January 22, 2018

Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

4. The Chattering Mandolin

I’m torn.

It’s hard to choose an angle from which to view Debussy’s exuberant song, Mandoline.
Shall it be the commedia dell’arte characters who inspired the painter Antoine Watteau to capture on canvas this beautiful, nocturnal scene of masqueraders, poets and musicians in sweet poses, amid ancient ruins?

The young Verlaine

Or that these paintings inspired symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to pursue these amorous, nocturnal liaisons in his tender, musical verse?

Debussy at age 20

Or perhaps, we could just say how Debussy, at age 20, turned this scene—with chattering mandolin, twirling dancers, moonlight and silk—into a painting for the ear and created a completely new sounding song while he was at it, unlike anything that had come before it?

So you see what I’m up against.

Or we could hear the mandolin tunings, and the plucked sonorities in Debussy’s piano writing.

Madame Vasnier

Or even jump shift to consider Debussy’s lover, Madame Vasnier, a singer 14 years his senior, and married. (He’s 18 when they meet.) For it was she who inspired him to write songs, and to whom he dedicated a whole volume before leaving for Villa Medici after having won the Prix de Rome. Mandoline was among them. The dedication reads: “To Madame Vasnier, These songs that lived only through her and that will lose their charming grace if they nevermore issue from her melodious, fairy mouth, the eternally grateful author.”

I for one am grateful, eternally, to simply have a promenade around this lovely work of art. Join me, as we stroll under a pink and grey moon, listening to the chattering mandolin, among the soft blue shadows of this song.



Those who serenade,

And the lovely listeners

Exchange empty words

Under the singing branches.


There is Tircis and Aminte

And there’s the eternal Clitandre,

And there’s Damis who, for many a cruel woman,

penned many tender verses.


Their short silk vests,

Their long dresses with trains,

Their elegance, their joy

And their soft blue shadows,


Whirl around in the ecstasy

Of a pink and grey moon,

And the mandolin chatters

Amid the shivering breezes.

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