Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940)
Dressmakers under the Lamp, c. 1891–1892
Oil on cardboard
Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1979.41.2.P

When Debussy’s one and only opera Pelléas and Mélisande premiered at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1902, it provoked a controversy that went on in the press and music journals for years, all the way through the one hundredth performance of the opera in 1913. There were disputes between Debussy and the playwright, Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck. There was moral outrage about the subject matter, and of course, the music. Debussy not only resisted tradition, he actively thwarted conventional uses of melody and vocal effects. In many ways, it is an anti-opera; no vocal acrobatics, no arias, no set pieces. It was one of a continuous flow of magical and rich harmonies, with a vocal dialogue, which sets a natural poetry of the French language, against a sensuous dramatic and intensely expressive orchestra, which leads us through this mysterious drama dominated by the invisible hand of destiny.

This selection from Pelléas and Mélisande, the Act IV Interlude, is purely orchestral, and both summarizes and foreshadows the tragedy of these ill-starred young lovers, of a latter-day Romeo and Juliet, placed in an unidentified medieval fairy-tale like setting.

Édouard Vuillard similarly floats in visual fluidity to represent a deeply intimate setting for the painter in Dressmakers under the Lamp. Here Vuillard showcases the feelings of melancholy and claustrophobia in his mother’s workspace with the same ranging and melding of colors and subjects as Debussy’s harmonies.