The Blessed Damoiselle of Claude Debussy has been one of my most favorite works for years; I have listened to it a lot, but have not taken much time to do more than that and play around with the orchestral reduction in the choral score. It is written for women’s chorus, narrator and soprano solo (the Damozel). You will find this work most satisfying on many different levels; the sheer beauty of the orchestral writing alone is enough to wet the appetite for more. The first 48 bars are an orchestral prelude that sets the work up emotionally and musically. These 48 bars are indeed (my opinion only) some of the most passionate, seductive and beautifully written in the orchestral literature. Within these opening bars are most of the musical material that will be developed during the nearly 10 minutes of the entire piece.
At the time Debussy, along with many other composers of the day, had come under the spell of Richard Wagner, and so one will find many moments that are “Wagner-inspired;” The liner notes refer to “Evanescent, floating chromatic harmonies, evocatively veiled tonalities, Wagner-inspired endless meoldies and true Wagnerian leitmotives” that permeate the composition. Although this is true, I would add that at no time does Debussy lose sight of his own voice. This is Debussy, I think, at his best, and although there are choral scores that we all know of Debussy, I personally think this is one of his best efforts.
The libretto of this short cantata is from the pen of Dante Gabriel Rossetti from a poem entitled “The Blessed Damozel.” It is about a young woman who cannot enjoy heaven while her lover is still on earth. For those of you that are into poetry, apparently Debussy owned a copy of it in a French translation by Sarrazin which omitted several stanzas of the original poem. Debussy cut the poem even further, attempting to keep the attention strictly on the Damozel. This is by way of saying that the women’s chorus plays a minor role in terms of the singing time employed, but a MAJOR role in the works character; indeed much of this writing is in the “masterful” category. The narrators part is minimal, and the Damozels solo takes up much of the piece. But it ALL is most exquisite and very worthwhile.
In those first 48 bars Debussy presents three (or more?) melodic ideas that figure prominently in the duration of the piece. There is a chord pattern that immediately presents itself at the very beginning, I think known as the “Circling Charm” motive because it is a sort of musical circle and is later employed during the narrator’s line “out of the circling charm;” it also is employed at other structurally important points and rounds the work off at the conclusion. The “Hope” theme is introduced just 9 measures into the beginning of the piece in a string chorale type of setting which is for me absolutely beautiful; this theme too is later associated with the Damozel’s prayers. At the conclusion of the orchestral prelude is a flute solo that represents, I think, the Damozel herself.
So there you have it, in a nutshell! This music is worth a listen or two if you are inclined. The text is quite evocative of the very emotions that Debussy has so beautifully portrayed in the music here. It is sensual, yearning, sad, hopeful and STUNNING in every respect. I have listened to the work quite a bit this last week, thinking that I might point out the many places of particular beauty to me. However, the more I listened and studied my score, the more I realized that every measure here is a blessing. But for sheer sensuousness and melodic/harmonic beauty, the last 9 measures bear witness to the genius of this most precious master of impressionism.
My only recording of this piece is of the London Symphony Orchestra with Claudio Abbado conducting. The London Symphony Orchestra Chorus Women are beautifully present, with Maria Ewing as the Damozel and Brigitte Baileys as the Narrator. Richard Hickox is the Chorus Master. This composition is paired up with Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faune and Images for Orchestra, all on the Deutsche Grammaphon Label.