La Chute De La Maison Usher (opera) - Composition


Debussy had long been fascinated by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, familiar to French readers through the translations by Charles Baudelaire. As early as 1890, André Suarès wrote in a letter to Romain Rolland that "Monsieur Claude Debussy... is working on a symphony that will unfold psychological ideas based on the stories of Poe, in particular, The Fall of the House of Usher." Nothing came of this plan but in the wake of the success of his only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, Debussy turned to Poe for material for a potential successor. He worked on his first attempt at a Poe-inspired opera, the comedy Le diable dans le beffroi, for several years before finally abandoning it in 1911 or 1912. By mid-June 1908 Debussy had begun another opera based on a Poe tale, the darker Fall of the House of Usher. On 5 July he signed a contract with the New York Metropolitan Opera guaranteeing the house the right to stage the premiere of his projected Poe double-bill as well as another unwritten opera La légende de Tristan. That summer he wrote to his friend Jacques Durand: "These days I have been working hard on The Fall of the House of Usher...There are moments when I lose the feeling of things around me and if the sister of Roderick Usher were to come into my house, I shouldn't be very surprised."

In 1909 Debussy wrote that he had almost finished Roderick Usher's monologue: "It almost makes the stones weep…as a matter of fact it is all about the influence of stones on the minds of neurasthenic people. The mustiness is charmingly rendered by contrasting the low notes of the oboe with the harmonics of the violin (a patent device of my own)." Debussy had believed he had been subject to neurasthenia but around this time his doctor diagnosed him as suffering from the rectal cancer which was to kill him. According to Robert Orledge, "Debussy began increasingly to identify with Roderick Usher, whose mental breakdown Poe had identified with the crumbling House itself." Debussy made three attempts at writing a libretto. Only when he was satisfied with the third one did he produce a short-score draft of the music to the first scene and part of the second in 1916–17. He went no further with Usher before his death in 1918.

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