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.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2012