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Nature, music, and meaning in Debussy's writings

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Dayan, P 2005, 'Nature, music, and meaning in Debussy's writings' 19th-Century Music, vol 28, no. 3, pp.
214-229., 10.1525/ncm.2005.28.3.214

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Download date: 23. Oct. 2015

On Nature, Music, and Meaning in Debussy's Writing
Author(s): Peter Dayan
Source: 19th-Century Music, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Spring 2005), pp. 214-229
Published by: University of California Press
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19 TH

Nature, Music, and Meaning

in Debussys Writings

I should say at the outset that this is an article, relationship is present in Debussys texts, of-
not on Debussys music, but on his words. I am ten in a peculiarly elliptical or understated form,
not a musicologist; my experience, expertise, as if echoing the work of the poets he knew, in
and ambitions lie in the field of textual analy- turns of phrase and types of reasoning that might
sis, particularly within the French post-Roman- well seem odd rather than revealing to a reader
tic tradition. Nonetheless, I hope that what I not used to analyzing the literary syntax of the
have to say may be of interest to musicologists. time. My aim in writing this article was to see
I am encouraged in this hope by Matthew Rileys what would happen if I tried to read Debussy in
highly suggestive article Rustling Reeds and the same way that I might read Mallarm, or
Lofty Pines: Elgar and the Music of Nature. Baudelaire, or Proust, while wondering how
Riley proceeds from the assumption that such a reading might reflect on the way we
Elgars remarks can be read not merely as associate words with music (which is, doubt-
biographical testimony but also as literary tropes less, the main enterprise of musicology).
that have antecedents and contemporaneous Whether these considerations can or should
parallels.1 I started from the same assumption affect our appreciation of the musicthat ques-
about Debussys writings and found them par- tion, I do not, unlike Riley,2 address directly.
ticularly interesting in the way that they fold We will find that reasons emerge for deferring
literary tropes into discourse on music.
The antecedents and contemporaneous par-
allels of Debussys writing style compose a Or Elizabeth McCombie, whose book Mallarm and
Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text (Oxford: Oxford
theoretical tradition within which the very defi- University Press, 2003) is an examination of the parallels
nition of music depends on a paradoxical rela- between Debussys aesthetics and Mallarms based on an
tionship with literatureand vice versa. This analysis, not of Debussys words, but of his music, in
terms informed by Mallarms critical discourse and po-
etic practice. McCombie provides perhaps the most pro-
ductive model we have for listening to Debussy in ways
This journal 26 (2002), 15577 (quote, p. 157). structured by interdisciplinary reflection.

214 19th-Century Music, XXVIII/3, pp. 214229. ISSN: 0148-2076, electronic ISSN 1533-8606. 2005 by the Regents of the Uni-
versity of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content
through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website, at

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any answer to it; but it does seem to me, going when writing earlier about Pellas et Mlisande? PETER
by his correspondence, that they affected De- Simeone suggests that it is the charge of stu- Meaning in
bussys approach to composition, and indeed dio-bound artificiality which [Debussy] had so Debussys
his ability to compose. strenuously sought to avoid.5 This would, I
On 15 October 1905, Pierre Lalo published a think, be the natural assumption of the mod-
review of Debussys La Mer in which he criti- ern concertgoer, who would expect Debussy to
cized the work for not representing its subject want his work to be perceived as containing a
realistically, immediately, or naturally enough. natural expression of the sea. If one reads the
letter carefully, however, one begins to con-
It seemed to me that Debussy had willed himself to ceive that exactly the opposite may be true.
feel, rather than feeling truly, deeply, naturally. For Debussy is not concerned to defend his music
the first time when listening to a picturesque work on the grounds that it really does render present
by Debussy, I had the impression of being, not be- the sea. On the contrary: his aim is to refuse
fore nature, but before a reproduction of nature; a
Lalo the right to judge music, any music, on
marvellously refined, ingenious, and efficiently fab-
such grounds. In fact, his starting point, in his
ricated reproduction, but a reproduction nonethe-
less. . . . I could not hear the sea, see the sea, smell letter, is not to defend La Mer against Lalos
the sea. criticism; it is to defend his other works against
Lalos praise.
(Il me semble que Debussy a voulu sentir plutt Lalo had appeared to say that some pieces by
quil na vraiment, profondment et naturellement Debussy were admirable because, unlike La
senti. Pour la premire fois, en coutant une uvre Mer, they did give him the impression of being
pittoresque de Debussy, jai limpression dtre, non immediately in front of nature herself. Debussy
point devant la nature, mais devant une reproduc- indignantly refuses this as a criterion for appre-
tion de la nature; reproduction merveilleusement ciating his work. He says at the very beginning
raffine, ingnieuse et industrieuse, mais reproduc-
of the letter that he doesnt mind Lalo not
tion tout de mme. . . . Je nentends pas, je ne vois
liking La Mer. But he very definitely does mind
pas, je ne sens pas la mer.)3
Lalo appreciating his earlier works on false
Debussy replied ten days later (the delay is
perhaps not without significance), with, as Nigel
My dear friend,
Simeone puts it, wounded vigour.4 The ques-
The fact that you do not like La Mer causes me
tion that interests me is: what wounded him? no difficulties and I have no intention of complain-
What, exactly, does he object to in Lalos com- ing about that . . . but I part company with you when
ments, and so strongly that, he implies, he you use this as a pretext for suddenly deciding that
would never have communicated with Lalo my other works are lacking in logic and are only
again had Lalo not shown more understanding held together by an obstinate attachment to feelings
and an equally obstinate searching after the pictur-
esque . . . . Truly! dear friend, though I may not
Lalos text is quoted in a footnote to Debussys have learnt music as you understand it, nonetheless
Correspondance 18841918, ed. Franois Lesure (Paris: I am an artist.
Hermann, 1993), p. 207. All references to Debussys writ-
ings are either to this edition or to Monsieur Croche et
autres crits, ed. Lesure (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), hence- (Mon cher ami,
forth abbreviated Correspondance and Monsieur Croche. Il ny a aucun inconvnient ce que vous naimiez
The texts in these volumes may generally be found trans- pas La Mer et je ne veux pas men plaindre . . . mais
lated into English, either in Debussy Letters, ed. Franois je ne puis vous suivre quand vous en prenez prtexte
Lesure and Roger Nichols, trans. Nichols (London: Faber,
pour trouver tout coup, que mes autres uvres
1987), or in Debussy on Music, coll. and intro. Lesure, and
ed. and trans. Richard Langham Smith (London: Secker manquent de logique et ne se soutiennent que par
and Warburg, 1977); my notes allow quoted texts to be une sensibilit tenace et une recherche obstine de
located in these editions by their date, but the translations pittoresque. . . . Vraiment! cher ami, si je ne sais
given here are mine.
Nigel Simeone, Debussy and Expression, in The Cam-
bridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003), p. 108. Simeone gives the date of
the review by Lalo as 16 February; this must be a mistake. Ibid.


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19 TH pas la musique comme vous lentendez, je suis tout occasion, he notes that certain passages in his
CENTURY de mme un artiste.)6
MUSIC compositions evoke, to him, specific scenes
that the listener would never know about or
There are plainly some unspoken assumptions guess at, but that this apparent failure of com-
filling a gap between Lalos article and Debussys munication is of no importance from the strictly
letter. As we will see, these assumptions are musical point of view. For example, in Iberia:
constants in Debussys thought. They are also
constantly unspoken as well as, I think, gener- there is a man selling water-melons and a group of
ally missed, and it is well worth teasing them out. boys whistling; I see them quite clearly. . . . And yet,
What Lalo actually said was, first, that more you see how easy it is to deceive oneself, since some
than one of Debussys earlier works seemed to people think that passage is a serenade. Anyway, the
him pittoresque, and, second, that these matter is of no importance at all, no more than an
works gave him a sense of being before na- article by Lalo.
ture. This plainly seems desirable to Lalo.
(il y a un marchand de pastques et des gamins qui
Debussy, however, thinks that to attribute these
sifflent, que je vois trs nettement. . . . Et pourtant
qualities to his works is to say that they are regardez comme on peut se tromper, puisquil y a
lacking in logic, that they are only held des gens qui ont pris cela pour une srnade. a na
together by an obstinate attachment to feel- dailleurs aucune importance, pas plus quun article
ings, and that their author is not an artist. de Lalo).8
What explains this apparently bizarre interpre-
tation? It is Debussys rejection of Lalos no- One could go further. Not only is the transmis-
tion that one should feel before the work of art sion of such visions of no importance: the kind
that one is before nature. That, to Debussy, is of music that is indeed able to portray specific
mere sensibilit, that is, an openness to emo- scenes is unworthy of the name of music. Popu-
tion caused immediately by identifiable exter- lar it may be; music it is not, and Debussy is
nal stimuli, and he rejects it as contrary to the more than happy to leave that sort of musical
very essence of music. For Debussy, the logic imitation to despised figures like Charpentier,
of art, which every artist seeks by definition, is author of the popular opera Louise:
something whose connection to natureif it
has onemust always remain invisible, mys- Please believe that the music of Ftes was as al-
terious, intangible. ways shaped by impressions that were already dis-
Debussy never sought to deny that listeners tant, of festivities in the bois de Boulogne; the imagi-
and composers alike are endlessly susceptible nary procession was on that particular day com-
to seeing expressive connections between mu- posed of cuirassiers! . . . You wont hold it against
me that since that day, the trumpets have become
sic and the world outside music. However, he
veiled, and Liane de Pougy has ceased to be recogniz-
firmly rejected the notion that such connec-
able.Lets leave fanfares to the barracks and Liane
tions had anything to do with the value of the de Pougy to the immortal author of Louise.
music. He believed equally firmly that true
music was incapable of transmitting them; nor (Croyez que la musique de Ftes fut comme
should it aim to.7 Thus, on more than one toujours adapte des impressions dj lointaines
dune fte au bois de Boulogne; le cortge
chimrique tait, ce jour l, form de cuirassiers!
Correspondance, p. 207 (25 Oct. 1905). . . . Vous ne men voudrez pas si, depuis, les
I seek here only to elucidate Debussys beliefs on this trompettes se sont voiles et que lon ne reconnat
matter; but their broader context is certainly fascinating. plus Liane de Pougy.Laissons les sonneries aux
Lawrence Kramers Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical
History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Califor- casernes et Liane de Pougy limmortel auteur de
nia Press, 2001) contains a sustained and often brilliant Louise.)9
reflection on the subject of how meanings become attached
to music, based primarily on examples from a historical
period in which Debussy is central; however, Debussy is
not one of the composers on whom Kramers book con-
centrates. Perhaps this article could be seen as a modest Correspondance, p. 264 (25 Feb. 1910).
speculation within that gap. Ibid., p. 161 (11 Feb. 1901).


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Debussy is perfectly willing to admit (here to must not be seen as the incarnation of an im- PETER
Dukas) that specific impressions are associated, pression. Listeners will not all hear the same Meaning in
for him personally, with particular works. But scenes in the music (Debussy may hear whis- Debussys
these impressions are already distant even tling children where someone else hears a ser-
for him, and they are impossible for the lis- enade), but that is of no relevance; it is the
tener to recognize. This impossibility is ex- business of neither the critic nor the composer.
pressed, in his description of the appearance of Certainly, the impression was there, the sea
the finished work, by the metaphor of the veil, gave Debussy his starting point, or at least what
common in his writing (and in Romantic and he, at the time, felt to be his starting point. But
post-Romantic aesthetic theory generally), and as he makes music, the sea must recede to the
by the affirmation that the individual figures in point where we cannot judge the music by the
Debussys impression cannot be read into the accuracy of its representation.
music itself. Charpentier can represent the well- In other words, whereas Lalo was distinguish-
known courtesan Liane de Pougy because he is ing between good musical representation (which
not a musician; Debussy cannot represent her would seem natural) and bad musical represen-
because he is a musician. tation (which would seem like a secondary re-
Before coming back to this anonymizing ef- production, a reproduction of a reproduction),
fect of music, let us return to the letter to Lalo to Debussy all musical representation, to put it
about La Mer. simply, is bad; all musical representation has
that secondary character Lalo attributes to La
I love the sea; I have listened to it with the impas- Mer, a secondary character that both Debussy
sioned respect that is its due. If I have transcribed and Lalo see as mechanical. In this sense,
badly what it dictated to me, that is no concern Debussys theory of imitation clearly belongs
either of yours or of mine. And it is not true that all to a tradition that stretches from Baudelaire,
ears perceive things in the same way; you must at
Mallarm, and Villiers de lIsle-Adam to
least accept that.
Derrida. He distinguishes between straightfor-
(Jaime la mer, je lai coute avec le respect passionn ward reproduction, which is a technical matter
quon lui doit. Si jai mal transcrit ce quelle ma of no interest to the artist, and the functioning
dict, cela ne nous regarde pas plus lun que lautre. of art, in which imitation and technique are
Et vous nous concderez que toutes les oreilles ne necessary concepts but no more (and no less)
peroivent pas de la mme faon.)10 necessary than an endless meditation on the
obstructions and limits to imitation. He also
I cant help suspecting that Lalo would have subscribes, like Baudelaire, Mallarm, and
found these three sentences quite incoherent. Villiers, to the notion that the public unfortu-
The logic that links them is not apparent at nately prefers mechanical reproduction to true
first sight. But the principles set out above art (which would be why he is less popular
should help to explain that logic. Why should than Charpentier). Hence Debussys reaction
Debussy first assert that he has indeed listened to the most famous instance of musical repre-
to the sea, then affirm that it is irrelevant sentation in an instrumental work, Beethovens
whether he has transcribed well or badly what Sixth Symphony:
it dictated to him? If he values (as he plainly
does) what the sea has told him, shouldnt ac- In short, the popularity of the Pastoral Symphony
curate and comprehensible transcription be con- arises from the misunderstanding which more or
less generally prevails between nature and man. Take
sidered a virtue?
the scene by the stream! . . . Oxen apparently come
But no: to Debussy, initial impressions are
to drink from it (so the voice of the bassoons invites
not to be denied; yet they have no fixed link to me to believe); not to mention the wooden nightin-
the work of music. If La Mer is to be judged as gale and the Swiss cuckoo, which belong more to
music, it cannot be judged as transcription; it the art of M. de Vaucanson than to any nature wor-
thy of the name . . . all this is pointlessly imitative, a
purely arbitrary interpretation.
Ibid., pp. 20708 (25 Oct. 1905). The old master has written pages which contain


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19 TH far more profound expression of the beauty of the incapable of formulating anything like an opinion . .
CENTURY countryside, simply because they give us no direct for them to think they have dreamed, for an instant,
imitation, but instead a transposition for the senti- of an imaginary country, nowhere to be found be-
ments of what is invisible in nature. cause imaginary.

(En somme, la popularit de la Symphonie pastorale (Sans aller jusquau fait divers, ou au roman, on
est faite du malentendu qui existe assez gnralement pourrait trouver quelque chose. Il est mme inutile
entre la nature et les hommes. Voyez la scne au que la musique fasse penser! . . . Il suffirait que la
bord du ruisseau! . . . Ruisseau o les bufs viennent musique force les gens couter, malgr eux . . . et
apparemment boire [la voix des bassons minvite le quils soient incapables de formuler nimporte quoi
croire], sans parler du rossignol en bois et du coucou ressemblant une opinion . . . quils pensent avoir
suisse, qui appartiennent plus lart de M. de rv, un moment, dun pays chimrique et par
Vaucanson qu une nature digne de ce nom . . . tout consquent introuvable.)13
cela est inutilement imitatif ou dune interprtation
purement arbitraire. Music for Debussy should not enable us to
Combien certaines pages du vieux matre formulate an opinion; it should not evoke in
contiennent dexpression plus profonde de la beaut our minds any realistic tableau; it should merely
dun paysage, cela simplement parce quil ny a plus
make us think we have dreamed of a place that
dimitation directe mais transposition sentimentale
(unlike the sea) does not and cannot exist.
de ce qui est invisible dans la nature.)11
This notion was, as Lalos attitude shows,
The word transposition here signals a key neither generally understood nor uncontro-
concept of Mallarm, explained notably (in typi- versial in Debussys time. It did, however, at
cally elliptical style) in his essays Averses ou least relate fraternally to a certain literary tra-
Critique and Thodore de Banville.12 Trans- dition that remained vigorous until the death
position is the movement that leads away from of Mallarm; a tradition that, in France, I think,
the world of facts (as recounted by journalists) lived on, through the inheritance of Mallarms
toward an ideal medium in which the con- ideas, one might say until the death of Derrida.
struction of sense is a game whose rules appear Today, though, and especially in the English-
derived from the medium itself. In Mallarms speaking world, I see few echoes of it, few
case that medium is language; in Debussys, grounds for supposing that these values would
music. Music, therefore, like poetry, tells no be appreciated or deemed to be of much inter-
tales of real life: est. They would doubtless be assimilated, with
hindsight, to the generally discredited nine-
We should be able to find something without turn- teenth-century philosophy of absolute music.
ing into novelists or crime reporters. It is further- Daniel Chuas Absolute Music and the Con-
more unnecessary for music to make you think! . . . struction of Meaning14 provides a critique of
All we need is for music to force people to listen, in the prehistory and development of this phi-
spite of themselves . . . for them to find themselves losophy and shows clearly why its essentialism
should appear to us so suspect, so close to mys-
tification, and why we have come to focus again,
Monsieur Croche, p. 94 (16 Feb. 1903). Vaucanson was a not on the difficulty of associating meanings
celebrated eighteenth-century maker of automata, includ-
ing an automatic flautist, and a particularly famous duck with music, but on how that association has
with a fully functioning digestive tract. Arthur B. Wenk, been and may be established. But Chuas very
in Claude Debussy and the Poets (Berkeley and Los Ange- rigor leads him to (or, perhaps, is rendered pos-
les: University of California Press, 1976), draws attention
to the problem of representation in Debussys music (as sible only by) a millenarian, indeed apocalyp-
well, pp. 6973, as to the question of Baudelairean corre- tic, conclusion that many will find as suspect
spondences, which I discuss below), but his grasp of as the philosophy he criticizes. It seems to me
Debussys essential distinctions between imitation, trans-
lation, and transposition is so shaky that he can quote the
last sentence of this passage affirming that it expresses
Debussys admiration of the Pastoral Symphony (p. 68),
whereas in fact it expresses precisely the opposite. Correspondance, p. 162 (11 Feb. 1901).
12 14
See Mallarm, uvres compltes, vol. II (Paris: Gallimard, Daniel Chua, Absolute Music and the Construction of
Bibliothque de la Pliade, 2003), pp. 331 and 144. Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


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that the proposition that music must have ences: to sight and smell, certainly, but also to PETER
meaning is as much of a mystification as the verbal language (evoked in the oxymoronic ex- Meaning in
proposition that music must not have mean- pressions images parlantes and silence Debussys
ing. We have learned, in practice, to occupy loquent) and, right at the outset, to litera-
and make fertile the ground between those two ture. To Berlioz, describing a work of music as
propositions.15 In the long term, though, that a pome is obviously the highest praise. Not
fertile space can be maintained only if we re- so to Debussy, for whom (in principle, though
tain our ability to identify with each of the we will see below the limits of this principle)
propositions that bound it. This identification music should be perceived as nothing other
requires the courage to absorb a certain irony than music. Hence his rejection of Berliozs
the irony, precisely, of unavoidable mystifica- aesthetic and his suspicion that Berliozs mu-
tion. In this study, I would like to respect sic is in a sense not real music, but a fraud or
Debussys own courage. Therefore, I will not hoax. Berlioz, he says, was, in my opinion, a
attempt a truly critical reading. Rather, I would prodigious hoaxster, who managed to believe
like to explore how he thinks, and why, and in his own hoaxes (fut, je crois, un prodigieux
where he leaves the relationship between mu- fumiste, qui arriva croire lui-mme ses
sic, letters, and nature. Certainly, I do not ex- fumisteries).17
pect any stable conclusions. One of the ironies The ultimate fumisterie is the notion that
of this type of thinking is the instability of its music can tell a story. That task Debussy as-
results; so that, for example, Berlioz and signs, not merely to verbal language, but spe-
Debussy, who shared so many principles, ar- cifically to journalism, in other words to the
rived, in many ways, at fundamentally opposed least artistic type of language use according to
positions. Mallarms classification: Some people would
Debussy, as we have seen, did not accept the have music serve to recount base anecdotes!
popular view that Beethovens Pastoral Sym- when newspapers are perfectly adequate to per-
phony was good music because it presented form this task (Lon voudrait quelle [la
nature. Berlioz saw things differently. But musique] serve raconter de basses anecdotes!
Beethovens poem! . . . with its endless periods, quand les journaux sacquittent merveille de
so rich in colour! . . . its images, that speak to ce soin.)18
us! . . . its fragrances! . . . its light! . . . its Plainly, in implying that some composers
eloquent silence! . . . its vast horizons! . . . its try to fool us into thinking that music can tell
enchanted woodland solitudes! (Mais le pome stories, Debussy has program music in mind.
de Beethoven! . . . ces longues priodes si His lifelong condemnation of program music is
colores! . . . ces images parlantes! . . . ces consistent with the principles behind these re-
parfums! . . . cette lumire! . . . ce silence marks. Music should not present a story; music
loquent! . . . ces vastes horizons! . . . ces should not attempt to do what language does; it
retraites enchantes dans les bois!)16 Berlioz should be itself. Individuals, be they compos-
positively appreciated, as Lalo might have done, ers, performers, or listeners, may form associa-
the synaesthetic appeal of the work. He seems tions in their heads with extramusical elements,
to take pleasure in describing it through refer- natural or literary. Nonetheless, a certain mys-
ence to a broad range of extramusical experi- tery, a veil, must always remain between any
such associations and the music itself, in which
they are never present. In reaction to Strausss
Among the critics who have tilled this ground, Lawrence Tod und Verklrung, Debussy writes:
Kramer stands out by virtue of his careful attention to the
necessity of maintaining both propositions, and navigat- In any case, if people are going to start trying to
ing between them. To give just one brief example (from a
understand what happens in a symphonic poem, then
discussion of song in Schubert and George Eliot): Mean-
ing . . . remains the very nucleus of song. But any under-
standing of song does need to take account of how and
why meaning is so regularly cast off (Musical Meaning, Correspondance, p. 72 (letter to Andr Poniatowski, Feb.
p. 66). 1893).
16 18
A travers chants (Paris: Michel Lvy frres, 1862), p. 39. Ibid., pp. 7273.


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19 TH we ought to give up writing them.Reading those hear a specific piece of music, it conjures up
CENTURY little guides, in which the letters of the alphabet
MUSIC extramusical connotations.21 The need to fig-
represent clauses to be assembled into a sentence ure an escape from this dynamic, to identify a
which is itself a rebus that one tries to solve during musicality that does not produce this effect,
the performance, will certainly not put an end to the
leads Debussy, paradoxically, back to Nature.
frequent misunderstandings between author and lis-
The same twist, the same return to Nature, is
tener. . . . There is no need for programs, which
attract literature as to a honey-pot; music, just to be found in Mallarm, and for analogous
music, bare music, is enough. reasons.
In a letter of 1911 to Roger Godet, one of the
(Dailleurs, si lon se mle de vouloir comprendre ce privileged friends to whom Debussy seems to
qui se passe dans un pome symphonique, il vaut have felt able to expose his thoughts just as
mieux renoncer en crire.Ce nest certes pas la they occurred to him, we find a progression of
lecture de ces petits guides, o les lettres de lalphabet ideas that sums up beautifully this aesthetic
reprsentent des membres de phrases-rbus, que lon logic. He begins from a planned future perfor-
essaie de rsoudre pendant lexcution, qui fera cesser mance of his opera in Geneva; he fears that it
les frquents malentendus entre lauteur et lauditeur
will not succeed due to its lack of emotional
. . . il nest pas besoin de programme, qui attire la
program. We recognize here his conviction
littrature comme miel, la musique la plus simple,
la plus nue, y suffit.)19 that popularity requires a program, whereas his
music has none. (It may seem curious that he
Fifteen years earlier, at the time of his first should consider his opera to have no such pro-
sallies into the field of the symphonic poem, he gram; it is beyond my powers to analyze the
had expressed a similar opinion, referring to his opera itself to explain this, but I hope that
own work Printemps: In all this, naturally, no Debussys contention is now at least compre-
program, as I have a profound disdain for music hensible as part of an aesthetic system.) He
that has to follow a little piece of literature goes on to speculate about the Geneva public:
which, as one enters, one finds kindly thrust he imagines it as unmusical because it is com-
into ones hand. (Tout cela naturellement sans posed of professors who only recognize ideas
programme, ayant un profond ddain pour la when they are formally dressed up. Music, as
musique devant suivre un petit morceau de we have seen, according to Debussy, should
littrature quon a eu le soin de vous remettre contain no such ideas. Then he says he would
en entrant.) Or, writing to fellow composer infinitely prefer listening to the wind on the
Raymond Bonheur: All I want is the assent of mountains with Godet.
people who, like you, have no human interest Prefer this to what? Listening to Pellas in
in simplistic programs and are good enough to Geneva? It is not quite clear; what is clear is
believe in music unalloyed. (Je veux that he immediately proceeds to describe the
simplement lassentiment de gens qui, comme wind as creating music. But this would be a
toi, sont humainement dsintresss des music that, obviously, since it has been created
programmes trop faciles et veulent bien croire by no human agency, cannot be received as the
une musique sans alliage.)20 transmission of any human sense at all. Can
But where, precisely, is this music sans music be said to exist in the absence of per-
alliage? In practice, its existence is hard to ceived human meaning? Yes and no. It makes
maintain. As we have seen, composers and lis- no sense to define it thus, and yet Debussys
teners alike, even if their heart is in the right
place, even if they veulent bien croire in
Proust shares this perception. In A la recherche du temps
music unalloyed, seem unable to resist the at- perdu, to attribute meaning to music is to betray it, yet no
tribution of meaning; almost as soon as they one can long resist the temptation to do so. For an exami-
nation of how this dynamic emerges in the work, see my
On the Meaning of Musical in Proust, in Word and
Music Studies: Essays in Honor of Stephen Paul Scher and
Monsieur Croche, p. 215 (S. I. M., Dec. 1912). on Cultural Identity and the Musical Stage, ed. Suzanne
Correspondance, p. 49 (9 Feb. 1887), and p. 61 (5 Oct. M. Lodato, Suzanne Aspden, and Walter Bernhart
1890). (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 14358.


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aesthetic logic, like Mallarms, inexorably nothing and contains no formal white-tied PETER
pushes us toward a point of view from which thoughts (Thats just the point, I have no Meaning in
the appearance of beauty is dependent on the thoughts, ever [Justement je ne pense rien, Debussys
erasure of meaning, so that the most beautiful jamais]).23 From this remark, it becomes plain
of sentences is the one that says nothing: why the poets of the period sought in literature
itself music before all else (De la musique
I am a little fearful for Pellas in Geneva. It doesnt avant toute chose).24 For Mallarm as for
have at all the manners one needs to please people Debussy, the least artistic of discourses is that
there, or to be pleased to be there. . . . Its emotion of the newspaper or the realist novel, which
without program, without leitmotif, will appear in- claims to represent the truth. Literature, which
decent! Of course I may be wrong, but I have a
is formed from verbal language, the matter of
suspicion that Geneva is populated by professors,
that unartistic discourse, is thus, in its refusal
and ideas are only admitted in white tie.
Now what I would find infinitely more tempting of content, permanently in reaction against its
would be to go with you and listen to the wind on own substance. The same could be said of the
the mountains! . . . You can be sure that it will sing other arts that were, at the time, perceived to
only an unnumbered music composed of all the har- operate within a representational language:
monies it picks up as it passes over the tops of the painting and sculpture. Music, on the other
trees (this sentence is all the more beautiful because hand, has the privilege of not initially appear-
it is determined to mean nothing!). ing to represent; and this condition endlessly
attracted the other arts.
(Je crains un peu Genve pour Pellas. Il na pas du Nonetheless, while music itself remains of
tout les manires quil faut pour y plaire et mme
right invulnerable to the ills of representation,
pour sy plaire . . . Son motion sans programme,
the musician must be constantly on guard
sans leit-motiv, sera prise pour de lindcence!
Maintenant je me trompe peut-tre, mais tout de against those who, like Charpentier, Lalo, or
mme il me semble que Genve est un nid Berlioz, would seek to pervert our view by re-
professeurs o les ides ne sont admises quen cravate ducing music to the imitation of this or that
blanche. work of literature or natural phenomenon. The
Par exemple, ce qui me tente infiniment plus most radical defense against that perversion is
cest daller couter le vent sur la montagne avec expressed in the adverb infiniment in
vous . . . ! Soyez assur quil ne chantera que cette Debussys letter. An infinite temptation can-
musique innombrable faite de toutes les harmonies not lead us to any piece of music in particular,
quil recueille en passant sur la cime des arbres [cette just as it cannot lead to any meaning or any
phrase est dautant plus belle quelle ne veut
sense. It can only take us toward that which
rsolument rien dire!]).22
lies beyond specific sense, beyond specific
works. But what is beyond specific works is
Nothing, rien; ne rien vouloir dire, to
beyond any conceivable human music. Thus
mean or to say nothing, to want to say nothing;
Debussy reaches, like Mallarm and Flaubert
the degree of beauty depending on the degree to
before him, that forbidding aesthetic summit,
which one says nothing; these notions go back
that wind-blown mountain-top, from which it
at least to Flauberts intuition, more than fifty
seems that the logic of artistic endeavor sum-
years earlier, that the highest literary ambition
mons us to renounce all that is human in the
would be to write a book about nothing, a livre
work of art: so literature kills literature, and
sur rien. And when, in La Musique et les
music kills music. It would be at least a
Lettres, Mallarm, with mock reluctance, con-
theoretically rewarding endeavor to analyze
sents to an impious taking to pieces
Debussys repeated lamentations on his steril-
(dmontage impie) of the mechanism of litera-
ity as a composer with these ideas in mind, and
ture, its mainspring turns out to be nothing,
rien. Literature is about nothing, it presents
Mallarm, uvres compltes, II, 67, 258.
These are the opening words of Verlaines famous Art
potique; see Paul Verlaine, uvres potiques compltes
Correspondance, p. 298. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothque de la Pliade, 1962), p. 326.


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19 TH to compare them to the similar lamentations (Au fond, nos peintres symphonistes naccordent pas
CENTURY une attention assez fervente la beaut des saisons.
MUSIC of his literary forebears.
But I imagine that anyone who, having read . . . Or, la musique est prcisment lart qui est le
Debussys letters and critical writings, has fol- plus prs de la nature, celui qui lui tend le pige le
plus subtil. Malgr leurs prtentions de traducteurs-
lowed my argument to this point, will be un-
asserments, les peintres et les sculpteurs ne peuvent
comfortable. I have maintained that for Debussy
nous donner de la beaut de lunivers quune
music cannot present or represent nature and interprtation assez libre et toujours fragmentaire.
should not attempt to do so, and that to per- Ils ne saisissent et ne fixent quun seul de ses as-
ceive music in nature is to occupy a position pects, un seul de ses instants: seuls, les musiciens
from which music becomes inhuman, and there- ont le privilge de capter toute la posie de la nuit et
fore humanly impossible to write. Yet, as many du jour, de la terre et du ciel, den reconstituer
critics have pointed out, Debussy also frequently latmosphre et den rythmer limmense palpitation.
seems to regard nature as a model for music, to Nous savons que cest un privilge dont ils nabusent
posit a special relationship between music and pas . . . le plus souvent leur passion saccommode
nature. I intend now to examine the dynamics dune vgtation que la littrature a dessche entre
les feuillets de ses livres: Berlioz sen contenta toute
of that special relationship. We will see that,
sa vie. Son gnie trouva dpres dlices promener
despite appearances, if one reads carefully
sa nostalgie dans un magasin de fleurs artificielles.)25
enough the sentences in which Debussy sets
them out, they do not contradict my argument
It would certainly be possible, taking this
so far. However, they do force us to perform
passage in isolation, to read it as revealing a
some peculiar theoretical acrobatics, in which
sort of Romantic faith in nature as the reposi-
the relationship between nature and music
tory of the truth that art seeks to reveal. After
comes to interact in disconcerting ways with
all, it seems to imply that the task of the artist
the relationship between music and poetry.
is to give us la beaut de lunivers. But a
Nowhere are these themes more clearly pre-
more careful reading reveals that at every turn,
sented and more tightly intertwined than in an
using a technique strikingly similar to Prousts,
article of 1915 that, at first reading, one might
Debussy interposes an operation between mu-
take as an exhortation to composers to present
sic and nature. Music never renders nature
nature in music, the sort of thing that might
present; between nature and music there is al-
gladden the heart of Lalo. It concludes, indeed,
ways work to be done, a work of transposition
with a condemnation of Berliozs music
that denies the possibility of calculating an
strangely similar to Lalos condemnation of La
equivalence between the music itself and that
Mer as a secondary reproduction:
which may exist outside it.
Our symphonic painters really do not give suffi- Debussy begins by giving his opinion that
ciently fervent attention to the beauty of the sea- nos peintres symphonistes do not give une
sons. . . . And yet, music is precisely the art which is attention assez fervente to the seasons. Let us
closest to nature, the art which lays for her the most recall his reaction to Lalos strictures on La
subtle trap. Despite their claims to be acting as offi- Mer. I love the sea, he said; I have listened
cial translators, painters and sculptors can only give
to it with the impassioned respect that is its
a more or less free and always fragmentary interpre-
due. In neither text is there any suggestion
tation of the beauty of the universe. They only seize
and note down one of its aspects, one of its mo- that the musician should imitate or represent
ments; only musicians have the privilege of captur- nature; what Debussy seems to value is a pas-
ing all the poetry of night and day, of earth and sky, sionate personal reaction to nature. But what is
the privilege of reconstituting its atmosphere and the relationship between that passion and art?
giving the rhythm of its immense palpitation. We That remains unclear. Debussys next move,
are aware that they do not exercise this privilege too here as in the letter to Lalo, is not to explain it,
often . . . usually, their passion satisfies itself with but to figure the problematic point of contact
vegetation that literature has dried between the leaves
of its books. Berlioz asked for nothing more, all his
life. His genius took an astringent delight in wander-
ing nostalgically around a store of artificial flowers. 25
Monsieur Croche, pp. 23940 (S. I. M., 1 Nov. 1913).


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between music and nature. Music is precisely gesting that music, in its totalizing similarity PETER
the art which is closest to nature, the art which to nature, is superior to poetry; so what on Meaning in
lays for her the most subtle trap. Why is mu- earth is poetry doing interposing itself between Debussys
sic closer to nature than the other arts? Be- music and nature? I will return to that ques-
cause, as we have seen, musics advantage over tion, which is a central one, later; for now, I
the other arts consists in its distance from mean- would venture to suggest that we keep in mind
ing; it does not represent, and neither does na- the reciprocity of this relationship. The poets
ture. Music thus resembles nature far more Debussy knew wrote about the music, the har-
than do poetry or painting, which are immedi- mony, the rhythm of nature, in the same way
ately perceived as representing something out- that Debussy, as musician, writes about the
side themselves. For that very reason, nature poetry of nature. What is constant is the need
cannot appear to be present, to be contained to present art, not as directly connected to na-
within music as it can appear to be contained ture, but as the imitation of another art that
in the other arts. Hence Debussys careful for- itself is inherent in nature.
mula: music lays a trap for nature more subtle But, one might ask, do we not here have that
than theirs. structure of secondary representation that Lalo
We may fear that musics subtle trap might saw in La Mer and Debussy in Berlioz? music
need to be a large one. For whereas the other as an imitation of an imitation? Almostbut
arts may, unsubtly, ensnare this or that facet of not quite. The verb capter is another subtle
nature, portray one of her faces, music, it would trap. Capter is not to capture in the way one
seem, aims to capture her entire. I hope that might capture a beast or a view; it is, rather, to
my preceding argument will have made it clear tap or channel, as one might the water of a
why this should be: the infinite temptation, spring, or the interest of a listener. The impli-
dangerous though it is, is alone worthy of the cation is always that one diverts what is capt
true artist; the particular can safely be left to from the course it would naturally have fol-
journalists. But I have also suggested that, lowed. The following two infinitive verbs,
though music and nature may have a certain reconstituer and rythmer, indicate even
endlessness in common, there is no presence in more clearly that the activity of the composer
nature that can simply pass into or be repre- is by no means a matter of faithful transcrip-
sented by music. Does Debussy here contradict tion, of containing nature whole so that, as
this suggestion by implying that the musician Lalo might have liked, the listener feels placed
captures nature in his trap? No. On the con- in front of her. The activity is a process of re-
trary: he continually, subtly, interposes between creation, not of simple reflection. And what is
music and nature a third term that allows each it in nature, exactly, that music does not imi-
to escape the others snare. Debussy says that tate but re-creates? An atmosphere; an immense
music lays a trap; he never says that nature palpitation. These are qualities so vague, so
falls into it. general, so universal, that their effect is to re-
In a maneuver that perfectly mirrors the way move any possibility of determining, of calcu-
poets present their art as music, Debussy writes, lating, of theorizing the link between music
not of a direct relation between music and na- and nature.
ture, but of a relation between music and the Furthermore, I have been guilty myself of a
poetry of nature: Only musicians have the reductive reading that oversimplifies the link
privilege of capturing all the poetry of night between music and nature. What is the ante-
and day, of earth and sky. Before nature reaches cedent of the pronoun en that precedes the
music, it must first transit through poetry, verbs rythmer and reconstituer? Gram-
through language, which is never wholeness matically speaking, it must not, or at least may
but always already division, articulation (note not, be nature, but posie. Once again,
that Debussy does not here utter the single Debussy subtly inserts veils between music
word nature but breaks natures image down and nature. What can traverse them? Are there
into two pairs of opposites). This, in a sense, is any qualities that manage to survive the triple
bizarre. After all, Debussy has just been sug- filter of nature, poetry, and music?


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19 TH Only two, it would seem, to judge by this life and an artificiality that threatens its vigor.
MUSIC passage: first, endlessness, and then the articu- In the analysis of such supplements, one of the
lation of time, which in nature is seen as palpi- main points of interest is always an investiga-
tation and in music or poetry as rhythm. Ar- tion of the conditions that cause the supple-
ticulation is, as Derrida shows, the beginning ment to appear under its positive rather than
of all human meaning; but seen as such, it is negative guise. In this case Debussys use of
precisely that which precedes meaning. What poetry once again mirrors perfectly Mallarms
music does with or to nature gives no full sense use of music. For the positive poetry, according
to either. So in Debussys account, although to Debussy, the poetry that should come be-
music is not an immediate presentation of na- tween nature and music is the poetry that does
ture, neither can it be a secondary representa- not exist in the form of concrete works; it is
tion; it represents no thing at all. poetry in general, poetry in the abstract. Poetry
Literature, on the other hand, so Debussy perceived as an artificial imitation, on the other
has been telling us, can and does represent. It hand, consists of specific books, those that
does not aim solely at endlessness; it presents Berlioz and other composers read, those that
fragments. The more pusillanimous musicians contain the artificial flowers that seduced them.
will imitate it. They will indeed tell stories, as What, then, of Debussys own use of specific
poets do; and their works will be secondary literary works? And what of his reference to
representations, and therefore not, to Debussy, specific aspects of nature? Debussy did write
genuinely musical. Here we find again that op- songs, and he composed Pellas and Prlude
position between the natural and the artificial LAprs-midi dun faune: how could he dis-
that is a constant of Debussys writing on the tinguish between his own habits and those of
subject. The opposition is not, if I may be for- Berlioz? and why should we not see these com-
given for laboring the point, between two kinds positions as secondary representations? Is not
of imitation, one natural and the other artifi- Lalos reaction to La Mer, so similar to
cial; it is between imitation, which is always Debussys reaction to Berlioz, perfectly under-
artificial, always secondary, and true artistic standable given the title that Debussy himself
activity, which functions as an imitation of had provided? Why, indeed, did Debussy give
nothing in particularexcept perhaps of every- such titles to his works at all?
thing. Most composers ignore this; their pas- To this question, there seems to me to be
sion satisfies itself with vegetation that litera- quite a simple answer. It will seem odd to mod-
ture has dried between the leaves of its books. ern ears, but it would have seemed less so in
Berlioz asked for nothing more, all his life. His the aesthetic tradition of Baudelaire, Verlaine
genius took an astringent delight in wandering and Mallarm. It is this. Art represents noth-
nostalgically around a store of artificial flow- ing, but is always initially taken to represent
ers. something, by the artist and by the public. The
We have, then, in the passage I have been highest art, however, will attempt to be honest
analyzing, two completely different types of by showing that this initial appearance of rep-
reference to literature. In both, literature comes resentation is a falsificationprecisely the fal-
between music and nature. But at one point it sification of art. True art will therefore point to
represents an essential positive link in that the fact that it is a fiction, that as it appears to
relationship: syntactically speaking, it is only represent, it lies. Debussys titles form part of
through posie that music and nature reach this strategy. They tap or channel our desire to
each other; whereas at another point, literature see representation in the music, and, having
is clearly a negative force, representing that caught us in this trap, they frustrate that same
temptation of the fragmentary the brave musi- desire by their inadequacy, their limitation, so
cian must overcome. that we see through them to the music beyond.
Plainly, we have here the structure of what They tell us, not that music presents nature,
Derrida calls the supplement. Poetry is both but that music must be perceived in the space
necessary to music and the parasite that saps between nature and human creativity, the space
its strength; poetry is both the source of musics where fiction is created. If music truthfully rep-


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resented anything, its value could be calculated reproduction plus ou moins exacte de la na- PETER
by the precision of that representation. Fortu- ture, mais aux correspondances mystrieuses Meaning in
nately, it does not, and the value of the glorious entre la Nature et lImagination.)27 The two Debussys
lie that is art, according to Mallarm, remains occurrences of the word nature in this sen-
incalculable: Art is the most beautiful of lies . tence are distinguished by the capitalization of
. . we must desire that it should remain a lie; the second, which functions by correspon-
the alternative would be for it to become some- dences, not by the dynamic of representation.
thing useful, as dull as a factory. (Lart est le These correspondences are mysterious (whereas
plus beau des mensonges . . . il faut dsirer quil reproduction is not mysterious, but exact) in
reste un mensonge, sous peine de devenir une the sense that their second term is in the imagi-
chose utilitaire, triste comme une usine.) We nation, not in reason; in the domain of fiction,
can see now why this declaration is not in con- not of utility. If one holds on to this distinction
tradiction with the affirmation, in the same ar- between reproduction and correspondence, the
ticle, that the laws of beauty (lois de beaut) former leading to a utilitarian truth, the latter
may be inscribed in the totality of natures toward an imaginary one, many apparent con-
movement (inscrites dans le mouvement total tradictions in Debussys aesthetic judgments
de la nature).26 The mouvement total de la may be resolved.
nature, nature as a totality articulated in time, For example, in his presentation of natural-
does correspond to the laws of beauty; but it ness or realism in opera, it might seem that
cannot be imitated or presented as a sense or Debussy justifies his own practice in Pellas in
meaning; it cannot be said. Whatever art ap- terms perilously close to those he uses to con-
pears to say can only correspond to fragments demn Italian verismo. But there is a difference:
of nature, but that fragmentariness is denied by precisely the difference between correspondence
arts own nature. Art, therefore, does not really and representation. Of Pellas, he writes: The
say what it appears to say; if it says anything, characters in this drama attempt to sing like
that thing is a lie. natural people, and not in an arbitrary language
This dual relationship between music and fabricated from outdated traditions. (Les
nature parallels the dual relationship between personnages de ce drame tchent de chanter
music and poetry. Just as there is a good comme des personnes naturelles et non pas
poetry that is conceived as a totality, so there dans une langue arbitraire faite de traditions
is a good nature, a totality of nature, with surannes.)28 Whereas he describes contempo-
which music has something essential in com- rary Italian opera thus:
mon; and just as there is a bad poetry, litera-
ture as a collection of works lending them- The aesthetic principle of this art form is certainly
selves to imitation, so there is a bad nature, false, because life is not to be translated by means of
nature divided into scenes or meanings that songs, but Verdi has something heroic in the way
can be reproduced. that he maintains a lie in the face of life which is
perhaps closer to beauty than the attempted reality
These two faces of nature appear in a single
of the new Italian school. Puccini, Leoncavallo and
sentence that Debussy writes about the com-
their ilk aim at a study of character, or even a sort of
position of Pellas. I wanted for music a free- brutal psychology, which in reality leads to nothing
dom which is in her more perhaps than in any more than anecdotes.
art, since she is limited not to a more or less
exact reproduction of nature, but to the myste- (Lesthtique de cet art est certainement fausse, parce
rious correspondences between Nature and the que lon ne traduit pas la vie par des chansons, mais
Imagination. (Je voulais la musique une il y a chez Verdi une faon hroque de mentir la
libert quelle contient peut-tre plus que vie peut-tre plus belle que lessai de ralit tent
nimporte quel art, ntant pas borne une par la jeune cole italienne. Puccini, Leoncavallo

26 27
Monsieur Croche, p. 67 (Musica, Oct. 1902), and pp. 66 Ibid., p. 61 (April 1902).
67. Ibid., p. 62.


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19 TH prtendent ltude de caractre, voire mme une as incalculable correspondence. In Baudelaires
CENTURY sorte de psychologie brutale qui naboutit, en ralit,
MUSIC famous sonnet Correspondances, the word
qu de la simple anecdote.)29 occurs six times. It becomes ubiquitous, often
surreptitiously and inconspicuously so, in
I hope that, in the light of my argument so far, Mallarm as in Proust. What it signifies is a
it will come as no surprise that Debussy praises relationship of neither identity nor imitation,
art as a lie (mentir la vie), and refuses nor of any calculable translation, but one that
anecdote (en ralit). But what, exactly, is depends on an imaginative perception. In his
the difference between singing like natural opera, as we have seen, Debussy wanted a mu-
people (chanter comme des personnes sic limited to the mysterious correspondences
naturelles), which is what Debussy wanted his between Nature and the Imagination; precisely
characters to do, and translating life by means this correspondence is evoked here. What, after
of songs (traduire la vie par des chansons), all, can it mean to chanter comme des
which is what the unmusical Italians do? personnes naturelles? What are personnes
To begin with, note the contrast between naturelles? If we take the phrase to mean
the plural noun des chansons and the verb people as we encounter them in everyday life,
chanter. Bad nature, as we have seen, is Debussys sentence is an obvious nonsense. But
perceived as divided into scenes or fragments if by naturelles, we understand people who
like an opera divided into arias; good nature, retain the character of Nature, of what I have
on the other hand, is a single mouvement called good nature as opposed to the bad
total. Whereas the characters in Italian operas nature that is always already imitation, the
produce set pieces, Debussys characters are position of this chanter becomes clear.
engaged in a process. Nor is that process one of Debussys characters would like to be able to
reproduction. Italian opera, says Debussy, aims sing as if they were part of that mouvement
to translate life, but translation normally pre- total in which imagination finds a correspon-
supposes the existence of a preexistent text to dence to natureor perhaps to poetry; but al-
be translated. It thus allows the calculation of ways a correspondence, never a translation or
an equivalence between source and target, pre- an imitation.
cisely the calculation that, for Debussy, is the This positioning of song explains many of
antithesis of art. (Recall that painters and sculp- Debussys pronouncements on the setting of
tors are dismissed for perceiving their task as texts to music. Music, to him, cannot express,
that of traducteurs-asserments.30) Debussys reflect, imitate, explain, or convey the sense of
characters translate nothing, imitate nothing; any individual text; music and text must re-
indeed, it is not clear that they achieve any- late, as must music and nature, through unify-
thing concrete at all. They attempt to sing. ing imaginary correspondence alone. This rela-
Whether or not they succeed, whether or not tion Debussy describes in terms that present
Debussy wishes them to succeed, we cannot music and text, not as reflections of each other,
quite tell, but if they do, it is like natural but as parts of a single felt totality. He is un-
people (comme des personnes naturelles). comfortable with the traditional vocabulary that
The word comme, which I have translated portrays a musician setting words to music; he
as like, absent from the passage on Italian is even less enamored of the Wagnerian model,
opera and central to the description of Pellas, of music as somehow structured by a text. He
has long been recognized in French as the key prefers to think of music and text as one body.
to poetic language, because it introduces all Once they have come together in the work of
kinds of imaginative comparisons. More par- art, any calculation of their relationship would
ticularly, it is the pivot of the theory, going destroy the sense of oneness that art requires,
back to Baudelaire, of art not as imitation, but and that requires in turn the mystery of corre-
spondence: In the opinion of Mr Catulle
Mends . . . I have not rendered the poetic
Monsieur Croche, p. 96 (Gil Blas, 16 Feb. 1903). essence of the play, and my music remains
See quotation from Monsieur Croche, pp. 23940, above. independent of that essence. Yet I devoted all


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my sincerity and all my efforts to the attempt pour sadapter aux mouvements lyriques de lme, PETER
aux caprices de la rverie.)33 DAYAN
to identify the one with the other. (M. Catulle Meaning in
Mends . . . estime que je nai pas rendu Debussys
The last twenty words of this passage, as J. Writing
lessence potique du drame, et que ma
musique reste indpendante de celle-ci. Jai Lesure points out in his note, quote the preface
pourtant tch de tous mes efforts et de toute to Baudelaires prose poems, in which Baudelaire
ma sincrit didentifier lune lautre.)31 describes why he is attempting to write poetry
Just as he did not attempt to refute Lalos in prose rather than in verse (Debussy has sub-
criticism that La Mer did not render the sea stituted musique for Baudelaires prose
present, because it was not the role of music to potique). Like Debussy, Baudelaire desires a
do so, so Debussy does not answer Mendss certain physical identification between text
charge that he has failed to rendre lessence (musical, or prose-poetic) and pre-text (move-
potique du drame, because the charge dem- ments of the soul or daydreams).
onstrates only that Mends doesnt know what But the context of this passage should also
music is. What Debussy had tried to do is not remind us of something Baudelaire and
to render a preexistent essence, still less any Mallarm had in common, something they ex-
preexistent text; he aimed not to render any- pressed in the prefaces to their single work of
thing, but to operate an identification, to iden- poetic prose: a sense of necessary failure. The
tify the music with the essence of the text, to new type of prose that Baudelaire describes, in
make of both a single unit, a totality. Similarly, the terms taken up by Debussy, is something,
in Le Martyre de saint Sbastien: I was apply- he says, that he dreamt of, just as Debussy here
ing my theoriesif the expression may be al- is saying not what he has done, but what he
lowedon music for the stage . . . which must would like to do. Baudelaire states that he has
be closely wedded to the text, forming a single in fact failed to realize his dream (I was not
body. (Jai mis excution mes thoriessi je able to come anywhere near my mysterious
puis diresur la musique de scne . . . qui doit and brilliant model [je restais bien loin de
faire corps, troitement, avec le texte.)32 mon mystrieux et brillant modle]. 34 )
A clue to the genealogy of these theories, Baudelaires model, Gaspard de la Nuit by
with their notion that music and text should Aloysius Bertrand, in turn presents itself as a
be identified with each other rather than re- failure, a doomed attempt to find Art; the effect
lated by way of interpretation, imitation, or is thus of a mise en abyme of failure.
explanation, appears in a letter of 1885 in which Mallarm prefaces his Divagations with a note
Debussy explains why he cannot continue with that begins: A book such as I do not like,
an attempt to write an opera on a text written those deprived of architecture or unity. No man
in classical French verse. escapes decidedly, from journalism. (Un livre
comme je ne les aime pas, ceux pars et privs
Zuleima is dead and you wont catch me trying to darchitecture. Nul nchappe dcidment, au
resurrect it, I never want to hear about it again, as journalisme.)35
its not at all the kind of music I want to make, I The art of these writers defines itself as per-
want a kind of music so supple and so open to manently attracted toward an unattainable
contrasts that it can mold itself to the lyrical move- unity; it remains fragmentary. Nonetheless, it
ments of the soul, to the caprices of our daydreams. must maintain the sense of that unity as an
ideal term of arta unity presented precisely
(Zuleima est morte et ce nest certes pas moi qui la
by reference to art, to other art, which, seen at
ferai ressusciter, je ne veux plus en entendre parler,
ntant pas du tout du genre de musique que je veux a certain distance or from a certain angle, seen
faire, jen veux une qui soit assez souple, assez heurte

Correspondance, pp. 3839 (19 Oct. 1885).
See Baudelaire, Petits pomes en prose (Paris: GF-
Monsieur Croche, pp. 26970 (Le Figaro, 16 May 1902). Flammarion, 1967), p. 32.
32 35
Ibid., p. 305 (Comoedia, 18 May 1911). Mallarm, uvres compltes, II, 82.


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19 TH as different from what the poets themselves fact, music does not contain an essence that
MUSIC can do, has that character of oneness they can- the poem extracts; rather, it represents, for the
not achieve. This is an inescapable dynamic of poet, one of the two poles of an oscillation
the post-Romantic aesthetic. The new work is between meaning and non-meaning, between
never itself ideal, but it idealizes a vision of an fragmentation and totality, which alone allows
art outside itself, an art whose completeness a space for art. Crudely put, from the poets
parallels an imagined completeness of nature. point of view, art is not meaning; therefore, it
Although in the passages I have just cited it is must be music. But music without meaning
architecture and Gaspard de la Nuit that play would be unarticulated; therefore it could not
the part of idealized works, more often (and be written. What is needed is a dynamic that
almost always in more fully developed argu- allows for the constant articulated vanishing of
ments) it is music. And similarly, or rather meaning. For that, both music and poetry are
conversely, Debussy, when considering his own necessary, so that each can look toward the
work, describes it not as an ideal achievement, other and project thither that vanishing. In
but in terms of what he has been trying to do. It music, we need titles or programs36and a sense
is seen as an attempt rather than as a result or of our incapacity, of the futility and imperti-
an end in itself; it exhibits an ambition, a de- nence of the endeavor, when we try to analyze
sire; beyond it may be poetry, but poetry as an them, to calculate strictly their value. In po-
idealized unity, toute la posie in parallel etry, we need musicand that same sense of
with an equally totalized, equally unrealized, incapacity, futility, and impertinence when we
equally absent nature.
The function of texts, of poetry, of programs,
try to calculate the presence of
that music. l
and of the verbal generally, therefore, in the
context of Debussys music, is not at all to
provide a meaning to the music or an explana-
tion of it. Beyond individual works, anecdotes, Of course, we have not always needed them; these re-
marks apply only at a certain point in the aesthetic argu-
or scenes, poetry and nature conjoined serve as ment, articulated most forcefully, for me, by Mallarm
the horizon and vanishing point of music. We and Debussy. If I may allow myself one observation to do
must look toward themhence the words at- with music history, necessarily tentative and general: it
seems to me that one of Debussys innovations, very much
tached to Debussys compositions; but we must analogous to the invention of the prose poem by Baudelaire,
never go through the music to reach them, for is to replace the inadequacy of formal analysis by inad-
if we did, if we arrived at them, they would equacy of reference. In an idealized past, composers in-
cluding Rameau, Mozart, or Beethoven created works
become fragmented into texts and Debussy within a tradition that led one to expect certain things of
would be reduced to the status of a traducteur- the musics form. The artistic force, the horizon or vanish-
asserment. ing point of this music, derives from the way in which it
escapes from that form while confirming the forms neces-
Once we have accepted the full consequences sity. (An analysis of Rameaus writing would, I suggest,
of this, we can at last, I think, begin to over- allow one to demonstrate this process operating through
come what has long been a blind spot in our his opposition between mathematics and taste.) In Debussy,
to some extent, meaning, reference, or program replaces
understanding of the aesthetics of the period. form in the unavoidable expectations it creates and in the
The obstinate image of poetry as music has way it exceeds those expectations. This creates difficulties
traditionally been explained by reference to in music analysis in the same way that prose poetry cre-
ates difficulties in literary analysis.
Mallarms assertion that poetry was, in his
time, trying to take back from music what
belonged to literature, as if a certain essential
quality of music existed and needed first to be
This article sets out to examine what Debussy wrote
extracted from audible concert-hall or opera- about music in the light of the discourse on music,
house music and then reimported into litera- literature, and nature that Debussy knew from con-
ture. But if one conceives the process thus, it temporary literature. It becomes apparent that
becomes impossible to understand why poetry Debussy shares with, for example, Mallarm a re-
should occupy a place in Debussys writing so fusal to consider that his work renders natural scenes
similar to the place of music in Mallarms. In present. Indeed, he rejects entirely the notion that


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music can or should represent anything (when it articulated truth about nature. On the other hand, PETER
appears to represent, it is, precisely, not music). the dynamics of our perception of nature, in which DAYAN
Meaning in
Debussy accordingly despises programs and critics we see through specific features, as poetry might Debussys
who look in his music for images or ideas that they articulate them, to an inexpressible totality, a Writing
expect him to have put there. mouvement total de la nature, is the best ana-
Why, then, does he give his pieces programmatic logue for the process of musical creation, which
titles? And how is one to understand the relation- traverses sense toward an ideal unity beyond the
ship between words and music, for example, in articulation of meaning. Our duty, then, would be to
Pellas et Mlisande? The answer emerges from an look past the expression of the words associated
analysis of the special relationship that Debussy con- with Debussys music, not to find in the music an
structs between music and nature. On the one hand, extension or repetition of the words meaning, but
Debussy tells us that art is the most beautiful of to sense, between as well as beyond them, an echo of
lies; accordingly, music never tells us any specific that ideal unity.


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