La damoiselle élue

Caroline Rae

Completed in 1889, La damoiselle élue belongs to the period when Debussy was closely involved with the Parisian circle of literary Symbolists and deeply immersed in the music of Wagner. An associate of Mallarmé whose poem L’Après-midi d’un faune inspired the orchestral Prélude five years later, Debussy devoured the literature of his contemporaries, as well as the work of those who influenced them – Baudelaire, Verlaine and Poe – further absorbing symbolist ideals through the literary periodical La revue wagnérienne. French Wagnérisme was at its peak. Attending Lohengrin in Paris in 1887, Debussy made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth the following year to hear Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, returning in 1889 to attend performances of Tristan und Isolde. Later Debussy wrote: ‘1889! Delightful period when I was madly Wagnerian.’ Debussy and his symbolist colleagues were attracted by the sensuality of Wagner’s music and its ability to suggest – rather than describe – an internalised world of mystical dreams and imaginings. Wagner epitomised the Symbolists’ quest for a sense of ‘otherness’, often associated with evocations of mythological subjects and pseudo-medieval imagery. These ideas were also found in the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites who were much in vogue in 1880s Paris and an important influence on French literature and art, not least the burgeoning art nouveau.

Through his involvement with the literary Symbolists, Debussy discovered a then recently published anthology of English poetry translated by Gabriel Sarrazin, Poètes modernes d’Angleterre (1883), which included illustrations by Pre-Raphaelite artists as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem The Blessèd Damozel (1850). It was on this French prose translation of Rossetti that Debussy based his lyric cantata for soprano, female chorus and orchestra, La damoiselle élue. Concerned with love and longing, Rossetti’s poem evokes an ethereal but melancholic female presence bathed in lilies, roses and stars – the blessed damozel – who observes her lover ‘from the gold bar of heaven’: recalling the purity of their brief time together in life, she yearns for fulfilment of love in death. While ideas of the love-death are supremely redolent of Tristan und Isolde, which Debussy heard while composing La damoiselle élue, his score abounds in allusions to Parsifal not only in his approach to harmony and orchestration but also in his use of female voices as soloist and chorus, these echoing the other-worldly enticements of Kundry and the Flower-maidens. Debussy’s fascination with Tristan came to fruition in his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, composed at the same time as La damoiselle

Although it is unlikely that Debussy knew Rossetti’s painting The Blessèd Damozel (1877) at the time of writing his cantata – Pre-Raphaelite paintings did not come to France until the 1890s – the illustrations in Sarrazin’s anthology introduced Debussy to the visual element of the Pre-Raphaelite’s exotic ‘other’, especially their exploration of a new type of feminine beauty. In Rossetti’s poem, the haunting image of the sensuous but chaste Pre-Raphaelite woman whose ‘hair lying down her back was yellow like ripe corn’, anticipates Maeterlinck’s Mélisande and Debussy’s portrayal of her in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande on which he began work in 1893. Debussy also explored Pre-Raphaelite themes in Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and in his unfinished projects La saulaie, based on ‘Willow Wood’ from Rossetti’s The House of Life, and La chute de la maison Usher based on Poe.

Another connection that makes Debussy’s choice of Rossetti significant within the composer’s creative evolution is its link with Edgar Allan Poe; The Blessèd Damozel was partly a response to Poe’s narrative poem The Raven (1845), which tells, in semi-supernatural terms, of a talking raven’s visit to a distraught lover, grief-stricken for his dead beloved, and his descent into madness through the torment of memory and desire. Debussy deeply admired Poe’s writings and later planned operas based on The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry.

A key phrase in Rossetti’s poem sets the mood for Debussy’s setting of La damoiselle élue: ‘the peace of utter light and silence – no breeze may stir’. Like Pelléas et Mélisande, the score is subdued, intimate and mysterious, the opening prelude to the work suggesting an orchestra ‘as if lit from behind’ – Debussy’s own description of Wagner’s orchestration in Parsifal. While fragments also recall the Siegfried Idyll as well as ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried, and the line ‘I heard her tears’ is accompanied by Tristanesque chromaticisms, the solo flute melodies look forwards to those of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and underline the work’s sense of nostalgic longing. Exploring the rich yet dark sounds of divisi strings as a musical backdrop to the solo instrumental melodies and vocal lines, the main tonal centre of C major creates a special resonance due to the tuning of the instruments’ lower open strings. Yet, tonalities are subtly blurred through constantly shifting harmonic colours, enhancing the radiant orchestration. Anticipating Debussy’s technique in Pelléas, the short orchestral prelude presents three distinct themes, which reappear during the course of the work. The text is set syllabically, the soprano being both a récitante describing the thoughts of the female protagonist as well as the damozel herself, while the chorus serves as narrator. Premièred at the Société nationale on 8 April 1893, La damoiselle élue was the first of Debussy’s orchestral works to be performed.

Further Reading