Music as Encoder of the Unconscious in <i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i>

Elliott Antokoletz

in Rethinking Debussy

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199755639
Published online May 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199894932 | DOI:
Music as Encoder of the Unconscious in Pelléas et Mélisande

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This chapter shows how Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande transforms the harmonic structures of the traditional major/minor scale system into a new musical language, and how this language reflects the psychodramatic symbolism of the poet Maurice Maeterlinck. In reaction to the realism of nineteenth-century theater, many authors began to develop a new interest in psychological motivation. In his plays Maeterlinck was to transform internal subconscious motivation into external behaviors, demonstrating that human emotions and actions are controlled by fate. The Debussy-Maeterlinck opera represents the first significant attempt to establish more profound correspondences between the Symbolist dramatic conception and the new musical language. This language is based almost exclusively on interactions between pentatonic and diatonic folk modalities and their more abstract whole-tone and other symmetrical transformations, the opposition of these two harmonic extremes serving as the basis for dramatic polarity between the characters as real-life beings and as symbols of fate.

Keywords: Debussy; dramatic polarity; Maeterlinck; musical language; Pelléas et Mélisande; psychological motivation; symbolism

Chapter.  7233 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Musicology and Music History

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