Composer reconfigures Debussy’s opera

Composer reconfigures Debussy’s opera


norman lebrecht

August 24, 2018

Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden has scheduled the world premiere of Annelies Van Parys’s completion of Debussy’s Fall of the House of Usher on October 12.

It’s a joint commission with Stockholm’s Folkoperan.

Debussy left the opera unfinished in 1908. Various musicologists have attempted to complete it in Debussy’s style. Van Parys insists that her is the first version to merge Debussy with a modern sound world.




  • Peter Bogaert says:

    Annelies Van Parys is not Dutch, she’s Belgian (Flemish)…

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    In Berlin, it’s actually billed as Kammeroper.

  • John Borstlap says:

    O dear…. “the first version to merge Debussy with a modern sound world.”

    Why messing around with the sparse sketches by a genius, why not writing an entirely new thing?

    And then, what Mrs Van Parys does, is not ‘modern’ at all, but the usual clichées which were developed in the fifties and sixties of the last century, which were ‘modern’ at the time – but after half a century have become safe convention. And are they interesting?

    If you never heard any music at all, and never any Klangkunst, this may all seem very exciting. But in comparison with Debussy it is merely embarrassing.

  • RW2013 says:

    “to merge Debussy with a modern sound world.“
    Merging a modern sound world with music of another age was tried a few years ago in Munich, someone completing Erich Zeisel’s Hiob fragment, with little success. The fragment was magnificent, the completion far from.
    Just saying.

  • RW2013 says:

    And Larry Sitsky has written an excellent Usher opera.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    This sort of parlor game keeps happening every once in a while. She’s not the first to do this to a long deceased composer, and surly she won’t be the last. Can’t say I approve of her experiment, but hey, the money was probably right for her to do it anyway.

  • Alvaro Gallegos says:

    It is hard to surpass Juan Allende-Blin’s version, very faithful to Debussy’s style.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed – Blin did a brilliant job, and giving the music a much brighter colour than Debussy’s earlier works, as probably was intended.

      The reasons why Debussy could not finish this Poe opera on which he worked so many years, are a) money pressures forcing him to accept commissions which made him postpone the opera and b) the aesthetic problem of wanting to write something very different from Pelléas and yet, with a subject so close to the Pelléas subject: dark castle, morbid oppressive atmosphere, mysterious fateful happenings, passive protagonists – only darker and more morbid. The Usher subject is pure horror and entirely negative, D’s obsession with the story seems to me quite unhealthy and may be a reflection of his state of mind in those years (1908-1917), with money problems, his 2nd marriage which appeared to be a troubled one, his lack of practical understanding of family life, his being forced to conduct internationally which he found terrible, the rise of ‘Debussysme’ which he found a caricature of his own work – all not very good for both mental and physical health (he was diagnosed with cancer in 1909 and he contemplated suicide in 1913). Debussy was, in the end, not happy with the music for his Fall of Usher, finding it too much ‘Debussy’ – he wanted to find something new and different and saw himself falling-back on his own ‘tradition’, while he always tried with every new work to avoid repetition. I think this is nonsense, and the music we have now, is just very good, bordering on expressionism – not so much like Monet, but more like Gauguin, which Blin has understood very well…. the lines are more linear and the harmonies sharper than in Pelléas and ask for more intense colour than the atmospheric brushwork in the earlier opera.

      What a pity Debussy has not been able to finish the work. Why was there not a millionair around to at least save him from the financial burdens? Why did the government not treat him as the Finish government did with Sibelius, giving their greatest composer a pension?

    • barry guerrero says:

      It seems to be going somewhat in the direction of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc”. Well, . . . maybe just slightly.

  • Joseph says:

    Sounds a bit like it will resemble Berio’d re-completion of Turandot.

  • luigi nonono says:

    How totally inappropriate to try to “update” Debussy’s music, let alone for a barely-out-of-childhood ego to think they have the talent to match his. Why does any composer think they can possibly pick up where a truly great genius has left off? No one can. You can possibly imitate and shadow him at best. The creative thing to do is start where they started and see where it takes you, which will be your own path. No composer today would have the mastery Debussy started out with. Is there any school left that actually teaches the art and craft of real composing? I doubt it. Not since Schwantner took over at Eastman. One might think Penn does, but they have not produced anyone great.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The traditional craft is no longer taught. Which means that the basis for any meaningful new music has disappeared, the young truly gifted composer has to first master the craft all by himself before he can set-out on his own path. This situation creates a tough filter.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ‘How totally inappropriate to try to “update” Debussy’s music.’ In cultural periods where artistic sensitivity and craft have seriously eroded, ‘updating’ is in fact ‘downgrading’. We can see artistic erosion in art history in various periods, which were, at the time, ‘modern’ in the sense of ‘contemporary’, but which cannot stand comparison with earlier periods, like late Antique sculpture or 18C French painting.

      The well-known architect (and music connoisseur) Leon Krier once suggested, as a thought experiment, that it could be possible to ‘downdate’ Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ into a more tonal idiom, as if ‘correcting’ the overflowing dissonance into a more logical and less aggressive musical language, closer to late Debussy. A fascinating idea which could also be tried-out to Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen’? If things are wrongly ‘updated’ like Debussy’s Usher torso, some corrective ‘downdating’ could, maybe, produce some interesting works. Maybe even Mrs Van Parys’ works could be ‘downdated’ to great effect.