No 1: Les ingénus Les hauts talons luttaient avec les longues jupes
No 2: Le faune Un vieux faune de terre cuite
No 3: Colloque sentimental Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Perhaps the most curious thing about the poem of Les ingénus is the ultimate confusion between singular and plural. Until the final line, the male watchers and the ladies with flashing heels and white necks have been a corporate body—possibly one of those discreetly erotic encounters painted by Watteau. But with the words ‘Que notre âme (singular) depuis ce temps tremble et s’étonne’ confusion is sown. Do all the male watchers share a single soul? Or is the poet the only one afflicted with trembling and astonishment? Or is the plural, as applied to the watchers, merely a poetic device, as it were a royal plural, obscuring the fact that the poet has been the only watcher of these tempting damsels? This might seem a far-fetched point, were it not that it is precisely on the words ‘Que notre’ that Debussy for the first time stills the regular movement of semiquavers, allowing the words to be heard unhindered. Whatever the truth, the title (‘The Innocents’), being masculine, applies to the watcher(s), so that Verlaine seems to be warning against women’s wiles. A suitable sentiment to set before one’s new mistress?
Le faune is hardly more enticing. The ‘unhappy sequel to these moments of calm’ predicted by the faun turned out to be all too real since, although Debussy’s second marriage lasted, there was many a stormy moment; and was Emma happy to be addressed as a ‘melancholy pilgrim’? After a brief descending figure, to be played ‘like a flute’, a two-note ostinato taps its way throughout the song, impervious to the harmonies above it. The astonishingly dissonant final chord delineates no firm key, as the song delivers no firm message. We even have to wait till the final word to find out that all this time the ostinato has represented the sound of tambourines. This may be one of the ‘lamentable’ genre of song about which Chabrier complained so bitterly, but certainly we’re a long way here from sloppy evocations of April and May.
Finally Colloque sentimental, Debussy’s last Verlaine song, has specific and depressing things to say about love and its possible outcomes. If the two-note ostinato in Le faune represented fate through the mediation of the mandolin, in the central section here the unrelenting A flats have no material connotation; they are an immovable psychological rock (the unloving ghost’s obduracy? the unloved ghost’s bleak future?) upon which a whole armoury of chromatic chords breaks in vain. Equally impotent to move the A flat are the five reminiscences of the nightingale’s song from the first song of the first set of Fêtes galantes, En sourdine, where the song is identified as ‘voice of our despair’. Or are these reminiscences of despair in league with the A flat? The nightingale is heard again in the narrator’s brief coda. For all the song’s crepuscular tone, it is only with the words ‘Et la nuit seule’ that we know for sure this is a night scene—and it is precisely on these words that the nightingale begins its final song, ‘night’ here representing not Tristanesque passion but emptiness and, effectively, death. Emma Bardac’s response to the dedication of this cycle is not recorded.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2003