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Trois Ballades de François Villon, L126
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'Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1' (CDA67357)
Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1
No 1: Ballade de Villon à s'amye  Faulse beauté, qui tant me couste cher
No 2: Ballade que Villon feit à la requeste de sa mère  Dame du ciel, régente terrienne
No 3: Ballade des femmes de Paris  Quoy qu'on tient belles langagières

Trois Ballades de François Villon, L126
Debussy had never been a supporter of things modern, whether in life or music, nor of group movements, whether invoking patriotism or -isms of a more artistic kind, and after Pelléas and his fortieth birthday he increasingly retired into a world of the mind where he was free to take his own decisions. One aspect of what today would be termed his ‘elitism’ was his turning to poets of bygone ages: Tristan l’Hermite from the seventeenth century and Charles d’Orléans and François Villon from the fifteenth. As with his passion for Rameau, his attraction to these poets spoke of a desire to avoid German excess (and this comes out from his newspaper articles well before World War I) and to pare his music down to a greater simplicity even than in his settings of Verlaine. His Trois ballades de François Villon of 1910 especially subscribe to Verdi’s dictum that in order to go forward into the future one has to go back into the past.

The most noticeable change for the listener is perhaps the absence of lushness in the piano parts. Textures have hardened and sharpened—as Ravel’s piano textures would do in the Valses nobles et sentimentales written a year later—and the discourse is conducted with a kind of mannered rigour that looks ahead to the Neoclassical style of the 1920s. In the Ballade de Villon à s’amye the stabbing short-long rhythms in the piano part contribute to the ‘expression as much of anguish as of regret’ that Debussy asks for. The tempo too is fluid, never settling for long, as the lover seeks consolation for his torment. This consolation comes only with the last three chords, where Debussy indeed goes back to the past: to modality, and to the major chord ending a piece in the minor, the ancient tierce de Picardie.

Modality and sparse textures also mark the second song, Villon’s prayer to the Virgin. But this is the modality of a modern monk who is at home with the Internet and the mobile phone. The music, gliding silkily into harmonic regions undreamt of by Palestrina, seems so deeply spiritual that we are forced to wonder whether, as stated above, the composer was indeed an unbeliever. The answer is, yes, he was. But he was also the possessor of those two sovereign qualities called technique and imagination. Not surprisingly, given that this is a prayer, the vocal lines lie in that peculiarly Debussyan territory charted in Pelléas, somewhere between aria and recitative, with plainsong not far in the background. Debussy observes the law of diminishing returns in the touches of colour he introduces: arpeggios for ‘harps’, a surprise G flat major chord (marqué) at the point where the damned are ‘boiled’.

Finally the Ballade des femmes de Paris is another exercise in reviving the past, incorporating the culmination of the chanson style we heard in L’échelonnement des haies, and perhaps before that in Mandoline. No hint of plainsong here, but a vivid stylisation of the rhythms and cadences of French speech, exaggerated to a point just this side of vulgarity. Villon’s drunken and rumbustuous lifestyle was not Debussy’s, but it’s hard not to hear some faint echo of sympathy for an artist who was both free spirit and superb craftsman. This dichotomy can be heard in the song’s structure, with the verses running off into distant keys, only to be brought back each time by the word ‘Paris’ to the tonic E major. It can also be heard throughout Debussy’s œuvre, the work of a genius perpetually torn between those poles identified by Apollinaire as ‘Order’ and ‘Adventure’.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2003

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Details for CDA67357 track 21
Ballade des femmes de Paris
Recording date
25 July 2001
Recording venue
Champs Hill, West Sussex, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1 (CDA67357)
    Disc 1 Track 21
    Release date: January 2003
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