Hyperion Records

Fêtes galantes II, L114
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'Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1' (CDA67357)
Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67357 
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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

Fêtes galantes II, L114
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In 1891/2 Debussy set three further Verlaine poems before temporarily abandoning verse settings for prose ones. Then, after the première of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, he published these three songs in 1903 as the first set of Fêtes galantes and added a second set of three the following year. These were his final encounter with the poet whose words had inspired him to write nineteen songs in the space of twenty-two years. As with his songs for Marie Vasnier, this second set of Fêtes galantes has links with Debussy’s own life. He had married in 1899, but the union was not a happy one for him. In 1904 he met Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and Fauré’s ex-mistress, and fell in love. They lived together until Debussy’s death, getting married in 1908. Debussy dedicated two song cycles of 1904 to his new mistress: the Trois chansons de France, published in May 1904, to ‘Mme. S. Bardac’; the second set of Fêtes galantes, published in September, to ‘Emma Bardac’. The change in nomenclature would seem to speak for itself. Nevertheless this second dedication has its puzzling side. None of the three songs is a love song in the accepted sense, while the last one is calculated to put off the most ardent aspirant to a composer’s affections.

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

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