Two of Britain’s leading exponents of French song, the acclaimed sopranos Lorna Anderson and Lisa Milne, join Malcolm Martineau for the second volume of Hyperion’s overview of Debussy’s haunting, mercurial songs. The French composer’s output in this genre extended throughout his life and he was always inspired by poetry—from his first adolescent attempts to set Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes (which he later revised) to the Trois Poèmes de Mallarmé, written five years before his death. All inhabit a universe of shifting colours and impressions, from the sensual, perfumed ‘flutes and flesh’ of the Chansons de Bilitis to the Proses lyriques, which foreshadow the dreamlike atmosphere of Pelléas et Mélisande.
Other recommended albums
Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire in the autumn of 1872, at the age of ten, and stayed there until he won the Prix de Rome twelve years later. This apprenticeship had at least two important results. For a start, it meant that this so-called ‘Impressionist’ and subverter of tradition was among the most highly trained composers of all time, and so knew very well what he was subverting and why. And secondly it meant that he never really caught up with the classical culture which he would have imbibed at a traditional lycée: he knew nothing of Latin or Greek and little of Racine or Corneille. Instead he was thrown upon his own resources and, being someone of supreme intelligence, embarked early on a programme of wide and unorthodox reading (how many Frenchmen before 1914 knew anything of G K Chesterton or Lafcadio Hearn?). But first, in time and importance, came poetry, including that of Verlaine.
Although Debussy was taught the piano by Verlaine’s mother-in-law, Mme Mauté, there is no evidence that composer and poet ever met, and Debussy probably came across the volume Fêtes galantes (1869) at the house of his mistress Marie Vasnier. She was a singer possessed of a high coloratura, and Debussy’s first version of Fantoches, composed for her in January 1882 in the first flush of adolescent lust, ends with a stratospheric vocalise of complete poetic irrelevance. The versions of En sourdine and Clair de lune he wrote for her later in the year are more measured in their demands, suggesting that purely musical impulses were now taking over. But some ten years later, with the love affair well behind him, he returned to all three poems, presumably feeling that none of the earlier settings had done them justice.
He was happiest with Fantoches, in which a good deal of the original survives, though the finely graded diminuendo of the ending is new, foreshadowing similar endings in works such as Fêtes from the Nocturnes. But En sourdine and Clair de lune are almost entirely fresh, employing a far more adventurous harmonic palette than had been available to him a decade earlier, blending modality and chromaticism in equal measure. Whereas Fantoches is all energy and sparkle, the two outer songs float timelessly, allowing us to savour the famous ‘musicality’ of Verlaine’s poetry.
The great majority of Debussy’s songs are settings of regular verse, but over a six-year period between 1892 and 1898 he confined his song settings to nine pieces of free verse and prose. The whole question of setting these two media was much debated during this decade, building on Gounod’s preface to his opera George Dandin in which he claimed that: ‘The infinite variety of stress, in prose, offers the composer quite new horizons which will save him from monotony and uniformity.’ In 1892–3, just before starting on Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy set to music four free-verse poems of his own whose titles—‘Of dreams’, ‘Of the shore’, ‘Of flowers’, ‘Of evening’—form a kind of of aesthetic biography of the composer. It is typical of his lifelong struggle to reconcile his desire for freedom with the demands of structure that, in the first song, the dream is not expressed through some vague, amorphous mush, but almost entirely in two- and four-bar phrases. The piano-writing is denser than in Fêtes galantes I, nearer not only to Debussy’s earlier Baudelaire settings but to the piano parts of Wagner vocal scores, which the horn calls here also bring to mind. In the midst of the free verse, Debussy plants two alexandrines, the second of which—‘Les chevaliers sont morts sur le chemin du Grâal!’ (‘The Knights have died in their quest for the Grail!’)—may be taken as a further Wagnerian reference. In De grève the mischievous little waves provoke the arrival of disruptive whole-tone harmonies, calmed by the sympathetic moon, while the slow, sad chords that open De fleurs recall the similar expanding and contracting shape of the first chords of Debussy’s cantata La damoiselle élue—in both cases, the atmosphere is of a placid resignation far from the hubbub of the material world. The final song, De soir, is in two contrasting parts: a cheerful Sunday with children playing (at the words ‘Des rondes obstinées’ Debussy quotes in the piano’s left hand the tune of a singing game in which one girl represents the tower while the others turn round her); and then a prayer to the Virgin. Throughout, we hear the sounds of bells.
During the 1890s Debussy was one of the few musicians admitted to Mallarmé’s elitist circle and, for his part, he confessed that he much preferred talking to writers and painters than to fellow musicians. One of his more colourful friends at this period was the writer Pierre Louÿs. In 1895, the twenty-five-year-old Louÿs published a volume of prose poems entitled ‘Les chansons de Bilitis, translated from the Greek for the first time by P.L.’, and quoting a German translation of the preceding year. They were a huge success, even if one reviewer took issue with the accuracy of his translations. Not that Louÿs took the criticism too seriously, because the poems were his own invention and he was thrilled at having perpetrated one of the best literary spoofs ever.
Debussy must surely have been in on the joke. But his settings contain no hint of irony, conjuring up as they do the never-never dreamworld that was Ancient Greece in the French culture of the time—which could be summed up as ‘all flutes and flesh’. However, he certainly was doubtful about the poems’ propriety. A friend recorded that ‘he only just brought himself to excuse them for their grace and the frankness of their language … and even then, not all of them’. In these songs, too, Debussy abandoned the setting of strict verse for prose, giving a regular framework to the piano, over which the voice floats freely.
The writer Romain Rolland cited these songs as the most perfect examples he knew of French word-setting. As in Pelléas et Mélisande, by and large this is syllabic and follows the contours of spoken French, using small intervals, so that in the first song the falling major third in the phrase ‘comme le miel’, and even more the falling fourths on ‘genoux’ and ‘tremblante’, assume considerable importance. Antiquity is evoked by the use of modal scales, mostly in the Lydian mode with the fourth note of the scale sharpened. In the second song the dichotomy is more striking still between the contained, almost hesitant vocal line and the increasingly passionate piano part until, on the crucial word ‘bouche’, the singer is forced into a dramatic octave descent. The temperature of the final song is at the opposite extreme from that of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. All here is cold and ice, culminating in the line ‘Depuis trente ans il n’a pas fait un hiver aussi terrible’, to which the composer lends a tone of unforgettable menace. As for the final chord, is this for our comfort? Like all the Symbolists, Debussy was not into giving answers.
The six Verlaine songs published in 1903 as Ariettes oubliées were revisions of originals composed between 1885 and 1887. The dedication of the 1903 edition to Mary Garden, ‘unforgettable Mélisande’, did not necessarily mean that the changes Debussy made were designed for her voice, more likely that they merely reflected his experience as a composer. The two earliest songs, L’ombre des arbres and Chevaux de bois, date originally from January 1885, when the composer was about to leave Paris, and his mistress, for a lengthy stay in Rome, and possibly the disenchantment of the first song mirrored his own sentiments. Likewise, he is saying goodbye in Chevaux de bois to the friendly bustle of Paris, and the wonderful coda with its tolling bell again may have had a personal resonance (in the 1903 revision the final bell, with its descending fourth, is now syncopated, adding immeasurably to its poetic force). Elsewhere Debussy indulges in ecstasy, in the monotony of rain, in a wonderfully fresh and seductive love song, Green, in which the agile vocal line at last settles on a series of low repeated notes as the lover too settles on his beloved’s breast, and finally, pre-echoing the Wagnerian Baudelaire songs, in a song of heartbreak, where all depends on the final ‘hélas!’, placed with apparent insouciance in the middle of a phrase, leaving the piano to pick up the pieces.
During the early months of 1904 Debussy’s first marriage to Lilly Texier began to founder as he succumbed to the charms of Emma Bardac, an accomplished singer and one-time mistress of Fauré. The Trois Chansons de France were the first Debussy works to be dedicated to her. He was no historian and makes no attempt to distinguish between the fifteenth-century poet Charles d’Orléans and the seventeenth-century Tristan l’Hermite. It was enough for him to feel that he was ‘going back’—partly because he was no lover of his own times with what he called its ‘tricoloured phrases’ (that is, expressions of French nationalism), and partly because he never lost his reverence for the directness of the music of Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina which he had first heard as a student in Rome. By and large the harmonies of all three songs are simpler and more firmly anchored to traditional tonal pillars than in the Bilitis songs. In rhythm though, the outer ones maintain a free flow of patterns, with repeated lines duly observed in the music, whereas the central La grotte is an exercise in stillness, with a short–long rhythm in the piano that impedes forward movement. Like Narcissus, we seem to find ourselves frozen in an attitude of contemplation.
In 1913 appeared the first complete volume of Mallarmé’s poetry and both Debussy and Ravel were quick to seize on this fact. By this time the two composers were no longer in contact with each other, so Debussy was annoyed to find not only that Ravel had chosen two of the same poems to set, but that he had already obtained permission from the poet’s heirs to publish the results. When Ravel then saw to it that Debussy’s request was not refused this annoyed him still more. In Soupir he balances the need for a clear structure with opportunities for musical colour. Since Mallarmé’s poem is a single long sentence inset with dependent clauses and phrases, structural help is vital. Debussy obliges by lengthening crucial words: ‘âme’, ‘Monte’ (the single main verb), ‘Azur’ (Mallarmé’s symbol for the Ideal), ‘Se traîner’ (for an obvious reason). On the colouristic front, complex chords attend ‘Un automne jonché de taches de rousseur’, but ‘ton œil angélique / Monte’ is unaccompanied and sounds almost like plainsong.
Placet futile, although marked to be performed ‘at the speed of a slow minuet’, is aesthetically more of a scherzo, featuring repeated returns of the opening phrase with no consideration for harmonic logic and, after some delirious top notes, one delightful return in the wrong key. Finally, Éventail explores a strange, insubstantial world of gestures in what has been called ‘the trembling space of atonality’, in which the word ‘Stagnants’, as in the vault scene of Pelléas, is coloured with whole-tone harmony. The piano-writing is mercurial, pared down to essentials, an embodiment of Debussy’s cry: ‘How much has first to be discovered, then suppressed, before one can reach the naked flesh of emotion!’
Roger Nichols © 2012
Other albums in this series