In the Tuesday gatherings of Mallarmé and his followers, poems, plays, or songs might be performed to an appreciative audience. Nobody minded if the work being auditioned was unfinished. A glimpse of a dream could be every bit as powerful. For the symbolists directness and blatancy were frowned upon, while under-statement was the ideal. The goal was to intimate or suggest rather than state. It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that this reticent group sought problematic signification and even valorized incompleteness as a model for perception and meaning.
Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun, while complete, presents images that seem fragments of something larger, intimations of a transcendence that slips through our fingers, and his dramatic fragment Hérodiade–which could not be staged—was still worth reading and publishing, even in unfinished form.
No wonder that Claude Debussy felt at home in this circle, and not merely because his first great masterpiece was his orchestral Prelude to Mallarmé’s poem.
While Schubert may be famous for his “Unfinished Symphony” it is really Debussy who should be known for projects left in varying states of incompleteness; and this should not be held against him.
There’s his one complete opera: Pelléas et Mélisande. But before undertaking that opera, he had to let go of Rodrigue et Chimène, a work nearing completion that had been a torment to him. Where Pelléas was a dream project, setting a play from a much-admired playwright (Maeterlinck), in a style close to his heart (symbolist) , Rodrigue et Chimène was an unfortunate project in comparison.
The libretto by the librettist Catulle Mendès had been rejected by other composers, before Debussy came along around 1890 to begin the project for reasons in a direct contrast to the rationale for Pelléas. Where the Maeterlinck project was idealistic & daringly original, corresponding to the composer’s dream of “two associated dreams”, Mendès presented Debussy with a commercial opportunity, and a way to make money. From 1890 to 1892, the composer created most of the work but without orchestration. Presumed lost, it has only been reconstructed in the last little while, including missing passages that were filled in, using a style imitating other passages by Debussy.
When you listen to the reconstruction of the opera (See CD link above), you get something diametrically opposite to the reticent symbolist style of Pelléas. There are choruses and battles. Where Pelléas surrenders to his fate, Rodrigue is an epic warrior. Alien as the story is to our usual understanding of the composer & his literary preferences, Debussy’s work deserves to be heard, one of the most exciting compositions I’ve encountered in the last decade. If only it could be produced.
But that early incomplete opera was neither the first nor last such fragment.
Previously Debussy had undertaken an adaptation of some of Villiers de L’lsle-Adam’s Axel, perhaps to determine its aptness for operatic adaptation. Before Rodrigue et Chimène came Diane au bois, a work that I’ve only heard in a partial excerpt as part of a lecture by Richard Langham Smith; his analysis is wonderfully suggestive in connecting its methods to those found in later compositions such as the Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun, including a small sample performance.
After Pelléas, Debussy would make two attempts to adapt Edgar Allan Poe.
- Le diable dans le beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry)
- La chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Neither of these would be completed, even though Debussy was commissioned in advance for them by Giulio Gatti-Casazza of the Metropolitan Opera.
And this is far from a complete list of Debussy’s fragments and unfinished projects. But it must be remembered that at this time, in his circle, there was no shame in creating an unfinished fragment.
But alas, not much money in it either.
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