Reverie, Schmaltz, and the Modernist Imagination.

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Date: Summer 2021
Publisher: University of California Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 20,743 words
Lexile Measure: 1770L

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Commerce has killed letters; our society is such that true art cannot find its place in the sun. Henri Feuchere (1886) (1)

In a review of the Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune published in October 1895, Henry Gauthier-Villars (writing under one of his pseudonyms, "L'ouvreuse du cirque d'ete"--"The usher at the Cirque d'Ete") described the piece's relationship to Mallarme's poem: "It is not easy to follow as a gloss [of the poem]," Gauthier-Villars averred, but it is nonetheless "an exquisite orchestral tableau, setting up a general impression of the poem to which this dream-music [musique de rive] is deliriously suited."

"Musique de reve": it is a descriptor for Debussy's music that we have long taken for granted, indelibly linked--as it already was for GauthierVillars in 1895, upon hearing the Faune prelude--to a Mallarmean Symbolism. Symbolist poetry has often been considered a decisive element in the development of Debussy's style. John Crotty's article on the Prelude observes that "the compositional task that [Debussy] devised for himself was to create a musical language analogous to the literary model provided by symbolist poetry." (3) John Clevenger, in his influential 2002 dissertation on the development of Debussy's style, maintained that this development cannot be properly understood without an account of the impact of Symbolism on the young Debussy: "to ignore or underestimate the impetus Symbolism had on Debussy's stylistic development," he writes, "is to fundamentally misconstrue Debussy's place in the history of style." Clevenger goes on to posit that the distinctiveness of Debussy's style arose in large part through the process of "forging psychologically convincing musical correlates" for Symbolist poetic techniques. (4) More recently, David Code's biography of Debussy has invoked the composer's appreciation for poetry as a way of accounting for the "sophistication" of his mature musical sensibility. Code writes that it was through his "intensive readings" of modern French poets, including Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Stephane Mallarme, that Debussy refined his "literary sensibility," and "it was through close collaboration with Mallarme in particular, in the years around his thirtieth birthday, that this sensibility first achieved the extraordinary sophistication--as exemplified in the Prelude a Pupres-midi d'unfaune--that was to secure him the pivotal place he now occupies in all histories of modern composition."' To the extent that Debussy's music has so often been heard as musique de reve, this "reve" has tended to be understood in a distinctly Symbolist context, a soundworld born of Debussy's careful and sustained reading of an especially rarefied strain of modernist poetry.

That Debussy was enamored with the poetry of the Symbolists, and especially that of Mallarme, is, of course, beyond dispute. Even so, it hardly follows that the distinctive aspects of his style as it was heard by his immediate contemporaries can be linked unproblematically to "psychologically convincing musical correlates" for Symbolist poetic techniques or to the composer's "intensive readings" of this poetry. Gauthier-Villars suggests, in fact, precisely the opposite: the Faune prelude was "not easy to follow" as a reading of Mailarme's poem, delivering only a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A679119004