Brussels Philharmonic | Fauré & Debussy

Fauré & Debussy



Gabriel Fauré La naissance de Vénus, Op. 29 (1882) / Pavane, Op. 50 (1887) / Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (1898) / Masques et Bergamasques, Op. 112 (1919)
Claude Debussy
La Damoiselle élue, L. 62 (1888)

[all programme notes]


08.06.2024 FLAGEY

Ainsi, dans cet art, les tableaux de la nature, les actions des humains, tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes; ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiales.

So, in this art, the images of nature, the actions of people, all concrete phenomena cannot manifest themselves; they are all sensory appearances intended to reflect their esoteric kinship with the primordial ideas.

– Jean Moréas, Le Symbolisme

A symbolist matter

For a short, intense period in the fin de siècle, the French and Belgian salons in particular were gushing with symbolism. In the texts of Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine; in the paintings of Paul Gauguin, Fernand Khnopff and Gustav Klimt. This is just a handful of names, but it should immediately make clear that it is not easy to draw a clear line in the movement. After all, symbolism manifests itself in multiple ways. Even now, more than a century after the movement died out, the style cannot shake off its requisite elusiveness.

It is therefore no coincidence that one of the main ideas of the symbolists was the impossibility of directly translating emotions, images, actions and ideas (into art). Doubt. Shadow play. Unspoken words. They are elements that typify – but do not define – symbolism. ‘An expressed thought is a lie,’ said Russian cultural critic Dmitry Merezhkovsky.

'In poetry, what is not said and yet shines through the beauty of the symbol, works more powerfully on the heart than what is expressed in words.'

(Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908)

Symbols in music or music as a symbol

Composers are also inspired by the ideas of the symbolists. After all, the lost-in-translation feeling that they project comes out just as brightly in an abstract art form like music. ‘Music [seems] to contain an emotional symbolism in itself that is not a matter of choice, but is always present, because the sound of music alone is a symbol of musical experience, just as musical notation is always a symbol of what we hear,’ writes E.A. Lippman it in his essay Symbolism in Music. It raises the question: how on earth do you translate an image, a landscape, a human being into sound waves? Some composers took refuge in programmatic music – whereby the music was interpreted often with sizeable appendices. Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré clearly chose a different direction.

Although he himself had an obvious aversion to being reduced to any -ism, today we mainly associate Debussy with the movement. That overlap is not very surprising. Debussy was largely self-taught and received his art education from the same cafés that the symbolists used to frequent. It was only logical then that some of the ideas stuck. It is even more explicit when we include Debussy’s magnum opus Pelléas et Mélisande, based on a play by the Belgian radical symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. It is from this perspective that we can identify Gabriel Fauré as a potential symbolist. After all, he started from the same source, and wrote music for Maeterlinck’s play.

Symbolists beyond the literary connections

Fauré as a symbolist, at first glance it seems a strange association. After all, the Frenchman is usually labelled an abstract composer. Someone who was concerned (formally speaking) with writing the best possible music. Someone who let the structure, the harmony and the notes speak for themselves. Nevertheless, the label is not so far-fetched, if only because of the many biographical links to be found there. In addition to Pelléas et Mélisande, Fauré was in fact inspired many a time by the writings of the symbolists.

Yet the kinship goes beyond a lot of external connections. After all, in a 1932 article, musicologist C. Henry Philips cites an important aspect of symbolist poetry. ‘In the construction of their works, the symbolists avoid logic,’ he mentions. ‘[...] there did not have to be a logical connection; the connection was entirely emotional.’

Let that innovation be a characteristic that is often attributed to Fauré. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Jean-Michel Nectoux writes that ‘much of [Fauré’s] individuality stems from his dealings with harmony and tonality. Without completely destroying the sense of tonality, and with a certain intuitive awareness of which boundaries should be adhered to, he freed himself from its limitations. Attention is often drawn to the speed of its modulations.’ A reviewer from The Times, who attended the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, summed it up as follows: ‘It does indeed have a vagueness of melodic and harmonious progression that best suits the character of this piece.'

The same vague fluidity is so often praised in the music of Claude Debussy. ‘Debussy uses existing chords in a new context and thus creates new chords,’ says C. Henry Philips about this. He places (long-standing) existing matters in a radically new context, just like the symbolists who ‘like the French tried [...] to express ideas that had been neglected by French literature.’ Moreover, Debussy not only experiments with harmony, but has also proven to be progressive in terms of rhythm, just as the symbolists rejected the classic verse forms and metres.

That said, we may still get the most important information about his relationship with symbolism from the composer himself. In an article in Le Revue Blanche, he wrote that ‘music should not be limited to the more or less exact representation of nature, but rather to the representation of the mysterious correspondences that connect nature with the imagination.’

A quote that could come straight from the symbolist manifesto.