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Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire, L70
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'Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1' (CDA67357)
Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1
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No 1: Le balcon  Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses
No 2: Harmonie du soir  Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur la tige
No 3: Le jet d'eau  Tes beaux yeux sont las, pauvre amante!
No 4: Recueillement  Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille
No 5: La mort des amants  Nous aurons des lits pleins d'odeurs légères

Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire, L70
The late 1880s are a period of Debussy’s life of which we know less than we might like. In 1884 he had won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue and on 28 January 1885 he boarded a train for the Eternal City. Distraught at leaving Marie Vasnier and already practising his act as a social misfit or ‘bear’, he soldiered on through two years of internment but was back in Paris in early March 1887. Here began what are generally known as his ‘bohemian years’, marked by insecurities personal, financial and musical. But he continued working and during that year finished the songs later published as Ariettes oubliées and began both his ‘lyric poem’ on Rossetti’s La damoiselle élue and, in December, his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. His return to Paris also brought him into contact with the music of Wagner which, though still shunned by the opera houses, was winning enthusiastic converts through the performance of ‘bleeding chunks’ in the concert halls. Like many other composers of the time, Debussy made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth, in 1888 to hear Parsifal and Die Meistersinger and in 1889 to hear Tristan. Most of the Cinq poèmes bear witness to the impact of Wagner’s music, something Debussy never quite shook off, though later he buried it as deeply underground as he could.

But for the moment the Wagnerian influence is plain to hear: in the chromatic harmony, in the continually interrupted cadences, in the widely arching melody lines of both voice and piano, and in the sheer complexity of the keyboard writing. Le balcon is by some way Debussy’s longest song, the voice riding over the rich piano textures in truly Wagnerian fashion. On the technical front, we may note how Debussy deals with Baudelaire’s repetition of the opening line at the end of each of the six stanzas: the voice echoes the opening almost exactly, while the piano’s figurations and harmonies are different—until the last stanza, when the voice mirrors Baudelaire’s change from ‘Ces serments’ to ‘Ô serments’, before voice and piano finally come together for an exact repeat of the opening harmony on ‘ô baisers infinis’. This shows how sensitive Debussy was in this extended song to the double need of recapitulation/confirmation and of forward movement.

The idea that Debussy was positively attracted by the formal problem of Le balcon is supported by his choice for the second song, Harmonie du soir. Here Baudelaire borrows a Malay verse form, the pantoum (used later by Ravel in the second movement of his Piano Trio) in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the next. It has to be said though that Baudelaire has made life relatively easy for himself by dealing almost entirely in self-contained lines—every line after the first ends with some kind of punctuation mark. Debussy follows suit, giving the repeated line the same contour as the first but in general altering the pitch and the underlying harmony. The mood of this exceptionally beautiful song is already characteristic of the mature Debussy. He finished it in January 1889 and we can hear how, in the year from writing Le balcon in January 1888, Debussy has begun to absorb the Wagnerian elements into his own style: the piano writing in particular is clearer and cleaner, with more space round the notes.

The central Le jet d’eau stands in marked contrast to its surroundings. Perhaps Debussy felt some respite was needed from the Wagnerian fumes. In some passages we can hear prefigured the light, airy atmosphere of the fountain scene (Act II scene 1) of Pelléas et Mélisande—and even more so in the orchestration Debussy made of the song in 1907—and water figuration in the piano permeates the whole song. Debussy gives the singer the same music for each refrain, again with differences in the piano part. This simple yet deeply touching song requires no learned expositions. Suffice to say that the refrain Debussy sets is not the one Baudelaire published in his 1868 edition of Les fleurs du mal but a variant found in La petite revue of 8 July 1865, underlining the extent to which Debussy was versed in Symbolist literature. Interestingly, he also changes one word (elsewhere Baudelaire’s text is rigorously observed—no ‘la-la-la’s here), substituting his ‘pâleurs’ for the poet’s ‘lueurs’. But this still obeys musical principles of assonance: whereas ‘lueurs’ looked back to ‘lune’, ‘pâleurs’ looks forward to ‘pleurs’.

We have no more precise date for Recueillement than the year 1889, but the harmonies of the opening suggest that he wrote it after seeing Tristan at Bayreuth that summer. However, on the word ‘voici’ we move into a rather different nightscape, owing perhaps less to Wagner than to Chabrier, and in particular that of ‘Sous bois’ from the Pièces pittoresques. But the join is expertly crafted, as are subsequent ones between these two worlds. It is as if Debussy realised that his future lay in combining Wagner with the peculiarly sensitive sensuousness of the French tradition. At all events it is an astonishing song for a 27-year-old who only five years earlier had still been subscribing to the style of the romance, and not the least astonishing thing about it is his control of rhythm. Thanks to the combination of duplets and triplets throughout, when we reach the last line we realise we have already been listening to ‘the tread of gentle Night’.

Finally La mort des amants was the song with which Debussy began the cycle in December 1887. We must assume that he wanted to close on the more settled tone of this song, where the discourse is logically guided by the opening little idée fixe in the accompaniment—a cousin of that in his piano piece Clair de lune—and the prevalence of balanced two- and four-bar phrases constrains the sense of flux characteristic of the Wagnerian elements elsewhere. At the same time there are moments when the interest passes unambiguously to the piano, with the voice fitting in syllables as best it may.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2003

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