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Toliver, Brooks

Debussy After Symbolism: The Formation of a Nature Aesthetic, 1901-1913

Ph.D. University of California, Los Angeles, 1994

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, French writers sought to correct the excesses of their Symbolist forebears; promoters of the new spirit -- what is sometimes called "post-Symbolism" -- advanced a rhetoric of health, humanity, vigor, manliness, clarity, optimism, and above all, nature. Debussy himself adopted the rhetoric of nature-loving in his articles of 1901 on, and -- true to the claims of his supporters -- sought a musical translation of post-Symbolist tenets in certain of his twentieth-century works.

At the same time, Debussy remained ambivalent to the new spirit; he never repudiated the Symbolists, nor abandoned in his music the mysteriousness and ambiguity so decried by the most militant post-Symbolists. Does this amount to waffling? In many cases, Debussy joined contemporaries who followed a "middle road," one leading to reconciliations of Symbolist and post-Symbolist values. "Gigues" (premiered in 1913), with its aesthetic conflicts and middle-road diplomacy, is Debussy's last troubled glance at post-Symbolism, and a work that succeeds almost in spite of itself.

The history provided here sheds light on why, when, and how Debussy revered nature. It contextualizes his musical development around La Mer and the orchestral Images in the reaction against Symbolism. It addresses the disparity that we generally view Debussy as a Symbolist and an innovator, whereas a significant number of his contemporaries believed he could be one but not both. Finally, this history acknowledges some of the many contradictions that make up Debussy's aesthetics; in identifying the turbulence that brought them about, it explains them without explaining them away.