Techniques | Symbolism or Impressionism? | Turn of the Century | Opera
Debussy considered these phrases ‘useless terms of abuse’ but they have been used a great deal to understand the different aspects of his work. On the one hand he set countless texts of the symbolist poets as songs, he chose a play from the greatest symbolist playwright for his only opera; and was fascinated by the symbolists’ predecessors, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe and the poet Charles Baudelaire. On the other hand, he wrote pieces inspired by landscape: La mer, Ibéria and many ‘water pieces’ for piano. In his opera Pelléas et Mélisande both symbolism and Impressionism can be found. Symbolically, Debussy uses the Wagnerian leitmotif to represent both characters and deeper emotional states, to which definitive tags cannot be applied. Impressionistically he has to evoke the sea, the sun on the water, the forests and the stagnant water in the vaults under the castle, not to mention freshly watered roses. While he may have rejected connections with both movements, preferring to be himself, the ways in which he paralleled Impressionism in pointilliste orchestration, and symbolism with questioning motives, are undeniable. Debussy was particularly in tune with the poets and painters of his time.
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