Aimons-nous et dormons L7 [2'46]
Il dort encore L34 [3'01]
Hyperion presents a third volume in its acclaimed Debussy songs series, accompanied and curated by Malcolm Martineau, with booklet notes by French music expert par excellence Roger Nichols. Young soprano Jennifer France, winner of the Song Prize at the 2014 Kathleen Ferrier Awards and making her debut on the label, has a thrillingly expressive voice of diamantine beauty and is an ideal performer of these songs. Baritone Jonathan McGovern performs Le promenoir des deux amants and other songs with warm tone and great musical sensitivity.
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The twenty-six songs on this recording fall into four categories: twelve on poems by Théodore de Banville; four settings of various authors, probably from 1882, but rediscovered only recently and first published in 2012; five songs on poems by Paul Bourget; and five from the years 1890 to 1910.
Debussy set thirteen Banville poems altogether (the earliest, Nuit d’étoiles, can be found in the), and we know from a fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire that Debussy was found on at least one occasion walking around the institution with a volume of Banville in his hands. Not only is this poet little read today, he had detractors even in his own time who complained that his poems were all surface and no content. One obituary on his death in 1891 surmised that, if he had the voice of a nightingale, he also had the brains of one.
In his favour, Banville was, with Baudelaire, one of the few French poets of his time to love music (Lamartine, for example, would take to his heels if he saw anyone so much as opening a piano). Even the above detractors could not deny the ‘musicality’ of his verse, also appreciated by Baudelaire and Verlaine. Banville based many of his poems on Renaissance models, and Caprice (set by Debussy in 1880) follows a rhythmic scheme borrowed from Ronsard. This musicality applied to accepted forms was no doubt one of the attractions for a composer still learning his trade, and perhaps not yet ready to deal with deeper emotions and more complex structures. But Debussy’s dramatic instinct is alive in the way that ‘je romps mon lien!’ is followed by four bars of solo piano, as the loved one ponders her response. The two other songs from 1880, Rêverie and Aimons-nous et dormons, are traditional in their reliance on repeated patterns in the accompaniment, and also in their colouring of key words and phrases: the stilling of movement on ‘frêle plante’ (in Rêverie), and the dangerous chord on ‘mer’ (in Aimons-nous et dormons).
In 1880 the eighteen-year-old Debussy, still at the Conservatoire and, as always, in need of money, took on a job accompanying a ladies’ choir run by Mme Moreau-Sainti and, among the first sopranos, his eye and ear were taken by the thirty-two-year-old Marie-Blanche Vasnier. They soon became ‘very close’ and between Caprice and Regret of February 1884 Debussy dedicated no fewer than twenty-nine songs to her, and possibly had her light, high, agile voice in mind for a few others as well. The song of 1881 dedicated to her, Les baisers, bears the inscription ‘the last song I may ever write’—a threat happily not carried out, but one that at least suggests the intensity of the liaison. We may note the start of the piano doubling on the phrase ‘Si les baisers …’, an occasional measure adopted to give extra weight and seriousness to the emotion. Two other songs from that year, Souhait and Zéphyr (after a poem called ‘Triolet à Philis’), not specifically written for her (as one can tell from their more restrained vocal compass), show Debussy experimenting tentatively, with the incorporation of recitative style in Souhait, and in Zéphyr with the comforts of added-6th harmony. Souhait also contains one of Debussy’s frequent alterations to his song texts, in the last line changing Banville’s ‘Se becqueter’ to ‘Se regarder’ (amorous billing to amorous looking)—a loss in meaning compensated for by a gain in singable vowels.
The six Banville songs of early 1882 mark the end of Debussy’s loyalty to the poet: from here he moved on to other writers, notably Paul Bourget, Baudelaire, and especially Verlaine, whose ‘Fantoches’ he had already set in January of that year. Sérénade, dedicated to Mme Vasnier, is an example of the fantastical Debussy, later evident in the movement ‘Jeux de vagues’ in La mer, in the ballet Jeux and in Préludes such as La danse de Puck and General Lavine. He picks up early on the presence of a guitar, and there’s drama again in the second attempt at ‘Arlequin chante’—in a foreign key! Even though Il dort encore, an extract from an unfinished comédie lyrique called Hymnis, contains the kind of sequences taken from Conservatoire textbooks, Debussy breaks the regularity of Banville’s verses and extends the reference to ‘Anacréon, chanteur mélodieux’, which is the heart of the song.
The poems of the other four Banville settings are imitations of the sixteenth-century poet Clément Marot. In Le lilas, not specifically dedicated to Mme Vasnier despite the unaccompanied high B in the last line, Debussy gets away from strophic settings and gives us a song without any repeated music, though for his own musical reasons he does repeat two of Banville’s lines—no possibility of causing the poet offence since this song, like all his Banville ones except Nuit d’étoiles, remained unpublished until well into the twentieth century. In Les roses we find Debussy’s familiar arch-shaped phrases and, again, an almost through-composed song, ‘Et le riant feuillage’ having the only repeated music. Marked Avec un sentiment absolument passionné, it displays the composer’s fondness for oscillating pairs of chords, broken only occasionally by word-colourings, like the unexpected chord on ‘jeu’. No doubt Massenet was the influence here as in many of these songs, but Mme Vasnier’s evidently exceptional top B gets another unaccompanied outing in the final line.
All through his life Debussy nodded at times in the direction of popular song and Pierrot is an early example, with its quotation of the folk song ‘Au clair de la lune’. This again is one of his joky pieces, culminating in frivolous trills. More feeling is evident in Fête galante, despite the flippant inscription on the title page of the manuscript: ‘Musique Louis IXV [sic] avec formules 1882’. The tune will be familiar from its revival in the ‘Menuet’ of the Petite Suite for piano duet.
The 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth in 2012 was marked by a number of concerts, conferences and publications. Among these last were four hitherto unpublished songs edited by Denis Herlin who, on the basis of the handwriting and form of signature on the manuscripts, dates them probably to 1882. Debussy dedicated them to his friend Henry Kunkelmann, whom he probably met in César Franck’s Conservatoire organ class. Although none of them is dedicated to Mme Vasnier, it’s hard not to suppose he was thinking of her in L’archet at the lines ‘Elle avait une voix étrange, Musicale, de fée ou d’ange’, given that one of his dedicatory notes elsewhere refers to her ‘bouche de fée mélodieuse’. Harmonically, the most interesting moment comes on the line ‘Fais un archet avec mes tresses’, where we find the Debussy of the future. Les baisers d’amour (or Romance) remains firmly on Massenet territory, while in Chanson triste (sometimes called Le matelot qui tombe à l’eau), Debussy’s shortest known song, we hear the sound of bells that was to become one of his fingerprints. Les Elfes, in contrast, is Debussy’s longest song and is, unusually for him, a ballad rather than a painting of a single emotional state. This may help explain the piano part’s resemblance to that of an operatic vocal score.
Debussy’s five settings of poems by Paul Bourget all date from the six months between September 1883 and February 1884, and all come from Bourget’s volume Les aveux, published in 1882 and his farewell to poetry before he turned to novel-writing. All five were included in the manuscript book of songs Debussy dedicated to Mme Vasnier. In Musique regularity is broken harmonically, with an unexpected chord on ‘Brillaient’, and twice rhythmically with a stilling of the right-hand figure that gives emphasis to the accompanying words. Repeated pairs of harmonies conjure up silence in the Romance ‘Silence ineffable de l’heure’, in contrast to which the piano’s short–long–short patterns add intensity to the middle section. The title Paysage sentimental has nothing to do with sentimentality, the adjective referring instead to the conceit that the scenery reflects, or may even inspire, the emotions of the two lovers—a notion omnipresent in the Verlaine poems which Debussy had already begun to set. The two words ‘heureux mélancoliquement’ underline the dual, conflicted nature of the lover’s feelings, prefigured in the piano’s opening minor 3rd and 6th within the major mode. Mme Vasnier’s stratospheric abilities are again given free rein at the end of La romance d’Ariel, while the greater harmonic richness of Regret already points the way towards the deeper response Debussy was to make to Verlaine over the next twenty years.
Once the liaison with Blanche Vasnier came to an end with Debussy’s departure for Rome in 1885, he does not seem ever to have written songs for any singer in particular, even if he was extremely choosy over who should premiere them. La Belle au Bois dormant of 1890 is another ballad on the lines of Les Elfes, although far more tightly constructed. Debussy gives the song a mythical, antique flavour by using the folk song ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’ eight times in the accompaniment—the earliest of the tune’s four appearances in Debussy’s œuvre. By 1903, when he wrote Dans le jardin to a commission by the poet and actor Paul Gravollet for the volume Les frissons (to which twenty-one other composers also contributed, including Ravel, d’Indy and Widor), he was still basking in the success of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande the previous year. The conversational style of this all-too-rarely performed song harks back to that of the opera, as do the fluid tempi—twelve different ones in under three minutes.
In Auprès de cette grotte sombre, composed the following year to words by the seventeenth-century poet Tristan L’Hermite, we can feel a classicizing tendency that reminds us how struck Debussy had been in Rome by hearing the music of Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina. This song 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 1910 Debussy added two more songs by Tristan L’Hermite, dedicating the set of three—under the title Le promenoir des deux amants—to his second wife Emma. All are of an exquisite beauty. But can we also detect in the later two a note of pleading? The first half of that year was a time of crisis in their marriage, not helped by Emma’s poor health and the presence of her mother in the marital home. Certainly, as tokens of continuing love, these two songs would be hard to improve on. Modality signals Debussy’s return to the past, combining with a Massenet-like gentleness—on the final line of Je tremble en voyant ton visage the piano part is marked aussi doux que possible. It is good to know that the crisis passed.
Roger Nichols © 2014
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