Although Stéphane Mallarmé’s writings on dance are few, he has come to be considered an important dance theorist who allied and underscored two aspects of dance that are seldom simultaneously emphasized: its ritual character and its function as a system of signs.
While Mallarmé linked dance with poetry, he noted that—unlike poetry—dance’s symbolism does not develop from a codified semiotic system; rather, dance signifiers are inherently open-ended, and the spectator completes the art work by supplying the signified.
This according to “Ephemeral signs: Apprehending the idea through poetry and dance” by Mary Lewis Shaw (Dance research journal XX/1 [summer 1988] pp. 3–9).
Above, Édouard Manet’s portrait of the poet; below, perhaps the ultimate meeting of Mallarmé and dance, as Rudolf Nureyev performs a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography for Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a work inspired by Mallarmé’s L’après-midi d’un faune.
Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.
While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.
Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.
“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”
He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”
This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa.
Today is Debussy’s 150th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence is best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.
Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans