Charms for Bilitis: The Language of Debussy's Ancient Musical Persona

Open Access
Rhodes, Kristen Marie
Graduate Program:
Music Theory and History
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Taylor Aitken Greer, Thesis Advisor
  • Claude Debussy
  • Bilitis
  • Trois Chansons de Bilitis
  • Canope
  • Ancient Greek music
Within the eclectic amalgamation of styles in the music of Claude Debussy, a mystical sense of nostalgia permeates his compositional output. Specific musical features evocative of ancient eras appear throughout his works, suggesting that the conception of an idealized past was a significant part of his aesthetic. In fact, Debussy was a pivotal participant in a larger cultural fascination with all things ancient that began in the last half of the 1800s. Sparked by a sharp increase in archaeological discoveries and further fueled by widespread disillusionment with the new industrial society, the ancient world became a popular setting for fantasies of a lost paradise. Archaic settings became vehicles for the collective imagination to project various commentaries on modern society, thus allowing for controversial and forbidden subjects to be approached under the guise of “history.” Thus, the portrayals of the ancient world in the late 19th century did not depict true history, but rather a highly romanticized version of the past that represented a longing for simpler times. This particular aspect of Debussy’s musical personality found its most convincing voice through Pierre Louÿs’ poetry about a fictional Greek poetess named Bilitis. Throughout his career, Debussy composed a number of works based on these poems: the vocal work Trois chansons de Bilitis in 1897-98, incidental music for the performance of the poetry in 1901, and the piano duet Six épigraphes antiques in 1914. Debussy’s writings reveal that he was acquainted with the character of Bilitis as early as 1894, with evidence suggesting that she may have influenced the well-known orchestral composition, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Debussy’s continual return to Louÿs’ poems during a twenty-year time span suggests that Bilitis served as a mythical muse that inspired his musical nostalgia. Her influence can be found in numerous instrumental compositions that evoke a similar archaic mysticism yet have no text from which to derive meaning—the “ancient” subtext is communicated entirely by a set of compositional features that have established associations with a particular conception of the past. Specifically, I have identified three categories of intervallic, melodic, harmonic, and textural features that form a particular compositional idiom that I have labeled as Debussy’s “Ancient Persona.” These features draw upon and add to the musical conventions associated with antiquity that were established by his predecessors and comprise a significant aspect of Debussy’s overall compositional style. In that respect, Debussy’s musical aesthetic can be viewed as having a symbiotic relationship with its historical context: it shaped his vision as much as he contributed to it.