Nuit d'étoiles L2 [3'25]
Romance L56 [2'52]
L'échelonnement des haies [1'24]
This collection includes songs from pretty well the whole of Debussy’s composing life, some of them well-known and acknowledged masterpieces, and some of them much less familiar though no less worthy of inclusion. Most of them, though, date from the 1880s and early 90s. Nuit d'étoiles is in fact Debussy's first published composition, dating from 1880 when he was eighteen. The Trois Ballades de François Villon date from 1910.
Christopher Maltman sings them all with his now familiar stylishness and sensitivity to words.
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The years between Debussy’s birth in 1862 and his first documented song in 1879 (the incomplete Madrid, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York), were crucial ones for the mélodie. The traditional French romance had slowly taken on through the 1840s and ’50s the lineaments of the German lied. For this the popularity of Schubert’s songs was almost wholly responsible by showing composers, and audiences, that the piano could be more than just rhythmic and harmonic wallpaper and could do wonders in conjuring up atmosphere or in engaging in dialogue with the singer. However, there continued to be resistance on several fronts to accepting Schubert’s premises fully. For one thing, the French have always prided themselves on brevity, clarity and gracefulness in their artistic productions, and have tended to regard the effusions of their north-eastern neighbours as Evelyn Waugh did his first taste of battle in World War Two: ‘like German opera, too loud and too long’.
Then there was the fact that the Paris salons were the natural home of mélodies until the 1870s, when they began to be taken more seriously and to find their way into the concert hall. Even if the cost of keeping a salon was met by the husband, it was his wife who bore the responsibility of making it a place to be seen and heard. It was of course part and parcel of the requisite bon ton that nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable, and this applied to the musicmaking as well. Singers and pianists should not be too loud, nor should they attempt to stun their audience either with vulgar pyrotechnics or with unseemly displays of emotion. How careful one had to be is well demonstrated in a passage of Proust in which a young woman with social aspirations knocks over a lamp at a soirée. Says one male aristocrat to another: “I wonder what it must be like being married to a woman like that?” To which the other replies: “I suppose it’s better than being savaged to death by tigers”.
Berlioz, as always, was an exception to this rule of carefulness and tact, but until the 1870s no French composer really took up the gauntlet he had thrown down in his Nuits d’été of 1841, while his own interests developed in other fields. But the founding in 1871 of the Société Nationale de Musique, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, led to a new seriousness in French musicmaking—in some quarters Offenbach’s sourly negative view of French society was thought to have played a large part in France’s military defeat, and all the greater because the music was so frivolous and catchy. Debussy’s exposure to the mélodie during his time as a student at the Conservatoire (1872–1884) therefore operated on a kind of double front. On the one hand there were the mélodies that had barely progressed from the tune-plus-accompaniment, strophic simplicity of the romance, composed by men like Victor Massé, Félicien David, Delibes and Gounod; on the other were those that looked to the future in integrating the two partners into a more equal relationship. This second group can realistically be divided into two further subsets, with composers like Lalo and Saint-Saëns sticking to a fairly conservative language, whereas Alexis de Castillon, Franck and Duparc absorbed a chromaticism taken from Liszt and Wagner. The one name missing from these lists is that of Fauré. Although in later years Debussy could be seen in music shops surreptitiously peeping at the latest works of his colleague and rival, it is safe to say that any influence of the older master’s songs on those of the younger one was purely negative, pushing Debussy only into writing something utterly different.
Not surprisingly, and indeed wisely, the young Debussy took his time charting these troubled waters. The seven individual songs on this disc all belong rather to the safe, ‘careful’ end of the mélodie spectrum. The earliest of them, Nuit d’étoiles, dates from 1880 (the date 1876, often quoted, is unsupported by any evidence). Debussy matches Banville’s ‘sereine mélancolie’ with harmonies that move only slowly and not very far, while the vocal line emphasises the 7th, 6th and 3rd notes of the major scale in a way shortly to be exploited by Massenet. Debussy varies the two repeats of the opening refrain by activating the solid piano chords, first with arpeggios, then with a repeated falling three-note figure, but we, as listeners, are never in doubt as to where we are in the song or where it is going. This was Debussy’s first published composition, and the only one of his thirteen songs to poems by Banville that he published.
The next three songs testify to Debussy’s perennial need of money. In 1880 he took on the job of accompanying a singing class held by Mme Moreau-Sainti for what the newspapers of the time dubbed ‘les jeunes filles du meilleur monde’. Not all of them were that ‘jeunes’, including the 28-year-old Mme Emile Deguingand and the 32-year-old Marie Vasnier, both married to husbands a good deal older than themselves. Fleur des blés, which he dedicated to Mme. Deguingand early in 1881, depicts the undulation of the wheat in regular semiquavers and again employs the 7th, 6th and 3rd notes of the scale to good effect. Debussy treats the four stanzas as two groups of two, with the second group being a barely varied version of the first. The tone is contemplative and restful, animated gently by the alternations in the vocal line of duplets and triplets—soon to become a Debussy hallmark.
There has never been any slur on Mme Deguingand’s virtue. If Fleur des blés was an attempt on this, it seems to have failed. But Marie Vasnier, a striking redhead with green eyes and a high, agile soprano voice, returned Debussy’s interest and they were lovers for some years, Debussy treating the Vasnier household as a second home and profiting at least to some extent from M. Vasnier’s advice on the advisability of working hard and obeying rules. Sometime after February 1884 Debussy made a manuscript collection of thirteen of the songs he had written for Marie, now known as the ‘Vasnier Songbook’ and housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Voici que le printemps, written in January 1884, and Mandoline, written on 25 November 1882 in Vienna, are the eleventh and third songs in the book. In the first of these Debussy is clearly freeing himself from the constraint of strophic setting. The second stanza begins in the same way as the first but continues differently, while the two final ones are through-composed, the start of the fourth one being heavily disguised. Harmonically there are no great revolutions here, but the line ‘Ouvrent leurs yeux où flotte une ombre vague et tendre’ is set to the sort of static harmony that was later to get Debussy into trouble with the professors. As for the general sentiment of Bourget’s poem, it is exactly what Chabrier was to complain about in a letter to his publishers of 29 June 1889—incidentally the only known reference by Chabrier to Debussy:
What I don’t want as texts are those blobs of mucus in which love exists as the buds are opening or during April and May; let’s give those two months of the year a rest—they’re exhausted, in my view, as are the little flowers in the garden … Lately, and as always set in April, May, flowers of the fields and all that tosh, young Bordes, Chausson, Marty, Bréville, Hüe, Debussy etc. have been writing music that is recondite, clever, but rather tormented, often melancholy, weepy and disillusioned. When a singer delivers that sort of thing in the salons, you get the impression they’re burying the devil or giving the audience the last rites.
One doesn’t know that Debussy ever reached quite that level of disenchantment, but then increasingly from the mid-1880s he turned from the elegant Théodore de Banville and from purveyors of sentimentality like Girod and Bourget to poets whose attachments to the Symbolist movement gave him more scope for profundity. In 1882 he made his first two settings of Verlaine, who was to become the poet of some of his greatest songs. Mandoline is the second of these two, and already at the age of twenty Debussy is seen to be responding to the quality of Verlaine’s writing. The ‘piano-as-mandolin’ was no new concept in French song, but Debussy introduces a new realism both in the opening call to attention, from which a myriad of possible continuations suggest themselves, and in the open fifths that do in fact follow. Now the opening vocal line does not recur until the final verse, allowing Debussy to make a pseudo-rhyme out of ‘chanteuses’ and ‘brises’, both set to a wonderfully floating, chromatic phrase. Purists may disapprove of the final ‘la-la’s, not in Verlaine’s original, but surely what Debussy makes of them disarms criticism? This is the earliest of his characteristic fade-out endings, culminating in a repeat of the opening call to attention, played correctly in this recording, though too rarely elsewhere, with the soft pedal; a wonderful touch, asking ‘Is that it?’. Here for the first time Debussy gave some intimation of what his piano parts would soon become.
The last three individual songs on this disc were all published in 1891 but almost certainly date from the mid-1880s. In Les angélus and Les cloches the texture is built around the sounds of bells. Debussy would of course exploit this sonority most famously in his piano prelude La cathédrale engloutie, but we should be aware that in the age before the arrival of the noisy motor car the tolling of bells in cities was a larger component of the soundscape than it is now, and so is found regularly in the songs of the period. We should also be aware that, while Debussy obviously valued them as pure sound and perhaps for their intimation of a life beyond the material one, he never followed any orthodox religion. Romance may be taken as Debussy’s farewell to the genre. Orthodox elements include the regularly pulsing accompaniment and the symmetrical phrasing. Less orthodox is the harmony: before the final major triad there is only one perfect cadence in the whole song, on the word ‘odorante’—elsewhere cadences are continually interrupted. This too was a sign of things to come.
The late 1880s are a period of Debussy’s life of which we know less than we might like. In 1884 he had won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue and on 28 January 1885 he boarded a train for the Eternal City. Distraught at leaving Marie Vasnier and already practising his act as a social misfit or ‘bear’, he soldiered on through two years of internment but was back in Paris in early March 1887. Here began what are generally known as his ‘bohemian years’, marked by insecurities personal, financial and musical. But he continued working and during that year finished the songs later published as Ariettes oubliées and began both his ‘lyric poem’ on Rossetti’s La damoiselle élue and, in December, his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. His return to Paris also brought him into contact with the music of Wagner which, though still shunned by the opera houses, was winning enthusiastic converts through the performance of ‘bleeding chunks’ in the concert halls. Like many other composers of the time, Debussy made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth, in 1888 to hear Parsifal and Die Meistersinger and in 1889 to hear Tristan. Most of the Cinq poèmes bear witness to the impact of Wagner’s music, something Debussy never quite shook off, though later he buried it as deeply underground as he could.
But for the moment the Wagnerian influence is plain to hear: in the chromatic harmony, in the continually interrupted cadences, in the widely arching melody lines of both voice and piano, and in the sheer complexity of the keyboard writing. Le balcon is by some way Debussy’s longest song, the voice riding over the rich piano textures in truly Wagnerian fashion. On the technical front, we may note how Debussy deals with Baudelaire’s repetition of the opening line at the end of each of the six stanzas: the voice echoes the opening almost exactly, while the piano’s figurations and harmonies are different—until the last stanza, when the voice mirrors Baudelaire’s change from ‘Ces serments’ to ‘Ô serments’, before voice and piano finally come together for an exact repeat of the opening harmony on ‘ô baisers infinis’. This shows how sensitive Debussy was in this extended song to the double need of recapitulation/confirmation and of forward movement.
The idea that Debussy was positively attracted by the formal problem of Le balcon is supported by his choice for the second song, Harmonie du soir. Here Baudelaire borrows a Malay verse form, the pantoum (used later by Ravel in the second movement of his Piano Trio) in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the next. It has to be said though that Baudelaire has made life relatively easy for himself by dealing almost entirely in self-contained lines—every line after the first ends with some kind of punctuation mark. Debussy follows suit, giving the repeated line the same contour as the first but in general altering the pitch and the underlying harmony. The mood of this exceptionally beautiful song is already characteristic of the mature Debussy. He finished it in January 1889 and we can hear how, in the year from writing Le balcon in January 1888, Debussy has begun to absorb the Wagnerian elements into his own style: the piano writing in particular is clearer and cleaner, with more space round the notes.
The central Le jet d’eau stands in marked contrast to its surroundings. Perhaps Debussy felt some respite was needed from the Wagnerian fumes. In some passages we can hear prefigured the light, airy atmosphere of the fountain scene (Act II scene 1) of Pelléas et Mélisande—and even more so in the orchestration Debussy made of the song in 1907—and water figuration in the piano permeates the whole song. Debussy gives the singer the same music for each refrain, again with differences in the piano part. This simple yet deeply touching song requires no learned expositions. Suffice to say that the refrain Debussy sets is not the one Baudelaire published in his 1868 edition of Les fleurs du mal but a variant found in La petite revue of 8 July 1865, underlining the extent to which Debussy was versed in Symbolist literature. Interestingly, he also changes one word (elsewhere Baudelaire’s text is rigorously observed—no ‘la-la-la’s here), substituting his ‘pâleurs’ for the poet’s ‘lueurs’. But this still obeys musical principles of assonance: whereas ‘lueurs’ looked back to ‘lune’, ‘pâleurs’ looks forward to ‘pleurs’.
We have no more precise date for Recueillement than the year 1889, but the harmonies of the opening suggest that he wrote it after seeing Tristan at Bayreuth that summer. However, on the word ‘voici’ we move into a rather different nightscape, owing perhaps less to Wagner than to Chabrier, and in particular that of ‘Sous bois’ from the Pièces pittoresques. But the join is expertly crafted, as are subsequent ones between these two worlds. It is as if Debussy realised that his future lay in combining Wagner with the peculiarly sensitive sensuousness of the French tradition. At all events it is an astonishing song for a 27-year-old who only five years earlier had still been subscribing to the style of the romance, and not the least astonishing thing about it is his control of rhythm. Thanks to the combination of duplets and triplets throughout, when we reach the last line we realise we have already been listening to ‘the tread of gentle Night’.
Finally La mort des amants was the song with which Debussy began the cycle in December 1887. We must assume that he wanted to close on the more settled tone of this song, where the discourse is logically guided by the opening little idée fixe in the accompaniment—a cousin of that in his piano piece Clair de lune—and the prevalence of balanced two- and four-bar phrases constrains the sense of flux characteristic of the Wagnerian elements elsewhere. At the same time there are moments when the interest passes unambiguously to the piano, with the voice fitting in syllables as best it may.
Never again would Debussy present himself as so clearly on the cusp between styles. The three remaining sets of songs show him as master of all he surveys, with Wagner (‘old Klingsor’, as he once called him) firmly tidied away into a corner, to re-emerge only in larger works like Pelléas, Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and Jeux. The year 1891 saw Debussy still living an unsettled life, eking out an existence by giving piano lessons and ‘borrowing’ from more affluent friends. But, with the Cinq poèmes behind him, his music begins to deepen while becoming more straightforward. Of the Trois mélodies on poems by Verlaine, Debussy’s friend, the writer Pierre Louÿs, said that they were ‘verlainiennes jusqu’au bout des croches’ (Verlainian down to the last quaver). They do indeed share the poet’s qualities of musicality, spirituality, melancholy and simplicity. Even if ‘La mer est plus belle’ depicts the ocean with impetuously swirling semiquavers, the disposition of voice and piano may seem to show something of a return to the old romance model. But this is more apparent to the eye than to the ear. The song is a salutary blast against those who would write Debussy off as a lax invertebrate and reminds us that, when he and some friends were caught out in a small boat in a fierce storm off the Brittany coast, it was Debussy who insisted on going on—“One feels totally alive”. Lovers of Pelléas may spot the premonition of Mélisande’s motif in the right hand of the piano at the words ‘Oh! si patiente, Même quand méchante!’. Make of that what you will …
With Le son du cor Debussy conjures up a dreamworld entirely his own. The piano now takes up the reins of melody, while the voice chants, often on repeated notes. The horn is no longer the heroic instrument of Siegfried, but the bearer of ‘an almost orphan sorrow’. Without a score it is almost impossible to detect the beat in the first four bars; then the voice’s deliberately steady quavers on the first line speak of a struggle between man and nature, between the individual and the mass, to turn chaos into order. By comparison with La mer est plus belle, everything is understated, yet every syllable tells. In L’échelonnement des haies Debussy makes a bow in the direction of an even older form than the romance, the chanson. After the ‘soir monotone’ of Le son du cor, this is a bright, lazy Sunday afternoon enlivened by frisking colts and lambs. No one could compete with Debussy in his ability to engender light around his notes. We might almost say that the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. Predictably, the combination of bells and flutes in the same line brings out the best in him. Like Mozart, he would have been able to say, ‘Not one note more than is necessary’.
In 1891/2 Debussy set three further Verlaine poems before temporarily abandoning verse settings for prose ones. Then, after the première of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, he published these three songs in 1903 as the first set of Fêtes galantes and added a second set of three the following year. These were his final encounter with the poet whose words had inspired him to write nineteen songs in the space of twenty-two years. As with his songs for Marie Vasnier, this second set of Fêtes galantes has links with Debussy’s own life. He had married in 1899, but the union was not a happy one for him. In 1904 he met Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and Fauré’s ex-mistress, and fell in love. They lived together until Debussy’s death, getting married in 1908. Debussy dedicated two song cycles of 1904 to his new mistress: the Trois chansons de France, published in May 1904, to ‘Mme. S. Bardac’; the second set of Fêtes galantes, published in September, to ‘Emma Bardac’. The change in nomenclature would seem to speak for itself. Nevertheless this second dedication has its puzzling side. None of the three songs is a love song in the accepted sense, while the last one is calculated to put off the most ardent aspirant to a composer’s affections.
Perhaps the most curious thing about the poem of Les ingénus is the ultimate confusion between singular and plural. Until the final line, the male watchers and the ladies with flashing heels and white necks have been a corporate body—possibly one of those discreetly erotic encounters painted by Watteau. But with the words ‘Que notre âme (singular) depuis ce temps tremble et s’étonne’ confusion is sown. Do all the male watchers share a single soul? Or is the poet the only one afflicted with trembling and astonishment? Or is the plural, as applied to the watchers, merely a poetic device, as it were a royal plural, obscuring the fact that the poet has been the only watcher of these tempting damsels? This might seem a far-fetched point, were it not that it is precisely on the words ‘Que notre’ that Debussy for the first time stills the regular movement of semiquavers, allowing the words to be heard unhindered. Whatever the truth, the title (‘The Innocents’), being masculine, applies to the watcher(s), so that Verlaine seems to be warning against women’s wiles. A suitable sentiment to set before one’s new mistress?
Le faune is hardly more enticing. The ‘unhappy sequel to these moments of calm’ predicted by the faun turned out to be all too real since, although Debussy’s second marriage lasted, there was many a stormy moment; and was Emma happy to be addressed as a ‘melancholy pilgrim’? After a brief descending figure, to be played ‘like a flute’, a two-note ostinato taps its way throughout the song, impervious to the harmonies above it. The astonishingly dissonant final chord delineates no firm key, as the song delivers no firm message. We even have to wait till the final word to find out that all this time the ostinato has represented the sound of tambourines. This may be one of the ‘lamentable’ genre of song about which Chabrier complained so bitterly, but certainly we’re a long way here from sloppy evocations of April and May.
Finally Colloque sentimental, Debussy’s last Verlaine song, has specific and depressing things to say about love and its possible outcomes. If the two-note ostinato in Le faune represented fate through the mediation of the mandolin, in the central section here the unrelenting A flats have no material connotation; they are an immovable psychological rock (the unloving ghost’s obduracy? the unloved ghost’s bleak future?) upon which a whole armoury of chromatic chords breaks in vain. Equally impotent to move the A flat are the five reminiscences of the nightingale’s song from the first song of the first set of Fêtes galantes, En sourdine, where the song is identified as ‘voice of our despair’. Or are these reminiscences of despair in league with the A flat? The nightingale is heard again in the narrator’s brief coda. For all the song’s crepuscular tone, it is only with the words ‘Et la nuit seule’ that we know for sure this is a night scene—and it is precisely on these words that the nightingale begins its final song, ‘night’ here representing not Tristanesque passion but emptiness and, effectively, death. Emma Bardac’s response to the dedication of this cycle is not recorded.
Debussy had never been a supporter of things modern, whether in life or music, nor of group movements, whether invoking patriotism or -isms of a more artistic kind, and after Pelléas and his fortieth birthday he increasingly retired into a world of the mind where he was free to take his own decisions. One aspect of what today would be termed his ‘elitism’ was his turning to poets of bygone ages: Tristan l’Hermite from the seventeenth century and Charles d’Orléans and François Villon from the fifteenth. As with his passion for Rameau, his attraction to these poets spoke of a desire to avoid German excess (and this comes out from his newspaper articles well before World War I) and to pare his music down to a greater simplicity even than in his settings of Verlaine. His Trois ballades de François Villon of 1910 especially subscribe to Verdi’s dictum that in order to go forward into the future one has to go back into the past.
The most noticeable change for the listener is perhaps the absence of lushness in the piano parts. Textures have hardened and sharpened—as Ravel’s piano textures would do in the Valses nobles et sentimentales written a year later—and the discourse is conducted with a kind of mannered rigour that looks ahead to the Neoclassical style of the 1920s. In the Ballade de Villon à s’amye the stabbing short-long rhythms in the piano part contribute to the ‘expression as much of anguish as of regret’ that Debussy asks for. The tempo too is fluid, never settling for long, as the lover seeks consolation for his torment. This consolation comes only with the last three chords, where Debussy indeed goes back to the past: to modality, and to the major chord ending a piece in the minor, the ancient tierce de Picardie.
Modality and sparse textures also mark the second song, Villon’s prayer to the Virgin. But this is the modality of a modern monk who is at home with the Internet and the mobile phone. The music, gliding silkily into harmonic regions undreamt of by Palestrina, seems so deeply spiritual that we are forced to wonder whether, as stated above, the composer was indeed an unbeliever. The answer is, yes, he was. But he was also the possessor of those two sovereign qualities called technique and imagination. Not surprisingly, given that this is a prayer, the vocal lines lie in that peculiarly Debussyan territory charted in Pelléas, somewhere between aria and recitative, with plainsong not far in the background. Debussy observes the law of diminishing returns in the touches of colour he introduces: arpeggios for ‘harps’, a surprise G flat major chord (marqué) at the point where the damned are ‘boiled’.
Finally the Ballade des femmes de Paris is another exercise in reviving the past, incorporating the culmination of the chanson style we heard in L’échelonnement des haies, and perhaps before that in Mandoline. No hint of plainsong here, but a vivid stylisation of the rhythms and cadences of French speech, exaggerated to a point just this side of vulgarity. Villon’s drunken and rumbustuous lifestyle was not Debussy’s, but it’s hard not to hear some faint echo of sympathy for an artist who was both free spirit and superb craftsman. This dichotomy can be heard in the song’s structure, with the verses running off into distant keys, only to be brought back each time by the word ‘Paris’ to the tonic E major. It can also be heard throughout Debussy’s œuvre, the work of a genius perpetually torn between those poles identified by Apollinaire as ‘Order’ and ‘Adventure’.
Roger Nichols © 2003
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