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!’
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2012