfant besides the are.

Melody phrases. which confirms Melody a fixed sentiment. For Debussy has caught and reuttered. after hearing the work in its lyric form.?intended." How ever much one may hesitate to subscribe to Debussy's generalities. conceivably. I wished. ally. the changes of senti ment and passion felt by my characters.134 on Tue. is suitable only for the song (chanson). metreless." Its indescribable glamour. to think of it apart from its tonal commentary. He has similitude. phrases.THE NORTH AMERICAN 884 REVIEW." Debussy has defended his incomprehensible " I have been reproached. (whose are not. he was the age-worn regaled with charge of having and himself Maeterlinck "ignored melody altogether". brought down upon that. an unbroken recitative. 1902. the and fate-burdened it is steeped? in which magical atmosphere score. the heart-shaking sad made definitely and poignantly articulate " ness and beauty of this vieille et triste legende de la foret. in the action should never be arrested. employs " Pelleas" more than else. his musical personages were mere " stammering phan toms ". It is effaced as soon as it is necessary that these should have perfect liberty in their gestures as in their cries. musical is. the final justification for his procedure is in the fact that it is to suited its tonal of Maeterlinck's utterance ideally purpose?the and broken To set them in have rhymeless. never in the voice. these things have found voice and tangibility in Debussy's He has subjected the play to anything but a conventionally operatic treatment." practice with point and directness: " he says. To the dis senters. none of the contrasted declamation and cantdbile that Wagner so an with brilliant It was this feature of effectiveness. The voices sing in a constant chant?technic there is no vocal melody whatever. it is difficult.121. with almost incredible the precise poetic accent of the dramatist. through technical exigencies. almost anti-lyric. in their joy as in their sorrow. if I may say so. because in my score the melodic phrase is always found in the orchestra. I have never been willing that my music should hinder.?that I wanted to dispense with parasitic be continuous.63. its veiled and shadowy loveliness. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . same brain. musical called the perceptions unlimited) " work an version. anything its composer's head the wrath of the rear-guard when the work was produced at the Opera Comique in April. that it should fact. This content downloaded from 109. and powerless to express the constant change of emotion or life. uninterrupted. Not only is it impossible to conceive of the play wedded to any other music.

134 on Tue. in its lyric form that makes the work the unparalleled and insinuating thing it is. The achievement?an astonishing tour as artistically as it is un de force." Fontaine in the second act. inevitable. There are a number of in the Wagnerian development. the writing " " for the voices in Pelleas never. Debussy makes scarcely less resolute a departure from tradition. and the ecstatic culmina tion of the final love scene. in the fourth act. They are seldom set in sharp and nor does Debussy con vividly dramatic contrast.POET AND DREAMER. adjustment elements. at the least?is successful in modern music. but they are employed more sparingly and simply than modern precedent would have led one to expect. to speculate upon It is pleasant precedented or Gounod?or. yet the effect of the thing is spontaneous. passion or of conflict or of tragedy is never forced. Many passages are of an hypnotic and abiding fascination.63. speech. un than a dozen fortissimo marks rhetorical as the music and in such truly is. action. His person ages love and desire. CLAUDE DEBUSSY. as with Wagner. As it is. of singular beauty and character. There is little s}rmphonic sense. or the scene at the This content downloaded from 109. the music supports the dramatic and emotional crisis with superb competency.121. Yet. Wagner?would have said to the idea of an opera written. music. as one might sup reasonably pose. from beginning in recitative. His orchestra reflects the emotion weaving significant al implications of the text and action with scrupulous fidelity. of tone: it is this perfect ambient and suffusing atmosphere of and scenery. as that of Goloud's agonized outbreak in the climactic moments scene with Melisande. it is never pallid. the effect is of the enclosure of the play in an Throughout. to end. unforced. exult and hate and die with a surprising and insistence. In his treatment of the orchestra. becomes monotonous. but suggestively rather than with detailed emphasis. The drama is far less heavily underscored the note of than with Wagner. " gg5 " the sustained arioso style of would have Tristan und Isolde been as impossible as it would have been inept. there are scarcely more economy of vehemence in the entire score. representative phrases. There is something necromantic in the art which can so swiftly and so surely cast an ineluctable spell a spell as is cast in upon the heart and the imagination?such " des Aveugles. 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . or Verdi what Eossini indeed. as a polyphonic trive the fabric of his accompaniment inter of themes.

These will wonder organization at the elasticity and richness of the harmonic texture?which. . 12 May 2015 13:51:56 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . of strange thoughts and fantastic ' reveries and exquisite pass1 ons. little cell by jell. yet has the curious and compensating property of and secret aspects. in this music. rhythmical variety individual orchestration. that it excels in subtlety rather than in breadth.THE NORTH AMERICAN 886 when. art. and delicate precision Debussy has accomplished concentration. it is incurably "irregular.63. with tenderness. as a whole. one must but Debussy. say again. and reserve. It is always. that it has more of ecstasy than of vigor. at close quarters with human and sincere emotion. while it may lessen the impression of actuality. in its graver moments. unforgettable or when the lovers meet for the last time at the Fountain of the or in the scene of Melisande's of the most death?one Blind. of human life. It is less with the thought of marking its deficiencies than of one the limit of notes of what it that defining Debussy's attempts. . at the and at the masterly and expressiveness. It is this remote. Of the manner in which his art re exclusively flects it. his results only those who care to understand the structural of a score can quite appreciate. Here is a musician who walks with those behind every concrete eager and quickened beings for whom. of Debussy's perception justly to value the excellences is great beauty. tower. hovers a shape of fire and air?for manifestation whom the dreaming spirit of the world has a far greater authen ticity and a nearer presence than the shifting substances that are its shadow. with sensibility. With what simplicity." LAWfrgtfp:p GiLM4tf? This content downloaded from 109." while is never crude nor inchoate. pathetic and affecting pages in all music. Melisande's un bound hair falls and envelops Pelleas?an page. this astral life that profoundly and concerns him. But it need require no faculty of trained score. There It has sincerity. yet it is charged to the brim with ardor. from within beauty defined by Pater?"a beauty wrought the deposit. one may not inaptly say that it has pervadingly that .121. envisages his world through a psychic veil that magicalizes without distorting?a veil that. unnoticed revealing unsuspected lights and surfaces and contours. Yet it is neither frail nor slight.134 on Tue. upon the staircase under the castle REVIEW. at the suppleness of the melodic and refinement line. dignity. great eloquence.