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Music and poetry in Mallarmé and Debussy Wilson, Geoffrey Allan

Abstract

My dissertation re-evaluates music and poetry in the works of Claude Debussy and Stéphane Mallarmé. Often in such collaborations, critics assume that the music mimics various aspects of the texts it engages. Instead, I argue for a more nuanced paradigm that values both concurrences and antagonisms between the two media, in light of the specific systems of thought characterizing, respectively, the poet and the musician. Chapter One re-evaluates the role of music in Mallarmé's oeuvre. Mallarmé imagined an original language in which individual phonemes created the meaning of words. As languages evolved and multiplied, the sound-sense relationship in words became increasingly arbitrary. Traces of this original language are visible in contemporary idioms when a group of words share both a phonemic and a semantic link. For him, poetry exists to reconstruct sound-sense relationships in modern language. These relationships, and the patterns of thought they enact, are music for Mallarmé, a music which the sound of instruments and singers merely implies. Drawing evidence from Mallarmé's letters and critical writings, I establish the "musical" nature of his language and show its use in analyses of selected poems. In the remaining chapters I examine each of Debussy's compositions that engage a Mallarmé text: the songs Apparition, Soupir, Placet futile, Éventail, and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. I chronicle Debussy's early exposure to Mallarmé's poetry through Verlaine's essay "Les poètes maudits" and the song Apparition that resulted. Here, Debussy responds to the semantic content of Mallarmé's poem, constructing a musical "apparition" to parallel the poetic one. I offer a new reading of Prélude that relates it to Mallarmé's dramatic theories, and not as a mimetic illustration of the poem's text. I argue that Debussy's later song settings allow Mallarmé's poetic "music" to be perceived alongside his own. In Soupir, this is manifested through a series of mirror images in both music and text. In Placet futile, I show how the music alters the semantic message of the poem. In Éventail, I compare the interaction of wholetone, octatonic and diatonic pitch collections to the interaction between the phonetic and semantic layers of the poem.

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