BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France
DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris, France
WORLD PREMIERE: Debussy accompanied soprano Jane Bathori in what might have been the first public performance, on December 21, 1916
INSTRUMENTATION: Voice and piano
DURATION: About 3 mins
Debussy’s production of some eighty art songs—mélodies, to use the French term—stretched from 1875 (when he was thirteen) to 1915 (three years before his death), but almost half of them date from before 1885. The practical explanation is that during his journeyman years Debussy earned an important part of his living as piano accompanist for a voice teacher, Mme. Moreau-Sainti; and then when he was eighteen, he became infatuated with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a thirty-two-year-old, married coloratura soprano who was studying in the studio. She would eventually prove to be the inspiration for twenty-seven mélodies by Debussy.
The poems for many of Debussy’s songs come from great names of nineteenth-century French poetry, including Alfred de Musset, Théodore de Banville, Théophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs, Stéphane Mallarmé, and, perhaps most significantly, Paul Verlaine.
Debussy’s final song Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons (1915), set to words by the composer, is worlds away from the fragrant sensuality of his Verlaine or Mallarmé settings. The song is a statement against the atrocities of World War I, for which Debussy adopts the breathless, pleading voice of a child.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.
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