Date of Graduation

2007

Document Type

Dissertation/Thesis

Abstract

This research project investigates the complex relationship between Claude Debussy and the music of Richard Wagner, and in particular the ways in which Debussy’s aesthetic philosophy and his attitude towards Wagner changed from embracement to rejection during the nine-year period in which he composed Pelleas et Melisande and other works. Part of the paradoxical relationship between Debussy and Wagner’s music lay in the political tensions between France and Germany during the last half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. During his early career as a composer, Debussy was sympathetic to many of Wagner’s aesthetic beliefs, especially during the period after he won the Prix de Rome in 1884. However, in the years following his return to Paris in 1887, Debussy had a number of experiences—such as hearing the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889, meeting fellow French (and ardently anti-German) composer Erik Satie, and falling in with the French Symbolist poets led by Stephane Mallarme—that, along with his antipathy for the German nation, profoundly affected his artistic philosophy and caused him to question the extent to which the influence of Wagner, a German, should be present in French music. Debussy made the establishment of a new, distinctive musical style—one representative of his native France, not Germany—a paramount concern in his own work. He sought alternative means of expression, both musical and extramusical, that would contribute to his development of such a style. He borrowed musical elements from a number of diverse musical traditions that infused his music with a fresh, exotic quality. He also developed new ways of structuring his music, modeled on literary forms and abstract principles of balance and proportion rather than canonical Western forms such as sonata-allegro and rondo. Through his innovations, Debussy developed a unique personal style unfettered by the German influences that he had come to resent. His advances in the use of nontraditional harmonies, nondevelopmental form, and orchestration influenced nearly every composer of the Western tradition who came after him, pointing the way toward the even more radical departures of the twentieth century. Interestingly, while distancing himself aesthetically from Wagner, Debussy retained many of the technical elements of the German’s style that originally attracted him, using these in the service of his own idiom. The path of Debussy’s changing artistic values, from Wagnerite through Symbolist to the achievement of his own personal dramatic vision via the opera Pelleas et Melisande (1893-1902), forms the narrative thread of this research. It examines Debussy’s formative years as a composer, details his exposure to sources that would become or lead him to develop alternatives to Wagner’s idiom, and examines specific examples from his canon that provide evidence of how his discovered alternatives took shape in both his formative and mature works. Early songs and dramatic works, such as his Prix de Rome entries and the aborted Diane au bois , show evidence of the composer's developing compositional philosophies and procedures, while the orchestral masterpieces Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (1894) and Nocturnes (1899) represent virtual compendiums of his mature techniques. Pelleas et Melisande, which Debussy composed and refined over a ten-year period), represents the culmination of the composer's shift away from Wagnerism through radical rejection of Wagner's operatic model and the breakdown of operatic conventions in every parameter. This research also discusses the ramifications of Debussy's aesthetic shift and his opera, primarily by examining the influence of his innovations and Pelleas upon contemporaries and later generations of composers both in France and abroad.

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