Debussy, Wagner, and Le roi Arthus

By Steven Huebner, McGill University

Written for the concert Nostalgia: The Past Idealized Through Music, performed on Feb 4, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

I often see Debussy. He is very sorry that I am refusing to listen to his “Pelléas et Mélisande.” In truth, such an experience frightens me. I know in advance that his music will give me immense pleasure, and I am afraid of wavering as I complete my poor Arthus.

Ernest Chausson vented these concerns to the artist Henry Lerolle at the end of November 1893. By this time he had lavished seven years of on-again-off-again attention upon Le roi Arthus (Brussels, Théâtre de la Monnaie,1903), while Claude Debussy was just beginning to draft Pelléas et Mélisande (Paris, Opéra Comique, 1902). For his part, Debussy eagerly listened to what his friend had already written, liberally dispensed advice, and even worked an allusion to Chausson’s project into the fabric of his own opera. For if the beginning of Chausson’s second act sounds vaguely familiar to some listeners today, it will be because of shared material with the third act of Debussy’s better-known work: common tonality and musical motif, similar performance indication (calme in one, doux et calme in the other), and dramaturgical progression from sung legend (with modal musical color) to scene for the lovers. With its principal motif cast unchanged against different orchestral and harmonic colors, Chausson’s scene-setting music in Act II is one of the most “impressionistic” moments of his opera. But Debussy was not entirely approving. His more general criticism of Chausson’s symphonic approach in Le roi Arthus parallels his own reticence to use such textures in Pelléas.

Debussy and Chausson did not conduct their artistic interchange in isolation. For a magician beguiled them at every turn, no less than the “ghost of old Klingsor, alias R.Wagner” who, as Debussy confessed to Chausson, caused him to tear up some early ideas for Pelléas. In one letter to his friend, Debussy coveted the occult himself, replacing Wagner’s sorcerer with Chausson’s: “It is really a pity that I do not have the magical powers of Merlin . . . for I would tell you ‘Ernest Chausson, the time has come, my friendship is deeply unrequited, leave [your work on] this roi Arthus . . . and seek repose in the friendship of Claude.’ ” This exhortation stemmed from Debussy’s frustration at Chausson’s long absences from Paris. There were also aesthetic implications. “Claude needs you!” Debussy continued. He set these words to a three-bar musical fragment, a delicious, modern harmonic progression in block chords that could not possibly have come from the pen of old Klingsor. “I believe that you will not be able to resist such imperious harmonies as these!” Because the intellectual exchange between them in this period was fertile, Claude looked to Ernest for artistic (and financial) succor. But he also offered the siren call of harmonies and textures that might draw Chausson away from Wagner, a figure before whom Chausson once described himself (to his friend the lawyer Paul Poujaud) as “an ant that comes up against a big slippery rock in his path.” As seductive as Debussy’s call may have been, Chausson ultimately found himself wedged between an over-bearing voice of the past and the bold initiatives of a French colleague afflicted by fewer self-doubts as a composer than he was. Their private correspondence clearly shows that, although it took many years for Debussy’s opera to reach the stage as well, the anxieties that Wagner induced had much more to do with the protracted genesis of Le roi Arthus than with Pelléas.

It was Tristan und Isolde that made for a particularly redoubtable forbear, the focal point for a triangulation of the repertorial terrain with Pelléas and Arthus. adulterous love, deception of brotherhood/fealty, acceptance of death: the broad outlines are matched by specific resonance. Like the end of Debussy’s fourth act, the love scene for Genièvre and Lancelot in Chausson’s first act looks back to the great second act duet for Tristan and Isolde. Lyonnel stands watch, Brangäne-like, as the lovers dip into Tristanesque harmonies in A-flat major, the key at the center of Wagner’s scene. They ignore warnings. A duel ensues. Lancelot and Genièvre become isolated from their society . . . and the dramatic similarities to Tristan–and Pelléas–suddenly seem superficial.

Debussy’s opera offers little sense of a violation of social order, with its characters suspended like isolated tear-drops against a flux of light and dark, against a future ever-repeating and, paradoxically, unknowable. Golaud pathetically yearns for the truth at Mélisande’s death-bed. To the contrary, Chausson’s Arthus, like Wagner’s King Marke, comes to understand the truth all to well. But unlike Wagner’s challenge to society in Tristan, Chausson does not celebrate what he once described as the “amour égoïste” of Lancelot and Genièvre. In a diary entry of 1892 he wrote about how “love” was so often misunderstood. “What is called love is a desire for self-centered pleasure. It is really the absolute negation of this. Love, is effulgence, it is to give of oneself absolutely, totally. Creation was an act of God’s love, a need to expand.” Arthus’s messianistic love is the glue that holds together the society of the Round Table, at least temporarily. His vision emerges near the beginning of the opera out of pitched battle music (with its Walkyrie-like flourishes) in a grand brass chorale, a theme heard often elsewhere in the opera. Unlike the bond that unites Tristan and Marke, Lancelot’s loyalty to his king is cemented by such idealism. Love/loyalty hovers even when the king is not present, violated by the flesh and, indeed, ultimately crushed by the numerous references to Tristan (especially its famous eponymous chord) that surface from one end of the score to the other. Whereas Debussy’s characters do not seem to understand the various allusions to Tristan in their opera, Chausson’s face them squarely: Genièvre wields, Lancelot struggles. And Arthus realizes his failure. Genièvre and Lancelot may sing “Delicieux oubli des choses/De la terre” (Delicious forgetting of all things terrestrial) in their initial Tristanesque duet, but ultimately allusions to Wagner’s opera relate to its meaning in a narrow sense: icons of desire that are fundamentally destructive, stopping well short of a threshold to the Infinte.

Debussy ends with tears and pity–pity for Mélisande, pity for our own condition–Wagner with a consummation where the flesh melts into the essence of the Universe. Chausson’s essence is different, intuited by the spirit divorced from the flesh (and without the ascetic, hieratic, and didactic impulses of an opera such as Wagner’s Parsifal). Lancelot and Arthus intone the final dialogue of the opera: the errant knight predicts that “L’amour dont ton coeur s’enivra jaillit de la flamme éternelle” (The love that will seize your heart springs from an eternal flame) while the theme of the grand chorale soars in the orchestra. That melody evaporates at the end of the opera: Arthus has laid himself to rest on the boat that will carry him to Avalon. In a particularly pointed contrast to the conclusion of Tristan, the stage is bare. Or, rather, quite full–suffused by “l’Idéal,” the last word in Chausson’s libretto bathed in gorgeous, disembodied choral sonority. Leroi Arthus stages the shortcomings of humanity, but not without a warm glow of hope at its final curtain.

Le roi Arthus (1895)

By John Ashbery, Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages & Literature, Bard College

Written for the concert Nostalgia: The Past Idealized Through Music, performed on Feb 4, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Chausson is hardly an unknown composers. His Poème for violin and orchestra is still a favorite with violinists and audiences alike, and justly so. His one symphony is firmly entrenched on the fringes of the repertory: detractors have always accused it of sounding like that of his master, Franck, while defenders are quick to point out the differences. Smaller works–vocal and chamber music or sometimes a combination of the two–will always be prized by those who love Debussy, Fauré, Dupare and Ravel; indeed his Poème de l’amour et de la mer and the Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet stand apart from the work of his major contemporaries and in some respects surpass it. Still, his sole opera, into which he poured most of his energies during the last decade of his tragically short life (he was killed in a bicycle accident at the age of forty-four) remains unknown. In that, Le roi Arthus shares the fate (with the important exception of Pelléas et Mélisande) of other ambitious operas of fin-de-siècle France, including those of Dukas (whose Ariane et Barbe-bleue was performed in 1999 by the American Symphony Orchestra), Franck, Fauré, d’Indy, Magnard, and Déodat de Séverac. It’s true that the CD has rescued some of these from total oblivion, but by no means all of them. The charming Séverac, a composer of ravishing piano pieces and songs very much in the manner of Debussy but with a profile of their own, wrote an opera on the subject of Heliogabalus, whose curiosity value alone would seem to make it a candidate for the CD resuscitation. (Chausson’s Arthus, it should be noted, has been recorded twice: one an excellent but no longer available version with Armin Jordan conducting and Gino Quilico in the title role; the second a live performance from the 1996 Bregenz Festival.)

Chausson was an immensely likable and cultivated man, a collector of art (including that of his friends Redon, Berthe Morisot, Maurienc Denis and Vuillard) and an avid reader, especially of folklore and mythology, including that of India, Malaysia, China and Japan, and especially the Celtic legends of Arthur and his court. His considerable wealth left him free to spend his time as he wishes, and he was a generous benefactor of less fortunate artists and musicians, including Debussy, whose gratitude left something to be desired. His married life was idyllic and produced five children, but he was also restless and even tormented, uncertain of his talent and (in his early twenties) of which branch of the arts to pursue. He was a talented draftsman and a fair-to-middling littérateur, as a recently published collection of his writings (especially an autobiographical novel, Jacques) shows. After composing numerous vocal settings of poetry, at first that of the Parnassian poets and later that of the Symbolists, he grew impatient with poems not written to be set to music. When he began to consider an opera he chose to write his own libretto, in verse and prose of a very high caliber. At one point he even considered letting it stand by itself as a play.

Although Chausson inherited a mansion in the fashionable Boulevard de Courcelles, he disliked Paris and its many distractions. “I curse Paris and the vain worldly occupations that prevent you from thinking about the only things that matter,” he wrote in a letter to his marraine (literally godmother, but in this case a kind of spiritual advisor), Mme. de Rayssac. And his restless nature resulted in his spending much of his life elsewhere, constantly moving his family to different rented houses or chateaux in France, Switzerland, and Italy. (Two prolonged sojourns at Fiesole in the 1890s were especially memorable and productive.)

Given his penchant for wandering, it seems strange that he never visited Brittany, which was to be the setting for Arthus, except for a stay of several weeks when he was twenty at the coastal resort of Saint-Quay. He and his mother shared a rented villa close to the convent where the devout Mme. de Rayssac was staying. Judging from a single diary entry, he was enamored of the somewhat older and widowed lady. Nothing was to come of this, but he remained devoted to her until her death in 1892. In their voluminous correspondence he often harks back to those idyllic days at Saint-Quay, which had remained a kind of holy place for him. In a letter of 1885 to Mme. de Rayssac (the same one quoted above), he mentions his working quarters of the moment, a workman’s cottage on an estate near the Loire that he had rented with his family for the summer. “It reminds me of our little house at Saint-Quay,” he tells her, so charming and so opera-comique. How many things that brief trip of six weeks gave rise to! It’s certainly one of the memories of the past I cling to the most. It seems to me that it was there that my youth really begain. Now ten years have passed. How everything has changed! How many deaths in that period! When I think of what I’ve done since then, for a moment I get a real sensation of the rapidity of time passing. Ten years! And so few works to show for it. Have I another ten years to live? And then I’m afraid for a moment, not of death, but of dying before I’ve accomplished my task, without having done what I’ve been called on to do.

(Chausson was always haunted by the idea that he would die prematurely; unfortunately, he was right.)

Although Jean Gallois, the author of an exhaustive biography of the composer and editor of a selection of his writings (Ernest Chausson, Fayard, 1994 and Ernest Chausson: Ecrits Inédits, Editions du Rocher, 1999), never makes the suggestion, I can’t help wondering whether Chausson’s almost Proustian devotion to the little seaside town, in which is mingled a note of eroticism, together with his subsequent avoidance of Brittany altogether, as though to keep those early memories pristine, might have been an element in his choice of a subject and a setting for his opera. His story of illicit love (suggestive of Tristan und Isolde, as critics were quick to point out, though in fact the resemblence is more literary than musical), over which noble idealism triumphs, could well have had its beginnings in that distant summer. Whatever the source, Arthus, with its story of passion, betrayal, forgiveness and ultimate resurrection, and its emotionally charged but transparent score, somewhere between Wagner and Chabrier’s Briséis, is a masterpiece which deserves to be known. Its seamless weaving together of music and poetry culminates in an enchantment more potent than Merlin’s waning powers could produce–that of the invisible choir which summons the King to nirvana, and brings his saga to its bittersweet conclusion.