Nature, music, and meaning in Debussy's writings

P Dayan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This article sets out to examine what Debussy wrote about music in the light of the discourse on music, literature, and nature that Debussy knew from contemporary literature. It becomes apparent that Debussy shares with, for example, Mallarme a refusal to consider that his work renders natural scenes present. Indeed, he rejects entirely the notion that music can or should represent anything (when it appears to represent, it is, precisely, not music). Debussy accordingly despises programs and critics who look in his music for images or ideas that they expect him to have put there.

Why, then, does he give his pieces programmatic titles? And how is one to understand the relationship between words and music, for example, in Pell as et Melisande? The answer emerges from an analysis of the special relationship that Debussy constructs between music and nature. On the one hand, Debussy tells us that "art is the most beautiful of lies"; accordingly, music never tells us any specific articulated truth about nature. on the other hand, the dynamics of our perception of nature, in which we see through specific features, as poetry might articulate them, to an inexpressible totality, a "mouvement total de la nature," is the best analogue for the process of musical creation, which traverses sense toward an ideal unity beyond the articulation of meaning. Our duty, then, would be to look past the expression of the words associated with Debussy's music, not to find in the music an extension or repetition of the words' meaning, but to sense, between as well as beyond them, an echo of that ideal unity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-229
Number of pages16
Journal19th-Century Music
Volume28
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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