La Damoiselle élue, L. 62 (1888)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Between 1885 and 1887, Debussy spent two years at the Villa Medici in Rome as a privilege of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome. At the end of the residency, he submitted three works as his “les envois de Rome,” compositions that Prix de Rome winners sent to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Prix de Rome’s administering arm at the Institut de France. His final envoi composition, La Damoiselle élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), was completed soon after his return to Paris and just before the decade of his most intense artistic growth. When La Damoiselle élue was premiered in 1893 at the Société Nationale de Musique—Debussy’s debut at the most important music organization in fin-de-siècle France—critics were amused to discover an early achievement of the now well-known composer. The work was received fairly, some praising it as “subtle and rare art” and others reproaching it as “very sensual, decadent.”
Sensuality is a quality that remained at the heart of Debussy’s output, most famously displayed in his Symbolist-inspired opera Pelléas et Mélisande and symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. La Damoiselle élue is his early affair with a Symbolist sensitivity. It a cantata is based on a poem by the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, translated into French by Gabriel Sarrazin. The story takes place in the heaven, where the Blessed Damozel beseeches Christ and Mary to bring her beloved left on earth to reunite with her in paradise. It is implied that she has been praying for more than ten years; at the end of the poem, the Damozel begins to weep, realizing that she will not see her beloved for a while. Reflecting quasi-religious and mystic air of Rossetti’s poetry, Debussy called his new composition “lyric poem” and described it as “a little oratorio, in a mystic, slightly pagan vein.” The work’s ethereal sound world results from an all-female choir, two soprano soloists, simple melodies, uneven phrase patterns, and vague harmonic progressions.
Musically, La Damoiselle élue shows palpable influences of Wagner, whose notions of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) and transcendence of individual artistic medium had caused an intense interest among French artists. (Debussy would consciously detach himself from Wagner and his maximalist tendencies around 1889.) In La Damoiselle élue, Debussy created harmonic ambiguity by employing some noticeably Wagnerian strategies such as eschewing an arrival of the perfect cadence, using heavy chromaticism, and suggesting multiple key centers. Formally, Debussy let musical ideas develop in a free-flowing form, rather than having separate segments. Also noticeable is Debussy’s hallmark musical feature, namely the repetition of phrases that creates a static effect—the vocal part remains seemingly smooth and static, while drama is hidden in the orchestral part.
Compensating such harmonic, structural, and textural ambiguities is the clear link between a musical idea and each literary theme: Circling Charm, Hope, Blessed Damozel, Wish, Lover, and Christ’s Peace. The Circling Charm leitmotive, heard at the very beginning, suggests heaven’s timelessness with a still quality of its associated music: the four-note motive repeats itself and, by circling around the second pitch, expresses the ebb and flow of time. The rest of the themes are identified more readily by their textual associations and placement in the drama, rather than a musical picture painting. The Hope theme, linked to Damozel’s hope that her prayers will be answered, is often accompanied by a descending circle of fifths. The expansive and melodious Blessed Damozel theme often appears in fragments or alternated forms. The Damozel’s wish to be reunited with her lover is paired with the Wish theme, which is sometimes combined with the Blessed Damozel theme, indicating that wishing is at the core of Damozel’s character. The subtle Lover leitmotive appears with the words, “When round his head the aureole clings.” The Christ’s Peace theme appears only three times, but its dramatic significance is unmistakable. It occurs at the cantata’s climax, where the Damozel beseeches, “There will I ask of Christ the Lord; This much for him and me.” The Christ’s Peace theme appears once a major third above C, then a major third below C, and finally on C. This suggests that perhaps, one day, Christ will grant the Damozel’s wish.
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department