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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 harps, strings, soloists, and women's chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 8, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
The cantata La damoiselle élue was Debussy's third Prix de Rome envoi, although it was composed mostly after he had returned to Paris early in 1887; it was completed a year later. This was at the height of Debussy's Wagnermania. Debussy went to Bayreuth for the festival in 1888 and 1889, and he worked regularly in Paris salons playing Wagner's scores at the piano - according to Pierre Louÿs, Debussy bet that he could play Tristan from memory and won. "Evanescent, floating chromatic harmonies, evocatively veiled tonalities, Wagner-inspired endless melodies, and true Wagnerian leitmotives permeate the composition to a degree not previously encountered in any dramatic composition of Debussy," writes Debussy scholar John R. Clevenger.
The libretto is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1847 poem "The Blessed Damozel," about a young woman who cannot enjoy heaven while her lover is still on earth. Although Debussy also owned a copy of Rossetti's subsequently painted, typically luminous Pre-Raphaelite portrait of his heroine, the composer knew the poem in the French translation by Gabriel Sarrazin. This translation omitted several stanzas of the original poem, and Debussy trimmed it even further, cutting some descriptions and the lover's asides, keeping attention strictly on the Damozel.
The cantata opens with a radiantly expectant orchestral prelude. The chorus and a narrator set the scene, and then the Damozel has most of the rest of the piece to herself in the form of a rhapsodically developed monologue, with a short postlude for the chorus and narrator in poignant denouement.
Three of the important leitmotifs first appear in the prelude. The little chord pattern at the very beginning, known as the Circling Charm motive because it is a sort of musical circle and it later shapes the narrator's line "out of the circling charm," recurs at important points structurally and rounds the work off at the end. The melody first heard in a string chorale setting is the Hope theme, later associated with the Damozel's prayers. The solo flute tune at the close of the prelude represents the Damozel herself.
Most Tristanian is the Wish motive, the descending phrase of the Damozel's first words. It is a diminished chord of the same species as the Tristan chord, and similarly expresses deep yearning. And like the Tristan chord, it is finally resolved: at the climax of her monologue, the Damozel vows to petition Christ to grant her wish, and that projected narrative resolution is subtly supported by the musical resolution of the Wish motive.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.