Developments in Realism and Expressionism in the Vocal Music of Mussorgsky and Debussy

Vocal writing at the beginning of the twentieth century saw a shift away from the traditional format of arias and recitatives, with a decreased emphasis on the bel canto style. Though composers found various avenues for their new styles, the overarching trend was toward realism and expressionism. These new styles manifested themselves both musically and in terms of the texts that were set. Composers such as Modeste Mussorgsky and Claude Debussy found inspiration in language, inflection, and symbolism, and sought out new ways to accentuate these aspects musically. The subject matter for opera libretti and song cycles was also updated to focus more on psychological issues. As Europe slid into war, much of this new work featured darker subjects than were common in previous centuries.

This shift in style is evident in the music of Modeste Mussorgsky, both in terms of the musical content of his compositions, and in the subject matter upon which they are based. Mussorgsky’s vocal writing is often described as pantomimic, meaning that the musical gestures accompanying the voice often reflect the words against which they are set. While this was in itself a novel development, the underlying motive for this change in accompanimental writing was an emphasis on speech itself. Mussorgsky’s vocal writing makes the use of natural accents and agogic stresses in the slavic languages a central feature. Instead of fitting the words to soaring melodies, as was the model in the bel canto style, Mussorgsky fit the musical gestures to the natural sounds and shapes of the words themselves. This focus on the natural patterns of speech and inflection affected the rhythms in Mussorgsky’s writing, which became much more speech-like. Evidence of the degree to which Mussorgsky shifted this focus is found in the criticism he received on his Sunless song cycle from fellow composer, César Cui: “[Mussorgsky] began to consider declamation the essence of vocal music; he concerned himself only with declamation, neglecting everything else.”(1) Cui certainly did not understand the direction of Mussorgsky’s new work, who’s desire to form a new kind of musical realism lead him toward  emphasis on natural sounds of language.

Mussorgsky’s move toward realism and vocal music reflecting the natural rhythms of everyday speech offered new opportunities for the composer in terms of the instrumental writing he was doing to accompany the vocal parts. It stands to reason that the shift from melody focus to speech pattern focus would have implications for the harmonic structures of the works as well. As melodic construction as a primary function of composition became less of an emphasis for Mussorgsky, the need for strictly functional harmony to propel these melodies forward also became less of a necessity. Often Mussorgsky chose harmonies simply for the way they sound, with little emphasis on function. These chords often connect through common tones or change in relation to pedal points. Approaching harmony in this manner allowed Mussorgsky to utilize tone painting to great effect in his song cycles The Nursery, Sunless, and Four Songs and Dances of Death. This move toward harmonic ambiguity would not have been possible in the bel canto style of voice writing, with its emphasis on melody over text.

In addition to the purely musical devices that Mussorgsky employed to achieve his musical realism, he also made radical changes in the subject matter of his works, approaching subjects that were not previously common for composers. Many of his compositions focus on difficult situations and involve heavily psychological content. The characters in his works are often children, beggars and others at the margins of society. His opera Khovanshchina, for example deals with the modernization of Russia despite the enormous cost to thousands of average Russians. His song cycle, The Nursery, examines a variety of objects through the eyes of child. Mussorgsky chose to write the texts for many of his works. Again, this shows a focus on the importance of the text as primary in his compositions

Mussorgsky’s advances in the realm of vocal music reached far beyond the production of novel and progressive works, and made a major impression on another major figure of turn-of-the-century composition in the figure of Claude Debussy. As Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise, Debussy was influenced by Mussorgsky’s pantomimic style of vocal writing in his opera Boris Godunov, which lead to Debussy’s unique text setting for his own opera, Pelléas et Melisande. (2) Debussy’s adoption of elements of Mussorgsky’s vocal writing is one of many connections between France and Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Before hearing Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, the composer had traveled to Russia as a private music tutor for his patron Nadezhda von Meck’s children. While in Russia, he was exposed to the whole tone scale through the works of Mikhail Glinka, possibly for the first time. Nearly a decade later, Debussy encountered the octatonic scale in compositions penned by Rimsky-Korsakov at the Paris Universal Exposition. (3)

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a rather dramatic departure from previous forms of opera as it has no overture and no arias. Instead, Debussy created a work that follows the inflection and rhythm of the French language, similar to Mussorgsky’s work with slavic languages. This method of allowing the composition to follow the drama of the text as opposed fitting the text into a prescribed form is another link with Mussorgsky. Pelléas features many passages that function similarly to everyday conversation, with each character offering a short statement, to be returned by the other. This departure from bel canto arias to a more speech-oriented presentation reflects a desire toward a new musical realism, similar to that of Mussorgsky. Indeed, Pelléas may have seemed so close to ordinary speech that upon attending a production, Richard Strauss remarked “There’s not enough music in this work. Delicate harmonies, excellent orchestral effects in very good taste. But it amounts to nothing, nothing at all. You might as well be listening to a play of Maeterlinck as it was, without music.” (4) As with Cui’s rebuke of Mussorgsky, this quote from Strauss illustrates the extent to which Debussy had parted with the compositional norms and moved toward a new type of realism.

Pelléas is often referred to as the archetypical symbolist work. Indeed Debussy was influenced by the symbolist poets, operating in the same circles as Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Maeterlinck. (5) William W. Austin suggests that these symbolists “fortified his courage to deviate from common practice,” and “sharpened his sensitivity to unique forms.” (6) In return, Debussy set many symbolist texts for his operas and songs. At the same time that Debussy was frequenting cafés popular with the French Symbolist poets and writing his Proses Lyriques, which featured original texts penned under the influence of these poets, he heard performances of both Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande. (7) This combination of influences surely helped Debussy develop his own version of Mussorgsky’s musical realism.

The music of Debussy is often mistakenly referred to as impressionism. Debussy would have contradicted this label, as is evidenced in a 1908 letter to his publisher, Durand. “I am trying to make something new-realities, as it were: what imbeciles call ‘impressionism.’” (8) This misnomer, often inaccurately applied to Debussy, comes from comparisons with the impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir whose hazy brushwork offer superficial parallels with the timbres of some of Debussy’s music. The work of several postimpressionistic painters such as Gauguin and Cézanne makes a more accurate comparison in that they were working to distort perspective and using color in purely expressionistic manners. (9) This concept of using color purely as an expressive device is a visual equivalent to the symmetrical and gapped scales so often found in Debussy’s music, or the harmonic ambiguity of Mussorgsky’s color chords. Much like these painters, expressionist composers used their musical tools at hand to project emotional content onto their subjects, rather than simply depict impressions of them. This subtle distinction became became significant as the subject matter of opera and vocal shifted at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Just as Mussorgsky’s took a turn to darker subject matters in search of a more expressionistic or realist aesthetic, Debussy follows suit. At the end of Pelléas, Mélisande dies before her newborn in a scene that Alex Ross describes as having close similarities with the ending of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, another major expressionist work. Both of these scenes leave the audience to imagine what the fate of these children will be. (10) Leaving the audience to imagine or question the results of these dire actions is a hallmark of the psychological content found in much expressionist work.

As has been shown, vocal writing underwent a major transformation toward realism and expressionism at the beginning of the twentieth century. This shift was largely driven by Mussorgsky and Debussy in their operas Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, and Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as in song cycles such as Mussorgsky’s Sunless and The Nursery. This change unfolded on two levels simultaneously, marking a change in both musical devices such as harmony and melodic construction, as well as in terms of subject matter and text setting. These new developments occurred in Russia and France and the newfound emphasis on psychological and darker content mirrored the social landscape as Europe moved toward war.

(1) James Walker, Mussorgsky’s Sunless Cycle in Russian Criticism: Focus on Controversy, in The Musical Quarterly, Volume LXVII, Issue 3, July 1981, (July: 1981) 385-386.
 (2) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 94.
(3) Ross, 94.
(4)  Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, vol II, (New York: MacMillan, 1956), 87-89.
(5)  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Claude Debussy,” by François Lesure.
(6) William W. Austin, Music in the 20th Century: from Debussy through Stravinsky, (New York: Norton, 1966), 26.
(7) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Claude Debussy,” by François Lesure.
(8) Austin, 24-25.
(9) Austin, 25.
(10) Ross, 79.