Orledge’s Debussy Operas on CD at Last

Debussy Chute de la Maison Usher

In reviewing this excellent and (in my view) historically important recording, one thought kept going through my mind: could I possibly contact and convince Professor Robert Orledge to do a short interview with me? There were certain things that kept popping into my mind as I listened to these two fine (but radically different) Poe-based operas that I couldn’t answer for myself or from the scanty descriptions in other reviews I have read. Thus I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Mr. Orledge was not only willing to do so but that he was very happy with my review!

And thus, without further ado, let us get “into the kitchen,” so to speak, of Professor Orledge and his encyclopedic knowledge of Claude Debussy and his methods!

Art Music Lounge: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Of course the first question has to be this: did you yourself study composition before going into musicology? There’s just something so “organic” in your reconstructions that my mind keeps telling me that you yourself took a try at composition. Am I right?

Robert Orledge: I started composing around the age of 10 but it was always ‘style’ composition – my equivalents of pieces that had particularly struck me at the time. So there were lots of Chopin Preludes and even my version of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with modern instruments like the vibraphone and tuba! While I was at Cambridge University I was advised that I had more talent with words than notes, and so, rather reluctantly, I went into musicology and teaching instead. In my thirty plus years at Liverpool University, I rarely had any time to compose properly, but when I was offered early retirement in 2002 I realized that I could start doing what I had always wanted to do – to complete the unfinished theatre works of Debussy that I had uncovered while I was writing “Debussy and the Theatre” for Cambridge UP in the early 1980s.

I started with Usher because I had been so disappointed with the truncated versions that were performed in America from 1977 (Yale) onwards. Amazingly, the Paris Opera still uses the Allende-Blin version (Berlin, 1979) even though it is full of errors and Scene 2 is assembled in the wrong order. But then the French have never really liked their own music, as Berlioz discovered to his cost.

On the side, I still write my own compositions. I am not sure I know of a completely “original” composition – with maybe the exception of Satie’s Vexations – but this does not worry me at all. If the music sounds beautiful and people want to hear it (which they do), why should I worry if it happens to sound French from time to time? And I have learned from Debussy how to make pieces grow organically, transforming or combining existing forms to make new unities (as Debussy does so wonderfully in L’isle joyeuse). This also seems to happen both quickly and naturally in my “creative musicology,” as does the dramatic pacing.

AML: Let’s start with Usher. Looking at what you had available from Debussy, but also knowing the Poe story, what specific “keys” did you use to unlock the problem of how to write or complete scenes left empty or unfinished by the composer?

RO: First of all, I studied the half of the opera that Debussy composed in great detail, noting how particular musical ideas were associated with dramatic moments or psychological states of mind – like the “Usher chord” (C major plus a high violin F sharp) that appears at strategic moments in Scene 2, often to arrest the dramatic movement suddenly and leave it suspended in space. I then started filling up the gaps from Debussy’s final libretto, using his own ideas wherever possible, sometimes changing their harmonies or transforming them melodically and rhythmically, as Debussy does with Mélisande’s theme in Pelléas. Joining Debussy to Debussy/Orledge required special care, but I have yet to find anyone who could identify the joins precisely without recourse to my markings in the vocal score of Usher. For I have nothing to hide and I explain the Debussian origins of each musical section as well. Occasionally in Roderick’s rather repetitive monologue in Scene 2, I cut a few short passages that might interfere with the musical flow, and I had to write a “nightmare scherzo” (for the passage where Roderick tells his friend about another sleepless and horror-filled night in his crumbling ancestral home), as Debussy left no fast music for Usher, apart from the final bars.

AML: One of the salient features of Debussy’s vocal writing, in my opinion, is that he never pushed the voice(s) beyond normal scope, as other opera composers did via vocal range and/or volume. His climaxes and dramatic effects always seem dependent on using the orchestra to create them. I can’t ever recall his asking a baritone to go higher up than an A or a soprano higher up than a B, maybe a C, and then only on rare occasions. Did you find yourself having to keep this in mind when writing missing passages? And how did you manage to fit your original music into the context of what Debussy left us harmonically without making it sound “foreign”?

RO: I studied Debussy’s vocal ranges carefully as many of his existing sections in Usher involved swift dramatic crescendos with rising lines, which I carefully did not take up above his limit of F sharp for the two baritones, or A flat for the evil doctor (tenor). So I basically had to know which note to start these rising passages on (depending on their length), so that they came out right. But then I love this sort of technical challenge. The only time I had to adjust anything was when Roderick recalls Lady Madeline’s opening song in Scene 2. When I asked colleagues to look through the score, Roger Nichols kindly pointed out that my low-pitched recall would be too low for a baritone, and so it had to be taken up an octave. But you are right that Debussy does not push his voices beyond their normal scope, and that the orchestra carries the main thematic argument (as in Wagner).

In all my Debussy reconstructions, spacing each chord and ensuring the logical voice-leading take me far longer than the composition itself. The same goes for the orchestration. The succession of the 7th and 9th based, or whole-tone harmonies is not the problem, it is rather which notes you leave out or double in these complex chords. An over-thick chord can destroy a passage in a second – making it sound “foreign.”

AML: I’m curious as to how much of the climactic scene of Usher is Debussy and how much is yours. I was very impressed by the slow, methodical build-up to the final climax, which mirrors exactly the pace of the story. Can you walk us through this reconstruction a bit?

RO: Broadly speaking, the long passage from the point in Scene 2 where Roderick calls for the candles to be lit to welcome L’Ami (“Des flambeaux…allumons les flambeaux”) to the start of the final melodrama (the reading of The Mad Trist by Roderick’s friend) is mine (mostly based on Debussy’s material from elsewhere in the opera). After the brass shield falls to the floor in the cellar below Roderick’s study until the last 8 bars – the build up to the final climax – is again my imaginative reconstruction. I felt Debussy would surely have returned to the “black wings of fate” motif (high string 16th-notes) here, but the pulsating sounds in the bass and Lady Madeline’s fast heart-beats, represented by the trumpets and bass drum, are all mine, as is the discordant harmonization (fff) of the opening cor anglais motif in augmentation as Lady Madeline makes her terrifying final entrance, intent on the death of her brother.

AML: Now, I’m asking this question only because it is clear that Debussy wanted these operas to premiere at the Metropolitan. Considering that, plus the fact that Poe was an American writer, wouldn’t he have possibly wanted them to be sung in English rather than French?

RO: Chiefly, Debussy went for the NY Met because he admired its then director, Gatti-Casazza, with whom he thought he could make a lucrative deal behind his publisher’s (Jacques Durand’s) back. Poe of course came into the equation but there is no evidence that Debussy considered Usher being sung in any language other than French. I have made a parallel singing version in English translation (which restores much of Poe’s original archaic story at the end), but no-one has ever expressed an interest in performing it!

AML: Let’s move on now to Le Diable. I said in my review, which I certainly meant as a compliment as well as a bit of reality, that the credits for this should read “by Robert Orledge and Stephen Wyatt, based on an idea and musical fragments by Claude Debussy.” I really believe that you are being too modest to call this a Debussy work, much as his few remaining sketches inspired you. How do you feel about that?

RO: All I was trying to do with Le Diable was to make Debussy’s concept of a Poe double bill into a reality and every single word, note or idea that he wrote about the opera was fully considered. It is true that I had to bring in another Debussy piece, the 1917 prelude Les soirs illuminés, but only because it seemed to have clear links in key and mood with the end of Debussy’s little 1903-4 prelude for the opera. The alternative authorship you suggest would, in reality, be more accurate, but I thought the opera would be more likely to be performed if Debussy was the prominent name on the poster. I am still awaiting its stage premiere, even so.

AML: I listened to the lecture-demonstration that you and Stephen Wyatt gave at Gresham College a few years ago, and was fascinated by some of the genuine Debussy music you mentioned being dovetailed into the score. Am I correct in thinking that this opera took more time for you to finish than Usher?

RO: I’m glad you managed to hear the Gresham College lecture from 2012 as this was the first time that Le Diable was heard in the UK. But in reality, the second Poe opera only took me six weeks to write and score in 2010 – the bulk of the actual composition taking about two weeks, whereas Usher took me almost two years from start to finish (2002-4). But in between I had made numerous other reconstructions and orchestrations (including No-ja-li, La Saulaie, and the Nocturne and Poème for violin and orchestra), so these helped a lot. I also felt I had a freer hand with Le Diable and I had worked with Stephen Wyatt on many past occasions. I also knew from Debussy’s sketches that he intended the harmonic style of Le diable to be simpler and more cadential, which helped a lot.

AML: Overall, Le Diable seemed a little odd to me, though as a complete one-act comic farce taken on its own merits and not thinking about it being by Debussy, it really was wonderful. I found myself laughing at some of the humorous music in it. Do you think that, had he lived to complete it, Debussy might have maintained the light, comic-opera tone of the work as it now exists?

RO: I have every reason to believe that he would have done so, as he wanted Le diable to contrast with Usher (and Pelléas) as much as possible. As you will know, Usher was not really as different from Pelléas as Debussy intended, and perhaps that was another reason why he never finished it. Rodrigue et Chimène had never been performed and he did not want to be seen as a one-great-opera composer by future generations. I see myself as doing my best to help this come true.

AML: Thank you so much for your time!

DEBUSSY-ORLEDGE: La Chute de la Maison Usher / William Dazeley, baritone (Roderick Usher); Eugene Villanueva, baritone (His Friend); Virgil Hartinger, tenor (Doctor); Lin Lin Fan, soprano (Lady Madeline) / Le Diable dans le Beffroi / Eugene Villanueva, baritone (Le Bourgmestre); Lin Lin Fan, soprano (Jeannette); Michael Drees, bass (The Bell-Ringer); Virgil Hartinger, tenor (Jean); Kammerchor St. Jacobi Göttingen. Both operas with Göttinger Symphony Orchestra, Christoph-Mathias Mueller, conductor / Pan Classics PC10342 (2 CDs, live performances of December 10-11, 2013)

Claude Debussy, contrary to popular opinion or knowledge, did not just write one opera although Pelléas et Mélisande is the only one he was able to see through to fruition and produce on the stage. Much earlier, from 1890 to 1893, he worked on a three-act work called Rodrigue et Chiméne which finally received its reconstructed premiere in 1993, and from 1902 almost until his death he worked feverishly, if intermittently, on two short operas based on stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Le Diable dans le Beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry) and, even more interestingly, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). He had been in touch with the Metropolitan Opera throughout this period, a house that had received his Pelléas very well, and sincerely wanted these “American” operas to be premiered there back-to-back in a double bill.

But time, other projects, intermittent inspiration and eventually his fatal cancer all worked against him. At the time of his death Le Diable dans le Beffroi only existed in a few musical sketches (totaling about 70 bars of music) and a plot synopsis, not even a real libretto, and while La Chute de la Maison Usher was much further along (about half completed) it was never finished. Debussy was not happy about this, and it was not just the financial remuneration he expected from the Met. He really liked Poe’s tales, thought highly of the concentrated and detailed work he had done on these operas, and really felt that they would provide a greater operatic legacy in the long run that just Pelléas which, although he was proud of it, was really just a one-off, a dream-like, impressionist piece of music set to a dream-like, impressionist play. (FYI, the composer was also planning his own opera based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde.) While writing Roderick’s monologue, Debussy wrote to his publisher Durand that it was “sad enough to make a stone weep, for it is indeed a matter of the influence of stones on the morale of neurasthenics. The whole thing has an alluring musty scent which comes from mixing the heavy tones of the oboe with the harmonious sounds of the violins.” Just from this single letter, one can tell that this music meant a great deal to him personally.

After Debussy’s death, his widow Emma eventually took to sending out original manuscript pages of La Chute de la Maison Usher both as gifts to friends and to help defray legal costs, selling others to provide her some income. We can get angry or sad at this, but such was the reality of her life without Claude. Eventually, a truncated (36-minute) version of this opera was premiered in the late 1970s and recorded in the 1990s, but British musicologist Robert Orledge—one of the world’s most informed and accomplished Debussy scholars—has taken it much further. Part of this was due to his extreme good luck in finding more pages of the original manuscript, but one must not discount his deep knowledge of Debussy’s methods of composition and his specific predilections for orchestration and tone color. In short, his reconstruction doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like Debussy, pure and simple, from first note to last, even those passages that he clearly had to compose himself. Orledge’s reconstructed Usher made its debut at the Bregenz Festival on August 7, 2006, and received considerable acclaim in reviews and music journals.

Le Diable dans le Beffroi was obviously a much more difficult project, as both a libretto and a score had to be virtually created from next to nothing. In my view, this is Orledge’s greater achievement, making not just a castle out of adobe bricks, but a castle out of the sand the adobe bricks might have been made from. His opera, which in my view should read “by Robert Orledge after sketches and a plot synopsis by Debussy,” made its first appearance on February 28, 2012 in Montreal under the direction of Paolo Bellomio. Christoph-Matthias Mueller, the conductor of these fine live performances, decided to play and record them after hearing a radio broadcast of Orledge’s reconstructed version of Debussy pieces for violin and orchestra. He was deeply impressed by what he called “the ‘right’ sound world and the beautiful orchestration,” and thus made the decision to give the first stage performance of the two “Poe operas” back to back.

Mueller’s impression—one of a seasoned professional conductor, not an easily impressed amateur listener—was well founded. As David Grayson, a professor at Gresham University, pointed out, Orledge is one of those rare musicologist-composers “who can take a fragment of a dinosaur bone and reconstruct the dinosaur.” In the case of Diable, Orledge was aided considerably by the very fine libretto of Stephen Wyatt, a close friend and colleague. He was also guided by some comments by Debussy. “I’d like to destroy the idea of the devil as the spirit of evil,” he wrote. “He’s more simply the spirit of contradiction. It is perhaps he who whispers to those who don’t think like everyone else.”

The prelude is entirely by Debussy, but in other passages Orledge borrowed music from the composer’s oeuvre, including one of his songs and his last piano piece, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (composed 1917 but itself only recently discovered). One can, of course, continue in detail as to the snippets of original Debussy that Orledge reworked or dovetailed into both scores, but there would be no purpose in doing so unless the music sounded like “real Debussy.” Please recall that attempts to finish the unfinished works of real musical masters are not always this happy. No one yet has come up with a satisfactory final movement, real or imagined, of Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony; Barry Cooper’s “reconstruction” of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony is generally considered a noble failure; and thankfully, no one has had the temerity to finish J. S. Bach last fugue in The Art of Fugue or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Yet there is also Larry Austin’s excellent completion of the extremely difficult Universe Symphony of Charles Ives, and not one but several plausible reconstructions of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (which was much further along the road to completion than Beethoven’s).

One of the most striking things—to me, at least—about La Chute de la Maison Usher is its more sharply focused rhythm. Unlike Pelléas, which pretty much floats along on a cloud (with the exception of the love duet, where greater passion is elicited), one can feel the pulse much stronger here. Possibly this was because, despit using a French translation, he “heard” in Poe’s words the need for a sharper focus in that department, but in any event it is so. This doesn’t mean that Usher is a bouncy piece like Golliwog’s Cakewalk, but it comes closer to that sort of rhythm than Pelléas. A feature that this score has in common with Pelléas, however, is Debussy’s penchant for only using one voice at a time. Even when there are two singers present in a scene, he respected the theatrical conventions of real dialogue and not passages where two voices were heard singing together. The opera begins, with soft viola tremolos on a pedal B introduce a forlorn cor anglais, then a trumpet, briefly resolving into C. After unusual tone clusters and passing tones which color the music and push it towards the diminished—a typical Debussy device—we suddenly arrive at the major towards the end, with C-sharp dominating the beginning of the first scene, the only one in which we hear Lady Madeline sing. Again, her music is more angular rhythmically than Mélisande’s Mes longs cheveux, and uses high-range vocalise (a new effect for Debussy) though clearly inhabiting the same sound-world, now in F sharp major. Muted horns and an eerie bass clarinet (along with bassoon) offset the regular beat laid down by the low strings. This is followed by a scene between The Friend and the doctor, discussing Roderick’s strange condition which does not allow him to be exposed to daylight.

At Roderick’s entrance, the higher instruments recede in volume (only a soft flute and violin are heard, followed by muted strings) as the protagonist greets his friend warmly but warns him that he and his sister are gravely ill. What I find particularly fascinating about the opera, as opposed to the story itself, is the way Debussy seemed able to combine in music the stated elements of physical illness and emotional anxiety with the implied elements of hypochondria and mental illness brought about in part by self-fulfillment. Roderick and Madeleine are deathly ill because they expect to be deathly ill. I ascribe this to the fact that, by Debussy’s time, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis were well known throughout Europe. It was thus easier for Debussy to “see” the Ushers’ problems more clearly than Poe had, though the writer suggested that the house was “alive” and therefore able to respond to the illness and death of its inhabitants with its own collapse. I sensed that Debussy helped evoke the strange mental and emotional tensions in the story by this increased rhythmic element I alluded to earlier. Were this music to float along aimlessly like Pelléas, for instance, there would be no moments of high tension, like Roderick’s outburst in A major, “Des flambeaux” (track 12), followed by a sudden increase to double tempo for the exchange between Roderick and his friend…a moment that would have been unthinkable in the context of Pelléas. In fact, I found that Debussy’s tighter, more compact structure—a common feature of his late music—heightened the drama better than just a straight dramatic play based on the story could have done. Roderick’s “nightmare scherzo” in the middle of scene 2, however, with its rapid tempo and interesting use of tympani (Orledge, who composed it, wrote and told me it was “a sort of short tympani concerto”), is a bit anomalous, but it ties in neatly with the feel of the drama Orledge, composing the finale of this opera, is also able to evoke strongly the tension of the Ushers as they near death and the demise of their house with stunning effect—almost a savagery that reminds one of Debussy’s late piano and orchestral pieces.

As mentioned earlier, Le Diable dans le Beffroi is only about 5-7% Debussy, the rest being purely written by Orledge, but even by the light, witty, almost skittish prelude (composed by Debussy himself) we get the impression that this is a different world, a world of ironic fantasy, almost a sort of comic farce, to counterbalance the eerie tension of Usher. I suppose that one could speculate that Debussy himself would have continued the opera in much the same vein that Orledge does here, but for me, personally, the oddest quality of Diable is its very cheerfulness. Debussy and light-hearted moods are not two things that normally go together, but perhaps it was this very dichotomy that kept him from finishing the work, short though it is. We know from his letters that he actually interrupted the creation of La Mer for some time because he was working (and fretting) over this little opera, and he kept going back to it on and off over a decade (1902-1912) until he finally put it aside until Usher was finished. In its bouncy rhythms and surprisingly consistent use of major keys it may, then, seem less “Debussy-ish” than its companion, but remember that this was a composer who enjoyed pushing himself in new directions. And Diable is certainly a new direction for Debussy. Although the light character of the music almost suggests operetta, there is too much real craft in this score—both the 70 bars that Debussy himself wrote and the remaining, which is Orledge—to dismiss it as an operetta of sorts. Yet it is a comic opera, of that there is no question, and thus it maintains the light mood of the opening. Orledge’s librettist, Stephen Wyatt, did a fine job as well, with both of them adding a love interest between tenor and soprano that was suggested by Debussy himself to “pad” this all-too-brief satire. (When the devil plays the violin, we hear snippets from the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and other popular classical “hits”—a nice tongue-in-cheek touch.)

Of course, the quality of the music itself would mean little if the performance quality was not on a high level. Happily, most of the forces here are on a high level indeed, particularly the orchestra, chorus, and both the tenor and soprano soloists. Of the two baritones, William Dazeley is a finer singer than Eugene Villanueva in two key components, steadiness of tonal emission (Villanueva has a slow vibrato that registers on the ear like an incipient wobble) and idiomatic French diction, but none of the singers are really detrimental to the performances. Soprano Fan is particularly good, having the kind of bright, light voice that Debussy himself favored (think of Mary Garden or Maggie Teyte, his two Scottish Mélisandes), and Hartinger has the kind of high tenor that suits French music well (despite somewhat infirm top notes). Thus we have a fine wedding of musical quality and performance quality.

This is a major release and a major contribution to the operatic repertoire, and I sincerely hope that it will spur a number of performances around the world.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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