Music: Anti-Wagner Opera

To France's Claude Debussy, Germany's Richard Wagner was "that old poisoner" of the pure wells of music. In the 1890's, fuming at the "grandiloquent hysteria" of the Wagnerian heroes—and calling his predecessor "a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn"—Debussy, singlehanded, set about creating a new anti-Wagnerian style. The result was the only opera he ever finished, Pelléas et Mélisande. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, it had a shadowy, once-upon-a-time plot that actually bore a genteel resemblance to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

In a sunless castle by a timeless sea,...

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