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.