Blog

Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

5. RAIN

 

I like rain.

Actually, it would be more true to say I love rain. But then again, I am not prone to too much melancholy, except the seasonal, almost pleasant kind. So truth to tell, leaden skies, wind-blown sheets of rain, splashing cars, puddled pavements – for me, these only soothe.

 

I have discovered while immersing myself in a book of Debussy’s letters that unlike me, Debussy was prone to melancholy…or worse. Here he is writing to Ernest Chausson on a Sunday afternoon in July, 1893:

I really must settle down and write to you – not that I don’t want to, but I’m hopelessly depressed and it seems not the quiet moment to burden you with my feelings… I try and work like a navvy, but can’t manage to overcome this black melancholy which makes me dissatisfied with everything I write. I daresay it’s only a black patch I just have to get through, but what makes it worse is that it means fighting against myself, and that’s a battle I don’t always win.

Indeed, Debussy’s letters are peppered throughout with musical projects taken up then cast aside, never to be developed, much less finished. Intriguing, exciting, curious projects. One can’t help but sigh at the loss.

At times I’m so completely laid low that when the time comes to write I say to myself: “what’s the point?” There’s nothing anyone can do to rescue me. I must just quietly stay in my corner and put up with the misery that most people find incomprehensible.

Debussy wrote this early on. It was from Rome in November of 1885, when he was 23. Though he complained bitterly that he could produce little of value while in Rome, in fact, he had begun a group of songs: “Ariettes oubliées,” (Forgotten songs). These would number among his most performed, most beloved – most remembered.

 

Here, as he complains in his letters even about the weather in Rome, Debussy takes up the verse of Paul Verlaine and begins his work on quite a remarkable song; Il pleure dans mon cœur, Comme il pleut sur la ville  (It is weeping in my heart, like it rains in the city). For this composer who once said “You learn orchestration far better by listening to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind than by consulting handbooks,” the task seemed to have been to compose the menacing spatter of rain on rooftops, while simultaneously giving voice to the soul that bears a weary, despairing heart.

 

* * *

I have always found something so indescribably arresting about this particular song. See if it is not the same for you. Here are two versions: Frederica von Stade with Martin Katz at the piano to start, in a beautiful modern performance, followed by Mary Garden with Debussy himself accompanying her in 1904. Try as I might, I could find no modern recording that races through the song at Debussy’s anxious and disquieting tempo.

 

 

 

It weeps in my heart

like it rains in the city:

What is this languor

That penetrates my heart?

 

O sweet falling rain,

over earth and over roofs!

For a heart in weary pain,

O song of the rain!

 

It rains without cause

in this numb, cold heart.

What — no treason or loss?

This grief is without cause.

 

It is truly the worst pain

when, without knowing why,

without love and without hate,

my heart has so much pain.

  – Paul Verlaine

 

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.

 

Mandoline

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.

Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

 

 

3. DEBUSSY, VOYAGER

contributed by Rachel Kesselman

 

Friday night, over an apéritif, I hear the question again:

Et alors, pourquoi tu es venue en France ? So, why did you come to France?

It is a question that naturally rises to the surface after a few introductory exchanges, one whose innocence both comforts and disturbs me. It signifies that the conversation is evolving at an appropriate pace, yet this question, this seemingly normal question, feels too consequential for a cocktail hour. It is a key question in the narrative of my life, one whose answer eludes me. I pause and look down at my glass.

“I thought I would find a more artistic people in France. A people who spoke my language.”

I get a laugh from my French company when I say this, but this time I am too distracted to pursue its meaning. I am directed to an elsewhere far away from the present chatter, from the fragrant bottle of Bordeaux.

The conversation moves on, then, to other things, and I am left dreaming of memories in search of a better answer. Why am I here? I see myself five years ago in the Music Room of Goodhart Hall, singing my senior recital. In this performance, I am traveling. I am enveloped in the snow globes of French mélodies; I am in the other world that Debussy seemed to have so loved himself, a world of pleasure.

The first Debussy mélodie I ever studied was “En Sourdine.” Verlaine’s poem shimmers even more mysteriously in Debussy’s setting, filled with nuance and a haunting climax. We’re first presented a scene of shadows and silence, an enticing invitation to pleasure. The speaker wants his lover to join this other world with him, in their love:

Calm in the half-light

That the high branches make,

Let us soak well our love

In this profound silence.

A series of imperatives follows, as the speaker tries to become one with the overwhelming beauty of nature around him. There is a desperation in his chase, a longing to return to some pure, natural state away from the banalities of human existence. Here, he and his lover will be safe from worry, from plans, from anything that might distract them from delight. In Debussy’s music, we feel the desire build and build in crescendo:

Let us mingle our souls, our hearts

And our ecstatic senses

Among the vague languors

Of the pines and the bushes.

Close your eyes halfway,

Cross your arms over your breast,

And from your sleeping heart

Chase away forever all plans.

Let us abandon ourselves

To the breeze, rocking and soft,

Which comes to your feet to wrinkle

The waves of auburn grass.

The dissonances in Debussy’s interpretation already give us a foreshadowing of what is to come. Night will fall. Human beings will become blind to the wonders in the forest. All we are left with is the song of the nightingale, “the voice of our despair”:

And when, solemnly, the evening

From the black oaks falls,

The voice of our despair,

The nightingale will sing.

For me, a key element of this poetry’s beauty is its acknowledgment that existence is always a little dissatisfying. The ability to admit, and thus truly feel the exquisite anguish of life and its temporary pleasures: this experience was something that always made me feel a little alien back home. As a college student dreaming of my future life, France was the magical place that understood me; it was Verlaine’s forest.

Back at the cocktail party, I realize that this state of longing that led me to Paris had little to do with the specific place of France. Rather, it was a symptom of being an artist: one who travels, in both imagination and reality, to foreign lands, searching. The restlessness Verlaine expresses is, after all, the single greatest motivator for creation. And so humanity contributes its own beauty alongside the natural world. And so we have Debussy’s stunning mélodies.

 

 

Rachel Kesselman is an alumna of Bryn Mawr College, class of 2012, where she double majored in French and English. She now lives in Paris where she is at work on a memoir and teaches English at a French high school.

 

 

 

Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

2. A VERY STRANGE MAN?

“I honestly don’t know if Debussy ever loved anybody really. He loved his music – and perhaps himself. I think he was wrapped up in his genius…. He was a very, very strange man.”

—Mary Garden, who premiered Mélisande in the original production of Pelléas et Mélisande

 

So, how strange was this very, very strange man?

A few bare and random facts:

– Claude Debussy lived a Bohemian life, for much of it, anyway.

– He was the oldest of five children and grew up in Paris. There is no traceable artistic talent in his ancestry.

– His father was imprisoned, and his mother educated him at home.

– His talent, recognized by age 10, gained him admittance into the Paris Conservatory. An evaluation at age 12 included this note: “Charming child, true temperament of an artist; will become a distinguished musician; a great future.” At age 17, another one said this: “Extremely gifted in harmony, but desperately careless.”

– He won the Prix de Rome and claimed he was utterly miserable in the Eternal City for two years. He did not warm to his fellow musicians and claimed he could produce little of value. (From a letter of 1886: “My fellow students have come to regard me with a certain animosity. They accuse me, unfairly, of trying to parade my individuality, or else they philosophize all over me in a style which, I dare say, they picked up in the bars on the boulevard Saint-Michel….”)

– In Rome he kept up correspondence with Eugène Vasnier, a friend and wealthy building contractor, with whose wife he was having an affair. In fact, Debussy would have several tempestuous affairs, with women married and not, before settling down to a “respectable life,” yet one that still could not give him peace.

– His letters reveal him to have been a friend of poets, painters, composers and musicians. He valued those with whom he had “artistic sympathies.”

– They also reveal that he compartmentalized his friendships, had quite the acerbic tongue, and not a little ill humor. But this is only part of a big story. What is ultimately revealed is a composer who had complete clarity of vision for the music he wanted to write. And that music was a complete departure from the status quo. On this point Debussy was unbending: “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”

* * *

Here then, are two songs sung by soprano Mary Garden, the very same one whose words opened today’s blog.

The first is Debussy’s earliest published song, Beau soir, recorded here in 1929.

And for the second, by the miracle of YouTube, you can hear Debussy at the piano, as the two performed together one of his finest songs, Green, from his spectacular Ariettes oubliées, written during his stay in Rome. The recording is from 1904.

Enjoy!

 

Beau soir (1880 – written when Debussy was 18)

When streams turn pink in the setting sun,

And a slight shudder rushes through the wheat fields,

A plea for happiness seems to rise out of all things

And it climbs up towards the troubled heart.

A plea to relish the charm of life

While there is youth and the evening is fair,

For we pass away, as the wave passes:

The wave to the sea, we to the grave.

—Paul Bourget

 

 

Green (from Ariettes oubliées, composed mostly in Rome in 1886, completed in Paris in March 1887)

Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and some branches,

And then here is my heart, which beats only for you.

Do not tear it apart with your two white hands,

And may the humble present be sweet in your beautiful eyes!

 

I arrive all covered in dew,

The morning wind chills it upon my forehead.

Suffer my weariness as I repose at your feet,

Dreaming of the hour that will refresh me.

 

On your young breast allow my head to rest,

Still ringing with your last kisses;

Till it recover from the stormy thrill,

And let me sleep a little, since you rest.

—Paul Verlaine

Lyric Fest Presents Claude Debussy: Biography in Music

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact: Robert Rimm
r.rimm@88keys.com
215.870.8800

 Lyric Fest Presents
Claude Debussy: Biography in Music

Saturday, February 10, 2018 at 4 PM
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

8855 Germantown Avenue • Philadelphia

 

Sunday, February 11, 2018 at 3 PM
The Academy of Vocal Arts

1920 Spruce Street • Philadelphia

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA – January 11, 2018

Continuing its 15th-anniversary season, Lyric Fest presents the latest in its spirited biography series in a program featuring the fascinating life, tempestuous times and sublime songs of one of the greatest song composers, Claude Debussy.

 

Narrating and reading from Debussy’s letters—interspersed with the music—will be Lyric Fest’s composer-in-residence Benjamin C.S. Boyle, who himself has composed a compelling repertoire of art songs and is immersed in the world of Debussy, Paris and the French literary tradition.

 

“Every Biography in Music program we do is unique, but the heart and soul of them all is to give an understanding of the composer behind the music, and to deepen our appreciation of the music we love,” shares Lyric Fest’s co-Artistic Director Suzanne DuPlantis. “Debussy’s music is hard not to love, but what was it that made his sound so recognizable and sublime? These programs explore such aspects while providing context. So many times the circumstances, quirks and synchronicities that make up a life are fascinating to ponder, which makes for a fascinating program!”

 

The celebrated artists featured in these concerts are sopranos Amy Burton and Rebecca Myers, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Laura Ward. The concert’s running time is approximately 2 hours.

 

Details on the concert season, featured artists and more may be found at www.lyricfest.org.

 

Lyric Fest’s mission is to bring people together through the shared experience of song by offering to diverse audiences lively, theme-oriented voice recitals designed to engage, educate, stimulate dialogue and foster community. LF is committed to expanding the region’s interest in and knowledge of song as an important and relevant art form, and to access through affordable ticket prices. With a growing national reputation for excellence and innovation, LF receives critical acclaim and attention in a number of national publications such as Opera News.

 

Lyric Fest’s recording, “Daron Hagen: 21st-Century Song Cycles,” has recently been released by Naxos and additional recordings are forthcoming.

 

Lyric Fest was founded in 2003 by three Philadelphia-area musicians: mezzo-soprano DuPlantis, pianist Ward and soprano Randi Marrazzo, with the shared goal of celebrating and revitalizing the song tradition. It has produced and presented over 100 concerts and recitals featuring more than 200 local, regional and national artists, actors, dancers and choral groups.

 

# # #

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: