Saturday, January 25, 2014

Debussy's Symbolism

Sam noted in a comment on my last post on Debussy that he is also associated with the Symbolist movement.  I wasn't really aware of the connection, but looking at Debussy's opus there is a pretty clear indirect connection.  While the aesthetic characteristics of Symbolism are somewhat hard to transfer to music, composers like Debussy tried to carry over the effect of Symbolist works like Les Fleurs du Mal.  The most famous of Debussy's works to show this influence is Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), which a somewhat programmatic piece that attempts to convey a symbolist poem (The Afternoon of a Fawn by Stéphane Mallarmé); you can read a translation here.  However, I can't really say that the piece is Symbolist; it's definitely not at all realist, but nor does it make much use of symbolism.  Here is a recording:

Another of Debussy's Symbolist works is his suite Cinq Poemes de Baudelaire, which sets to music five poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, none of which we read.  I am not a fan of this suite; I don't think it even sounds like Debussy, but here is a recording of the first piece, Le Balcon.  There is a link to some translations in the description:

However, neither of these pieces actually contains any sort of symbols.  The closest thing in music to a symbol is a motif, which can simultaneously represent a figure in a programmatic work or opera (like Berlioz's Idée Fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique) and an abstract idea--in the aforementioned work, the motif represents love.  This extension, though, opens up works from Beethoven to Shostakovich to the "Symbolist" label.  A piece that not only contains such a symbolic motif but also contains the Symbolist characteristic of capturing an abstract idea, thought, or feeling is Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection".  Here is a recording:

This long and very complex piece contains innumerable potentially symbolic motifs.  The most well-known and symbolic is the rising and falling syncopated (here, I mean alternating long and short notes) scales, which are almost always present either in some form or another, starting at 2:08 in the woodwinds.  The most notable and famous of these figures is the eponymous "Resurrection" theme, beginning suddenly at 1:03:24 and first recited in 1:03:41.  The Resurrection theme is one of the most famous symphonic melodies ever; it is triumphant and march-like, but contains echoes of the Dies Irae and repeatedly starts to modulate into a minor key.  Like Symbolist works, it represents a concrete image--resurrection--in an abstract, non-programmatic setting, and tries to evoke a sensation rather than strictly an image.

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