DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of Usher. CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Orchestra. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.”

by Walter Simmons

DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of UsherChristine Barbaux, soprano (Lady Madeline); Jean-Philippe Lafoint, baritone (Roderick); Pierre-Yves Le Maigat, baritone (The Friend); Francois Le Roux, baritone (The Doctor). CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Or­chestra. Frederique Cambreling, harp. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.” Monte Carlo Philharmonic conducted by Georges Pretre. ANGEL DS-38168 (digital), produced by Eric MacLeod.

This is a record sure to interest admirers of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, not to men­tion aficionados of the music of Debussy and of early 20th-century French music in general. In short, much about this new release is fascinating, although it is generally disappointing as a musical experience.

Debussy worked on a short operatic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher inter­mittently during the last decade of his life. Although he completed a libretto, the only extant music is an opening prelude, a first scene and part of a second, and nine short, disconnected fragments from later in the work—none of it orchestrated. There is reason to suspect that Debussy, whose body was racked with cancer during his last years (he described himself as “a walking corpse”), had an ambivalent autobiographical relationship with the story, which con­cerns the symbolic theme of physical and spritual disintegration. Unresolved psychological conflicts may have interfered with his work on the project.

In 1976 Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin completed a realization of the material for the opera, orchestrating it and uniting it into a continuous activity with a beginning and an end. Program notes by the usually reliable Harry Halbreich are rather vague concerning precisely what has been done here, but if I understood correctly, Allende-Blin has simply taken the opening portion (about 15 minutes) and connected onto it the remaining fragments. To my mind, joining this material into a continuous entity without accounting for the gaping holes does not make sense either dramatically or musically; no explanation or rationale is given. In no way can the result be viewed as a “performing version” along the lines of Deryck Cooke’s Mahler 10th, for example, since the result is not now a completed form. On the other hand, what we do have is quite interesting: a notion of the kind of dramatic adaptation Debussy had in mind and an idea of the musical language with which he intended to conjure the atmosphere of the story. Allende-Blin has clothed all this in appropriately diaphanous, sensuous orchestral garb.

Poe’s story is dominated thematically by a symbolic, almost tangible atmosphere, making it ideal for musical adaptation, although the fact that it is essentially static dramatically does not suggest opera as the most promising medium: I would think a dramatic cantata—some kind of sequence of lyrical tableaux—would be more in keeping with Poe’s elevated, stylized tone than an attempt to fabricate a conversational libretto. But the latter, strangely, is what Debussy had in mind, requiring considerable alteration of the story’s structure. In fact, De­bussy seems to suggest a “romantic quadrangle” not at all implicit in the original, which is an awfully obvious touch.

What we hear, then, is a brief orchestral prelude, setting a tone of misty anticipation, followed by several episodes that are disappointingly dull—much empty declamation—until it all trails off into the final incoherent fragments. The inadequacy of this music is underlined by a comparison of the opening section with the equivalent portion of Bartok’s contemporaneous (1911) Bluebeard’s Castle, which sets out to evoke a very similar mood using a very similar musical language.

Florent Schmitt composed his Study for “The Haunted Palace” in 1904, at about the same time as his stunning setting of the Psalm 47. Schmitt’s robust brand of impressionism is sorely neglected today, despite his importance in French music around the turn of the century—an importance explicitly acknowledged by both Ravel and Stravinsky, among others. Schmitt’s influence can be found in the stylistic crucible that produced such figures as Lili Boulanger, Arthur Honegger, and even Ernest Bloch. He was quite prolific and his work is not uniformly high in quality. But the Psalm 47 and Tragédie de Salomé (both available at one time on Angel S-36953) reveal him at his best, and the incidental music for Antoine et Cleopâtre and a Symphony No. 2 dating from 1957 (when the composer was 87!) are well worth exploring. This 12-minute orchestral poem, however, while pleasantly sumptuous, is thoroughly undistinguished. Not only does its stature fall dismally short of the poem that in­spired it (a poem that appears also within The Fall of the House of Usher) but the music has virtually no relationship to it in any way. Bluebeard’s Castle again comes to mind, as the most prominent motif of each work is virtually identical. There, however, the similarity ends. If the piece were entitled Rapsodie Romantique or some such, it might serve as fluffy filler for a disc or concert, but as “The Haunted Palace”—Roger Corman has served Poe with more loyalty.

Somewhat more imaginative is the Conte Fantastique for harp and strings, after the “The Masque of the Red Death,” by André Caplet, a close associate of Debussy. In this work a ball­room episode in the vein of Debussy’s Danse Profane is framed by a prelude and postlude quite macabre in tone. The harmonic language of the outer portions is astonishingly dissonant for a work composed in France in 1908—an extreme explained by the work’s programmatic content. However, aside from going on a bit longer than necessary, the work’s chief weakness is the pe­destrian and utterly conventional tone of the middle section. This, too, can be justified on pro­grammatic grounds, as representing the escape into banality of the Prince and his cohorts. Nevertheless, trite music is trite music; one can describe banality without being banal, as Poe certainly demonstrates in his story. While Caplet provides some strangely effective music in the outer portions, the work as a whole is simply too mundane for the story’s lofty, archaic rhetoric.

The inadequacy of these works in achieving a tone befitting their source of inspiration would not be such an issue if any of them was more successful as an independent piece. That not being the case, one is left to consider their relationship to their programs. Largely due to sympathetic translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé early on, Poe’s work was greatly admired in France—perhaps more so than elsewhere—especially around the turn of the century. Yet French music at this time “sounded” so “French,” i.e., was so circumscribed by a particular harmonic and textural vocabulary, that it lacked the flexibility to extend itself to other sensibi­lities (aside from the Spanish, for some reason). Reflecting on this led me to wonder what other works might be viewed as achieving a tone more appropriate to Poe’s writings. Samuel Barber’s Music for a Scene from Shelley, for example, would be a far more convincing “Haunted Palace” than Schmitt’s morsel. And the material from which Vaughan Williams fashioned his Symphony No. 7 might perhaps have been used to create a Fall of the House of Usher. Maybe these are just my own subjective reactions . . .

In any case, the renditions on this recording give the impression of having been done diligently, but with minimal rehearsal time. Strings tend to be scraggly at times, but on the whole the performances are serviceable. Sound quality is extremely clear and transparent, magnifying some deficiencies in execution. Voices (in the Debussy) are miked a little too closely and mixed too far forward, but this is not terribly important. The disc is a real curiosity, but don’t expect musical revelations.