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.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2012