Dissertation Index

Author: Babyak, Tekla B

Title: Nietzsche, Debussy, and the Shadow of Wagner

Institution: Cornell University

Begun: September 2007

Completed: May 2014


Claude Debussy's prose writings repeatedly claim that he sought to express a French nationalist identity in his music. Yet, as my analytical studies demonstrate, many of Debussy's works are saturated with markers of exoticism. What is the relationship between his interest in musical exoticism and his nationalism?

Through a series of hermeneutic analyses of works by Debussy and his contemporaries, this dissertation proposes that Debussy used exotic features as a nationalistic reaction against Richard Wagner. By the time that Debussy started writing exotic music, in the 1890’s, exoticism was a deeply entrenched tradition in France, particularly in French opera. Many 19th-century French composers, including Felicien David, Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, and Camille Saint-Saëns, established a lexicon of exotic markers. Through incorporating these Orientalist signifiers into his musical style, Debussy expressed what he likely perceived as a colonial French identity.

A further impetus for Debussy's interest in exoticism, I argue, seems to have stemmed from Nietzsche's 1888 monograph Case of Wagner (translated into French in 1892). Nietzsche proclaimed that the Mediterranean exoticism in Bizet’s Carmen offered an antidote to Wagnerian metaphysics. As my dissertation demonstrates, these pronouncements found a receptive audience in the French musical press. According to Lionel de Laurencie, “French composers are following Nietzsche’s advice to ‘Mediterranize’ music” (Mercure de France, 1903). Louis Laloy similarly invoked Nietzsche when calling for deliverance “from Wagner’s prestige. The rebirth, not only of our music, but, as Nietzsche recognized, of all music, comes at this price” (1909).

Keywords: Orientalism, hermeneutics, exoticism, French Wagnerism, nationalism, Nietzsche, Debussy, Wagner, French opera


Chapter One: The French Tradition of Exoticism

Chapter Two: Musical Exoticism in Debussy

Chapter Three: Méditerraniser La Musique

Chapter Four: Debussy's Nietzschean Music

Chapter Five: Exoticism Absorbed


Tekla Babyak
Independent Scholar and Disability Activist with Multiple Sclerosis

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