There is little evidence that the United States had much influence on the work of Claude Debussy. “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” the final movement of his Children’s Corner suite, shows a clear influence of ragtime; but that same piece also pokes fun at the opening measures of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Most likely, Debussy could not even identify any specific name to go with the ragtime style he had appropriated.
On the other hand there was one American from an earlier era that he seems to have appreciated. Two of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe inspired him to write two one-act operas, probably to be performed together on a single program. The tales were sharply contrasting in nature, “The Devil in the Belfry” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Debussy began work on “Le diable dans le beffroi” in 1902 but never got beyond three pages of sketches, which have been dated from August of 1903. On the other hand he did prepare a full libretto, at least in draft form. He also wrote the libretto for “La chute de la maison Usher” and worked on the score between 1908 and 1917. In this case he made more progress; before his death in 1918 he had completed a short-score draft for the first scene and portions of the second scene.
During the first two decades of this century, Robert Orledge, who has described himself as a “creative musicologist,” prepared performing editions for both of these operas. “La chute de la maison Usher” was first presented during the Bregenzer Festspiele in August of 2006. “Le diable dans le beffroi,” on the other hand, used a libretto by Stephen Wyatt based on Debussy’s initial effort; and the result was first performed in Montreal in February of 2012. About two weeks ago, PAN CLASSICS released a two-CD album of both of these performing versions with Christoph-Mathias Mueller conducting the Göttinger Symphonie Orchester. These were recorded during performances in December of 2013 made by Deutchlandradio Kultur.
Because these scores have been given relatively limited attention, I should probably divulge that I have been fortunate enough to see a fully-staged performance of “La chute de la maison Usher.” It was part of a double-bill presented by the San Francisco Opera, coupled with Gordon Getty’s “Usher House,” also a one-act opera (which has also been recorded). The Getty version was presented first, which was definitely a wise decision, since Getty had made it a point to relate Poe’s plot, and often his words, through music. “La chute de la maison Usher,” on the other hand, was more of a reflection on that plot. In his 1982 book Debussy and the Theatre Orledge suggested that, because of his own deteriorating health, Debussy had come to identify with Roderick Usher’s character and the connection between Usher’s mental breakdown and the crumbling of the house itself.
As might be guessed, most of this dramatic impact does not come across through a recording of the music. One is also left with the question of how much of what one hears comes from Debussy and how much from Orledge. Given that Debussy was working on this late in life, it is not surprising to encounter passages reminiscent of his “Jeux” ballet (which also happens to be more psychological than narrative). On the other hand there are moments that one almost might mistake for Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” This did not receive its first performance until after Debussy’s death but could still have influenced Orledge, particularly since it is another scenario in which place serves as a metaphor for personality.
“Le diable dans le beffroi” is quite another matter, not only for the music but also for the source text. “The Devil in the Belfry” may be the closest Poe ever came to exercising his sense of humor in print. Poe tips his hand at the very beginning, setting the tale in the isolated town of Vondervotteimittiss. (Read it aloud slowly with the German pronunciation of “ei” to get the joke.) As the Wikipedia synopsis puts it, “the punctilious inhabitants seem to be concerned with nothing but clocks and cabbage.” The belfry serves not to call the faithful to prayer but to let them know each hour of the day. However, the devil sneaks in there and causes the the bell to sound thirteen times.
After that, all hell breaks lose, so to speak. All of the “punctilious inhabitants” lose their inhibitions (not to mention their concern for clocks and cabbage) with all the wild spirits of a pre-Lenten carnival. Having had his sport, the devil then moves on; and, when the noon hour sounds with the usual twelve strokes, life goes back to normal, almost as if nothing had happened.
Since he was working only from fragments, Orledge clearly had a far more challenging task confronting him. In this case the listener is more likely to be reminded of Debussy’s piano music in both its original and orchestrated forms. (Debussy himself orchestrated relatively little of his piano music, but it has become a source of inspiration for composers who were both his contemporaries and ours. There is also more humor to be found in his piano pieces than in other genres.) For the most part, however, there is little that is likely to persuade the listener that this music was conceived by Debussy. Rather, one might be justified in supposing that Orledge chose to draw upon the work of one of Debussy’s favorite predecessors, Emmanuel Chabrier. Certainly the overall tone of good-natured prankishness, even on the devil’s part (who “speaks” only through a shrill whistle), would be consistent with Chabrier’s spirit.
However, there is also a possible nod to Niccolò Paganini in having a violin capture the devil’s handiwork. Orledge cooked up a delightful cadenza (performed by Natalie Kundirenko) that pretty much upstages all of the vocalists. As might be guessed, the cadenza is rife with cross-references, poking fun at no end of virtuoso passages from the instrument’s repertoire (and at least one other musical cliché). That cadenza almost makes the entire album worth the price of admission, as P. T. Barnum would have put it.