La damoiselle élue by Claude Debussy
As beautiful as this piece comes off as on the surface, one aspect that is noticeably lacking is a strong melody that ties the piece together. There are small motifs that recur occasionally, but there is not a single melodic line that can be recognized as the identity of the piece. What we get instead are long, drawn-out polyphonic passages without much emphasis on any one line in particular. These blocks of sound have wonderful direction and energy to them, but they are difficult to fully grasp as they pass by. As you will see in the next two categories, this is completely okay. It is worse to have a distinct melody that does not compliment the piece musically than to have small, uninspiring melodies that deter from the piece. The latter is true for this piece, and it goes to show how a piece can still be successful without making melodic intrigue a top priority.
Debussy did such a wonderful job in his lifetime learning from the masters before him to create his own unique sound. This progression in musical language throughout time is most evident in his use of harmony. In short, Debussy himself was the bridge between post-romanticism and early modernism by his harmonic language. This piece is no exception. It is a wonderful example of progressing the harmonies of German mysticism of the 19th century and giving it a more accessible flavor. In doing so, he also created chords that no one had thought of using before, much like what composers of his time were trying to do. To me, Debussy was the only composer of his era to have a good balance of unimaginable harmony and sonic approval to an ordinary ear. Richard Strauss comes close, but Debussy reigns supreme in that regard. The piece is lengthy and therefore often susceptible to a lull in harmonic activity, but that was never the case. This piece had moments of brilliant harmonic build and resolve in each section, allowing the piece to continue on without question. The only problem that I encountered was that there seemed to have been a bit too much harmonic activity by the end. When I stepped back from the aura of the piece, I was left with a smooth coast of harmonic brilliance without any particular peak. It would have been nice for Debussy to pick one of his progressions to feature throughout the piece in an obvious way.
It should be no surprise to any musician that this is the highest rated category for a Debussy piece, especially one for orchestra. Debussy knew the orchestra like no other, and was able to manipulate each instrument section and bring out the precise mood that was needed. You know that he did his job correctly when the orchestra sounds “normal” or “like it should”. It fact, making an orchestra sound that simple is extremely difficult, but thanks to orchestrators like Debussy, everyone now has the expectation of how an orchestra should sound. He was just that good. In particular, this piece made incredible use of the soloistic passages. There were times when the texture would reach a point of magnitude that seemed impossible to follow, and then the beautiful and rich sound of the french horn would rise above and give way to a new musical idea. Also, the incredible equilibrium between the choir and orchestra cannot be overlooked. It is almost inevitable in any piece that combines choir with orchestra that one section will hold more power than the other, even if they should not. However, that never happens in this piece, much to my delight. They truly work together in expressing the poetry and mood. This orchestration goes above and beyond what can be taught. This was Debussy’s true gift to music.
Literary symbolism was at a height at the time that this piece was written, and it fit in well with other advancements that composers made. I would argue that Debussy was the most important composer that deal with any sort of symbolism at the turn of the 20th century. This movement thrived with him, and it seemed as though it would serve as a wonderful gateway into a new musical era. Unfortunately, it would have to wait. Debussy’s seemingly unprecedented influence was lost for several decades as the modernist composers were uninterested in looking backwards to find inspiration. Debussy’s music, along with the idea of interdisciplinary art forms, finally began to make some waves in the second half of the 20th century. By then, technology had changed immensely, and Debussy seemed but a magician that could not be replicated.
Final Score: 139/180