Author Topic: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue  (Read 1067 times)

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Offline Mirror Image

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Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« on: February 25, 2019, 05:22:05 PM »
La Damoiselle élue is an early work of Debussy’s. I find it to be so ravishingly beautiful and would love to know what you think of the work and if you believe it fits in comfortably with his overall oeuvre?



A bit of background on the work:

Completed in 1889, La damoiselle élue belongs to the period when Debussy was closely involved with the Parisian circle of literary Symbolists and deeply immersed in the music of Wagner. An associate of Mallarmé whose poem L’Après-midi d’un faune inspired the orchestral Prélude five years later, Debussy devoured the literature of his contemporaries, as well as the work of those who influenced them – Baudelaire, Verlaine and Poe – further absorbing symbolist ideals through the literary periodical La revue wagnérienne. French Wagnérisme was at its peak. Attending Lohengrin in Paris in 1887, Debussy made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth the following year to hear Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, returning in 1889 to attend performances of Tristan und Isolde. Later Debussy wrote: ‘1889! Delightful period when I was madly Wagnerian.’ Debussy and his symbolist colleagues were attracted by the sensuality of Wagner’s music and its ability to suggest – rather than describe – an internalised world of mystical dreams and imaginings. Wagner epitomised the Symbolists’ quest for a sense of ‘otherness’, often associated with evocations of mythological subjects and pseudo-medieval imagery. These ideas were also found in the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites who were much in vogue in 1880s Paris and an important influence on French literature and art, not least the burgeoning art nouveau.

Through his involvement with the literary Symbolists, Debussy discovered a then recently published anthology of English poetry translated by Gabriel Sarrazin, Poètes modernes d’Angleterre (1883), which included illustrations by Pre-Raphaelite artists as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem The Blessèd Damozel (1850). It was on this French prose translation of Rossetti that Debussy based his lyric cantata for soprano, female chorus and orchestra, La damoiselle élue. Concerned with love and longing, Rossetti’s poem evokes an ethereal but melancholic female presence bathed in lilies, roses and stars – the blessed damozel – who observes her lover ‘from the gold bar of heaven’: recalling the purity of their brief time together in life, she yearns for fulfilment of love in death. While ideas of the love-death are supremely redolent of Tristan und Isolde, which Debussy heard while composing La damoiselle élue, his score abounds in allusions to Parsifal not only in his approach to harmony and orchestration but also in his use of female voices as soloist and chorus, these echoing the other-worldly enticements of Kundry and the Flower-maidens. Debussy’s fascination with Tristan came to fruition in his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, composed at the same time as La damoiselle.

Although it is unlikely that Debussy knew Rossetti’s painting The Blessèd Damozel (1877) at the time of writing his cantata – Pre-Raphaelite paintings did not come to France until the 1890s – the illustrations in Sarrazin’s anthology introduced Debussy to the visual element of the Pre-Raphaelite’s exotic ‘other’, especially their exploration of a new type of feminine beauty. In Rossetti’s poem, the haunting image of the sensuous but chaste Pre-Raphaelite woman whose ‘hair lying down her back was yellow like ripe corn’, anticipates Maeterlinck’s Mélisande and Debussy’s portrayal of her in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande on which he began work in 1893. Debussy also explored Pre-Raphaelite themes in Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and in his unfinished projects La saulaie, based on ‘Willow Wood’ from Rossetti’s The House of Life, and La chute de la maison Usher based on Poe.

Another connection that makes Debussy’s choice of Rossetti significant within the composer’s creative evolution is its link with Edgar Allan Poe; The Blessèd Damozel was partly a response to Poe’s narrative poem The Raven (1845), which tells, in semi-supernatural terms, of a talking raven’s visit to a distraught lover, grief-stricken for his dead beloved, and his descent into madness through the torment of memory and desire. Debussy deeply admired Poe’s writings and later planned operas based on The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry.

A key phrase in Rossetti’s poem sets the mood for Debussy’s setting of La damoiselle élue: ‘the peace of utter light and silence – no breeze may stir’. Like Pelléas et Mélisande, the score is subdued, intimate and mysterious, the opening prelude to the work suggesting an orchestra ‘as if lit from behind’ – Debussy’s own description of Wagner’s orchestration in Parsifal. While fragments also recall the Siegfried Idyll as well as ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried, and the line ‘I heard her tears’ is accompanied by Tristanesque chromaticisms, the solo flute melodies look forwards to those of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and underline the work’s sense of nostalgic longing. Exploring the rich yet dark sounds of divisi strings as a musical backdrop to the solo instrumental melodies and vocal lines, the main tonal centre of C major creates a special resonance due to the tuning of the instruments’ lower open strings. Yet, tonalities are subtly blurred through constantly shifting harmonic colours, enhancing the radiant orchestration. Anticipating Debussy’s technique in Pelléas, the short orchestral prelude presents three distinct themes, which reappear during the course of the work. The text is set syllabically, the soprano being both a récitante describing the thoughts of the female protagonist as well as the damozel herself, while the chorus serves as narrator. Premièred at the Société nationale on 8 April 1893, La damoiselle élue was the first of Debussy’s orchestral works to be performed.

[Article taken from The Philharmonia Orchestra’s website]
« Last Edit: March 12, 2019, 07:39:13 PM by Mirror Image »
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #1 on: February 25, 2019, 08:22:27 PM »
I guess I’m the only one, eh? ;D

I really love the Ewing/Abbado recording on Deutsche Grammophon and the Veronique Dietschy/Doris Lamprecht/Philippe Cassard in the arrangement for soprano, mezzo, piano, and chorus.



This is also a great performance of the other arrangement:



Some La Damoiselle élue recordings in my collection that I need to revisit (or possibly listen to for the first-time):

« Last Edit: February 25, 2019, 08:28:49 PM by Mirror Image »
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Offline springrite

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #2 on: February 25, 2019, 08:26:05 PM »
I only have the LA Phil recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #3 on: February 25, 2019, 08:29:39 PM »
I only have the LA Phil recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen.

What do you think of the work, Paul? I’m not sure if you’re a huge Debussy fan or not as I don’t really remember you listening to much French music previously.
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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #4 on: February 25, 2019, 08:45:09 PM »

I actually listen to more French music than you think. But in this case, I bought the CD for St. Sebastien and La Demoiselle élue was just the filler that I did not pay that much attention to, but I did enjoy it. As for Salonen's Debussy, it does tend to be a bit too surgical and not sufficiently sensual at times. I love the clarity, though.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #5 on: February 25, 2019, 08:48:44 PM »
I actually listen to more French music than you think. But in this case, I bought the CD for St. Sebastien and La Demoiselle élue was just the filler that I did not pay that much attention to, but I did enjoy it. As for Salonen's Debussy, it does tend to be a bit too surgical and not sufficiently sensual at times. I love the clarity, though.

Agreed on Salonen’s Debussy, but, like you, I do recall enjoying the details of his performances.
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Offline springrite

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #6 on: February 25, 2019, 08:51:30 PM »
Agreed on Salonen’s Debussy, but, like you, I do recall enjoying the details of his performances.
One of the best concert I went to in LA was Salonen's La Mer.

I just noticed my avatar photo looks very much like a Mirror Image (pun intended) of your avatar photo.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #7 on: February 25, 2019, 08:58:39 PM »
One of the best concert I went to in LA was Salonen's La Mer.

I just noticed my avatar photo looks very much like a Mirror Image (pun intended) of your avatar photo.

Awesome! I bet that was a great concert. Yes, we’re brothers from another mother. ;D
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Offline ritter

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #8 on: February 26, 2019, 03:54:30 AM »
Well, here's my two cents worth... ;)

I've loved La damoiselle élue for many years now, but I must say that my admiration for the work is not devoid of some objections: I have a huge problem with the Dante Gabriel Rossetti's text, the decadent mystic-erotic atmosphere of which I find downright revolting. TBH, all things pre-Raphaelite are diametrically opposed from my aesthetic sensibilities (to my eyes, Rossetti's painting is plain ugly  ::)).

Having got that out of the way (whew!), to my ears Debussy's setting is ravishing. This proto- (and, to a certain extent, meta-) Debussy piece certainly doesn't have the finesse, subtlety and mastery of later works, but the way the composer treats the voice, and surrounds it with a shimmering orchestral robe (dominated by strings) is rather mesmerising. As opposed to what the article quoted above asserts, I find nothing particularly "Parsifalian" in this work, and IMO the chorus is far removed from the flower-maidens, and the damozel has nothing to do with Kundry. Her ecstatic solo ("Je voudrais qu'il fut déjà prés de moi...") which really is the highlight and core of the piece (as the introduction with the chorus and mezzo, and the coda, are a bit of a bore TBH) is quite unique, because without really having any major melodic line  (but rather, the very Debussyian succession of brief "bits of themes") he manages to gives us a full-fledged aria, which is cohesive and seductive.

As far as recordings go, this one tops my list:

 


Sayão's small but simultaneously penetrating and warm voice, and her immaculate diction, suit this work perfectly (she was actually sought out by no less a figure as Arturo Toscanini to sing it in NY with the Philharmonic). Ormandy's trademark ultra-lush orchestral sound is put to excellent use here, and the sound is quite good for its vintage (1945).

My second choice is Dawn Upshaw's with Salonen (pictured in a post above). Yes, the orchestral backdrop is more "surgical", but just as successful, and Mrs. Upshaw's French pronunciation is peculiar (but endearing, I'd say); still,  this great soprano's instrument, which sounds, one one side, innocent and childlike, and on the other, has a special warmth, is not dissimilar to Sayão's and sounds great in this music.
« Last Edit: February 26, 2019, 04:54:09 AM by ritter »
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Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #9 on: February 26, 2019, 04:34:54 AM »
I felt absolutely sure I had a recording of the work, but have scanned my shelves and can't seem to locate it, so maybe I haven't heard it, or maybe I heard it once.

Does anyone know the recording with De Los Angeles conducted by Munch? That would have been the most likely candidate for me.
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Offline ritter

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #10 on: February 26, 2019, 05:48:27 AM »

Does anyone know the recording with De Los Angeles conducted by Munch? That would have been the most likely candidate for me.
I don’t have the studio version, but rather a broadcast recording of a (more or less simultaneous, I presume) live concert:



Munch’s handling of the orchestra is stunning, and de los Ángeles sings beautifully, touchingly and deals very well with the words (but lacks that extra je ne  sais pas quoi that makes Sayão so very special). On the minus side, the sound is so-so (I insist this is the live version, not the studio effort) and the Radcliffe Choral Society’s ladies sing with perhaps too much enthusiasm, and their French is atrocious (this is a problem that affects other Munch recordings, such as his Martyre de Saint-Sébastien).
« Last Edit: February 26, 2019, 05:51:30 AM by ritter »
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Debussy’s La damoiselle élue
« Reply #11 on: February 26, 2019, 06:55:42 AM »
Well, here's my two cents worth... ;)

I've loved La damoiselle élue for many years now, but I must say that my admiration for the work is not devoid of some objections: I have a huge problem with the Dante Gabriel Rossetti's text, the decadent mystic-erotic atmosphere of which I find downright revolting. TBH, all things pre-Raphaelite are diametrically opposed from my aesthetic sensibilities (to my eyes, Rossetti's painting is plain ugly  ::)).

Having got that out of the way (whew!), to my ears Debussy's setting is ravishing. This proto- (and, to a certain extent, meta-) Debussy piece certainly doesn't have the finesse, subtlety and mastery of later works, but the way the composer treats the voice, and surrounds it with a shimmering orchestral robe (dominated by strings) is rather mesmerising. As opposed to what the article quoted above asserts, I find nothing particularly "Parsifalian" in this work, and IMO the chorus is far removed from the flower-maidens, and the damozel has nothing to do with Kundry. Her ecstatic solo ("Je voudrais qu'il fut déjà prés de moi...") which really is the highlight and core of the piece (as the introduction with the chorus and mezzo, and the coda, are a bit of a bore TBH) is quite unique, because without really having any major melodic line  (but rather, the very Debussyian succession of brief "bits of themes") he manages to gives us a full-fledged aria, which is cohesive and seductive.

As far as recordings go, this one tops my list:

 


Sayão's small but simultaneously penetrating and warm voice, and her immaculate diction, suit this work perfectly (she was actually sought out by no less a figure as Arturo Toscanini to sing it in NY with the Philharmonic). Ormandy's trademark ultra-lush orchestral sound is put to excellent use here, and the sound is quite good for its vintage (1945).

My second choice is Dawn Upshaw's with Salonen (pictured in a post above). Yes, the orchestral backdrop is more "surgical", but just as successful, and Mrs. Upshaw's French pronunciation is peculiar (but endearing, I'd say); still,  this great soprano's instrument, which sounds, one one side, innocent and childlike, and on the other, has a special warmth, is not dissimilar to Sayão's and sounds great in this music.

Great post, Rafael and good day to you, sir. Sounds like I need to give the Upshaw/Salonen recording a listen and soon. ;) I’m with you on the Rossetti painting. I don’t find it impressive at all.
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Offline Wendell_E

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #12 on: February 27, 2019, 03:22:24 AM »
I've got the Bertini/Cotrubaș recording, a filler to his recording of L'enfant prodigue, but as much as I love Debussy and Cotrubaș, haven't listened to it much. I may have to give it another listen today.
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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #13 on: February 27, 2019, 06:43:38 AM »
I've got the Bertini/Cotrubaș recording, a filler to his recording of L'enfant prodigue, but as much as I love Debussy and Cotrubaș, haven't listened to it much. I may have to give it another listen today.

I own this one as well. It’s been reissued on Orfeo as I believe it was originally released on the Pro Arte label. I haven’t ever listened to the performance.

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Offline Jaakko Keskinen

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #14 on: February 27, 2019, 08:02:07 AM »
I love La Damoiselle élue! I do hear much of Parsifal's influence in this work (much like with Pelléas as well), not that it is a bad thing at all since not only Parsifal is a mesmerizing work but also Debussy doesn't fall into copycat territory of it at any point of this beautiful composition. To think that Debussy achieved this in his early-mid twenties - what have I been doing with my life?  ::)
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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #15 on: February 27, 2019, 09:04:00 AM »
I love La Damoiselle élue! I do hear much of Parsifal's influence in this work (much like with Pelléas as well), not that it is a bad thing at all since not only Parsifal is a mesmerizing work but also Debussy doesn't fall into copycat territory of it at any point of this beautiful composition. To think that Debussy achieved this in his early-mid twenties - what have I been doing with my life?  ::)

I think the thing that is important to remember is that Debussy was very much influenced by Wagner and absorbed all of the music he had heard, but the difference here is Debussy had to make his own way as a composer and not fall into any kind of Wagnerian compositional trap. I read something that some commentator said that mentioned that Debussy didn’t like Wagner’s music because it didn’t emulate it or borrow from it. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. The reality was, even though his music consciously avoided Wagner in order to find his own path, he was influenced by it because of this avoidance. This is a concept that many people seem to not understand about Debussy. It’s kind of like Schoenberg admired Brahms to no end and he was directly influenced by his music despite the fact that there's no similarities between the two composers.
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Online Mandryka

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #16 on: March 24, 2019, 02:06:20 AM »
Somehow I've managed to pick up two versions of this, both sound very good to me though it's not music I'm familiar with really and for all I know they could both be travesties. They're both pretty rare I think, so I thought I'd post in case anyone wanted them. They're by Bruno Maderna and Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht. They both sound live.

Re the music, it's obviously by the same composer as Peleas! I like it when the lady's singing, much less so when the choir join in. I don't like the Pre-Raphaelite feeling at all, but in the solo singing it seems less present. I also felt it was too long, he's said all he has to say musically half way though.

« Last Edit: March 24, 2019, 02:17:28 AM by Mandryka »
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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #17 on: April 03, 2019, 12:20:13 PM »
This piece predates Pelleas, it is connected to it as it is basically another piece of symbolist literature. Debussy only set some stanzas. One striking thing to me is that he omitted this one:

To one, it is ten years of years.
. . . Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she lean'd o'er me--her hair
Fell all about my face ....
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)

How odd that he encountered two pieces of literature which use this image of a woman’s hair falling over the admirer's face. I cannot think of another. 

It is lush and perfumed where the atmosphere moves from chaste choral calm to waves of turbulent sound that the soloist has to ride. There are a fair few recordings. I have one I enjoy a lot by Caballe with Wyn Morris and Ozawa has a very good partnership with von Stade. It is quite a showcase for a singer, despite which I have never even seen it programmed in a concert.

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Re: Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue
« Reply #18 on: April 04, 2019, 06:22:36 AM »
I’ve listened to the Upshaw/Rasmussen/Salonen performance of La Damoiselle élue several times since last I posted here and I now consider it my reference performance. I don’t agree with the opinion of Salonen's performance as ‘surgical’. I do think, however, that he does bring out many of the details of the score that sometimes are lost on other conductors. In many ways, Salonen is closer to the Boulez style of conducting where there’s a great transparency in the textures.
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