Author: Seltzer, Linda, A.
Title: The Unblinking Eye, Literary Theory in the Analysis of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande
Institution: Princeton University
Begun: September 1991
In Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande the analysis of musical structure may be informed by the study of its literary content. If the characters in this opera, along with their statements, actions, and environs are viewed as symbolic rather than realistic, a world of interpretation is suggested. When the action of the symbol and its loci of suggestion are examined in light of theories of literature and art, problematic passages in the text may be seen as belonging to a coherent and carefully worked out (and perhaps too contrived) structure of literary composition. Debussy's musical design - scene painting, orchestral commentary, and characteristic phrases - can then be explored, with respect to this structure.
In the first chapter, The Crown in the Water, the theories of Northrop Frye are applied, demonstrating that the playwright ingeniously sets the stage for myth and romance and then proceeds to undermine these forms by means of irony. The result is a pessimistic portrayal of a society in which traditional sources of authority and truth are powerless and ethical systems are contradictory. Maeterlinck's other plays are then cited in support of this theory. In contrast to traditional critical views of Melisande as a lover and a temptress, I present the view that she is a symbol of the breakdown of external sources of ethical authority. In the second chapter, The Unblinking Eye, this powerful image is traced through Faust and through the writings of Derrida and Husserl as a symbol of a transcendental and eternal moment, an experience which eludes Melisande and the humanity she represents. The third chapter, The Stars and the Lantern: Opera as Painting, is an interpretation of the imagery of the opera. Interpretation in in light of the theories of Delbord, Crary, and Fried results in a pessimistic view of modernity. The phenomenological analysis as explored by Bachlard, tracing the action of images as stimuli to reflection, reveal that the source of optimism in the play is in the internal creative imagination. Chapter 4 describes how many of the devices considered eccentric or idiosyncratic in Maeterlinck's drama are found readily in Asian drama and art. Chapter 5 situates the text in the politics and culture of its times, showing that its ironic themes rendered it ripe for acceptance in France by those disillusioned with the Third Republic.
The second half of the dissertation is focussed on musical analysis, on the way Debussy "continues" and comments on Maeterlinck's words. This section will include an exploration of the applicability of Julia Kristeva's analysis of the procedures of Symbolist poetry, semiotic views of literary content in music, and Bregman's theory of auditory scene analysis. The goal of the dissertation is a detailed musical analysis and close reading of the entire opera.
Keywords: music and text, literary theory, musical analysis
I. The Crown in the Water
II. The Unblinking Eye
III. The Stars and the Lantern
IV. Chapter on analysis from the viewpoint of Asian aesthetics
V. Chapter on cultural history
VI ff. Musical analyses
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