Hyperion Records

Chansons de Bilitis, L97
author of text
published in 1895 as Les chansons de Bilitis, 'translated from the Greek for the first time by PL'

'Debussy: Songs, Vol. 2' (CDA67883)
Debussy: Songs, Vol. 2
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No 1: La flûte de Pan  Pour le jour des Hyacinthies
No 2: La chevelure  Il m'a dit: «Cette nuit, j'ai rêvé.»
No 3: Le tombeau des naïades  Le long du bois couvert de givre

Chansons de Bilitis, L97
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.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2012

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