Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

1. THE ALLURE OF THREE 

There is something so satisfying about the number three. Not too much, not too little. It says it all, or somehow all that needs to be said, anyway. I was thinking about this, and about the distilled perfection of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, a three-song cycle with its titillating encounter, erotic consummation and, finally (how could it be otherwise?), its icy parting. Chansons de Bilitis was the first song cycle that Laura and I ever did together, so we consider these songs to be old friends. It’s amazing after many years to revisit Debussy and Pierre Louÿs’s love tale. Never mind that the poetry—taken from 144 poems touted by Louÿs to be translations of a newly discovered Greek poetess and contemporary of Sappho—was a ginormous hoax! Satyrs or no, the story is sad, but essentially true.

 

The first encounter goes like this:

A young girl, alone in the forest, is enticed by a man to sit on his knee, as he teaches her to play the “Flute of Pan.” The flute tastes sweet like honey, and on it, their lips meet. How will her mother ever believe that she has stayed in the forest so long, in search of her lost belt?

 

The consummation follows:

The man describes to the girl in sensual, unhurried detail the dream that he has just had: her hair was wrapped around his neck and lay on his chest, becoming like his very own. Thus they were joined forever as one tress, mouth on mouth, limbs entwined, and she entered him, like his dream. After recounting this dream, he places his hands on her shoulders and gazes at her with a look so tender that she lowers her eyes with a shiver.

 

A cold parting:

It is winter and the girl trudges through the forest. Strands of her hair are coated with icicles and hang before her open mouth. Her sandals are caked with snow. The man almost barks at her: “What are you looking for?” Pathetically the girl says she is following the tiny footprints of the satyrs in the snow. “The satyrs and the nymphs are dead,” he says with no inflection. “Look, here is their tomb.” And with that, he breaks a large piece of ice from the spring where the nymphs used to play, and holds it up to the pale sky to gaze through.

* * *

And just like that, in three perfect songs, each about three minutes long, we have a complete tale of love—found, consummated… and frozen over.

Here is Régine Crespin, recorded live in 1969, to tell the tale: