U is for Usher – Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher - etching by Robert Lawson‘DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher…’

Reading the first few pages of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, written in 1839, is enough to send  shivers of fear down one’s spine. Add that to the sinister cor anglais melody in Debussy’s one-act-in-two-scenes opera of the same name, and it makes me think that the opera world missed out on a superb ‘horror’ opera when Debussy left the work unfinished at his death in 1918. Working on it since 1908, he had written his own libretto, and it was planned as one of two operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, along with another Poe story, a comedy: Le diable dans le beffroi. What a loss.

Debussy wrote a short-score draft of the first scene, and part of the second, before his death. Various composers have completed it, including Juan Allende Blin, whose version was recorded by EMI. More recently, Robert Orledge’s version, which includes two of Debussy’s  ballets, was premiered at the Bregenz Festival in 2006, and recorded for DVD.

The libretto which Debussy devised has four characters, three of them male: Roderick Usher, ami – his friend, le médicin – the doctor, whose character Debussy developed considerably, and a soprano role for Usher’s sister, Madeline. The story has all the classic horror ingredients such as a crumbling mansion, night, death, a storm, being buried alive… and would have been the perfect foil for the other, light-hearted Poe story.

For a comprehensive and scholarly account, Robert Orledge’s ‘Debussy and the Theatre’, available here, gives a full description of the music, the circumstances of its composition, the characters and the different versions of the libretto.

The text of a lecture given by Robert Orledge and Stephen Wyatt on Le diable dans le beffroi is available here (scroll down). This cannot be bettered for information about Debussy’s unfinished operatic compositions. Below is the video of the lecture –

And below is a video of a concert performance of La chute de la Maison Usher in Robert Orledge’s reconstruction.

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