Mélodies II: Debussy in Pamphylia – the later works

From Javanese gamelan music to the ‘Songs of Bilitis’ …

By John Shakespeare Dyson | April 29, 2020

This is Part B of the second phase of Mélodies: Debussy in Pamphylia, Fauré in Isfahan, Reynaldo Hahn in Istanbul, a serialised blog intended to keep people’s minds off their troubles while they are in isolation. This one continues an account of the chansons – art songs – of Achille-Claude Debussy (1862–1918). Part A dealt with the songs Debussy wrote before 1894, the year in which he finished Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’). I will now take up the story from that point in his career. Sadly, it is my duty to report that the theme of insincerity, which sullied the previous portion of this account with its miasma of mendacity, is to continue.

Once again, I will remind the reader that English translations by Richard Stokes of many of Debussy’s songs are available on the Oxford Lieder website. Here is a link: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/composers

I will begin by setting the scene. 1894 was a landmark year in the history of music, for it was then that Debussy produced Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a symphonic poem for orchestra inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of the same name. This hugely influential work has justly been described as ‘the beginning of modern music’. The Prélude was in fact the composer’s announcement to the world that a successful piece of music could be written without any of the cut-and-dried ‘development sections’ and ‘recapitulations of the main theme’ of traditional sonata form. If you had sufficient creative talent to come up with a successful concept for a piece that entirely ignored these formal restrictions, you could still produce a work that was perfectly satisfactory from the musical point of view.

Debussy was a composer who invented new concepts. I would go so far as to say that when listening to those of his works that were written after Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, you need to accept that a change of timbre, or of mood, can be the equivalent of a ‘new section’, whether or not the material in this ‘new section’ has any relation to what has come before. (I can hear the musicologists sharpening their tuning forks at this, and eyeing the space above my shirt collar.) If I may stick my already over-extended neck out a little further, I would say that with this piece Debussy invented – at a stroke – both 20th-century cinema music, which was to rely heavily on his chordal innovations, and New Age. He was not the pioneer who first cut a trail through the unyielding undergrowth of classical form (that honour must go Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), but he was the first to bring the ideas mooted by Rimsky-Korsakov fully into the realm of concrete reality.

(Psst! Astrological heads-up: it is entirely appropriate that Rimsky-Korsakov, a sun-sign Pisces and a ship’s captain who circumnavigated the globe, and is therefore doubly a child of the sea-god Neptune, should have been responsible – together with Debussy, composer of La Mer, Reflets dans l’eau, Poissons d’or, Jardins sous la pluie and other water-themed compositions – for leading music in a less rigidly form-based, more imaginative direction. Neptune, the ‘higher arc’ of Venus, rules Music – as well as Vagueness and… Deception. Is there an echo of a familiar theme here?)    

Why do I begin with this aside, seemingly of no relevance to Debussy’s songs? Because we need to understand that from this point on Achille-Claude is no longer a composer whose chansons consist of repetitions of the main theme interspersed with episodes (this being the time-honoured formula). Now he is The Cat That Walked By Himself, and will do exactly as he pleases, when he pleases. If he wishes, he will build the music up to a climax not three-quarters of the way through the piece, as prescribed by established practice, but in the first 30 seconds. When writing a song he will go in whatever direction he thinks the words demand. Period.

Not only this, but there are entirely new elements in his music that come from a completely unexpected direction. In 1889 he attended the Paris World Exposition. There he heard a Javanese gamelan – a musical ensemble consisting of a variety of bells, gongs, metallophones and xylophones, sometimes accompanied by vocals. ‘Cool sounds, man!’ he exclaimed (in the parlance of his time), and promptly resolved to incorporate them into his own compositions.

Here are a couple of samples of Indonesian music. The second, which is more authentically Javanese, is rather long, so don’t feel you have to listen to the end:


Here is Pagodes (‘Pagodas’), from Debussy’s Estampes, played by Peter Frankl:

We now move on in time to 1897, the year when Achille-Claude – now famous thanks to the success of the Prélude – began setting to music three prose-poems from Chansons de Bilitis, by his friend Pierre Louÿs, that had appeared in print three years previously. Louÿs had perpetrated a successful scam, pretending that something he had in fact written himself was a translation of a work ‘discovered’ on the walls of the tomb of a lady called Bilitis, a contemporary of Sappho who had supposedly lived in Pamphylia, Mytilene and Cyprus in the sixth century BC. Bilitis was claimed to have spent her childhood in Pamphylia – the region around today’s Antalya – and subsequently to have gone off to Mytilene, where she acquired a female lover, Mnasidika (try rolling that one round your tongue – one wonders what sounds Bilitis emitted when calling to her partner from the kitchen). Following this, her life had ended in disillusion and disappointment as a courtesan in Cyprus.

Louÿs’ forgery was good enough to deceive people for quite some time. Even after the truth of the matter had come to light, however, people still admired his sequence of 153 prose poems for their literary qualities. Wikipedia says the work ‘was praised for its sensuality and refined style, even more extraordinary for the author’s compassionate portrayal of lesbian sexuality’. It comes as no surprise to learn that Louÿs was gay. Oscar Wilde dedicated his play Salomé to him. Another of Louÿs’s acquaintances was André Gide, the author and gay activitist to whom Debussy dedicated his Bilitis song cycle.

It seems, however, that neither Louÿs nor Gide had been of the same gender orientation earlier in life. Wikipedia notes the following:    

In 1894 Louÿs, travelling in Italy with his friend Ferdinand Hérold, met André Gide, who described how he had just lost his virginity to a Berber girl named Meriem in the oasis resort-town of Biskra in Algeria; Gide urged his friends to go to Biskra and follow his example. The ‘Songs of Bilitis’ are the result of Louÿs and Hérold’s shared encounter with Meriem the dancing-girl, and the poems are dedicated to Gide with a special mention to ‘M.b.A’, Meriem ben Atala.

Whatever may have been the circumstances in which the Chansons de Bilitis were written, they certainly fired Debussy up: his settings of three of them have long been on my list of Desert Island Discs favourites. In my teenage years I had a record of Victoria de los Ángeles, accompanied by Gonzalo Soriano, singing French songs by various composers. These included Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis. When I eventually purchased the score and tried the pieces out with a friendly soprano, however, I found that the piano part gives the singer no help whatsoever. Quite the reverse, in fact. Especially in the last one, the chromatic, somewhat monotonous vocal line is left to fend for itself while the accompanment steals the show. Strangely, though, this produces a hypnotic effect that is entirely appropriate to Louÿs’ dream-like evocations of a classical landscape inhabited by mythical creatures.

The first song of the three, La flûte de Pan, is in Debussy’s modal style – the pastoral mood that also informs his piano piece Le Petit Berger (‘The Little Shepherd’) from ‘Children’s Corner’ (1908), his Syrinx (1913) for solo flute – and, indeed, Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune. The second tells the story of an orgasm. When the point of no return is finally reached, however, the pianist has another form of climax to occupy her or his mind, being required to leap up from a plain octave E sharp in the bass to an ultra-dense chord higher up the keyboard that ties down nine fingers at once. In the third, Bilitis walks through a frost-encrusted wood until she reaches a place where some mysterious unnamed figure – most likely Pan – shows her the tomb of the naiads. All these river-nymphs, he says, have perished in the unusually severe winter. He then breaks off pieces of ice from their tomb (a frozen-over spring), holds them up to the sky and looks through them.

The sexy one, although the second item in the set as published, was in fact the first to be written, and in the following performance it is this song – entitled La chevelure (‘The Tresses’, ie of hair) – that Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg start with. The couple start revving up at 01:15, and after a temporary relapse (during which they establish their rhythm) they reach the peak of their ‘experience’ at 01:99. The chord the piano lands on (if your right hand has got its ducks in a row – the five notes are crowded together in an uncomfortable combination) ‘just happens’ to be the perfect jumping-off point for a repetition of the introductory passage after the panting has subsided. Finally the entwined lovers separate and fall back – with, one hopes, a sigh of satisfaction – into a luscious chord of G flat major. Have a listen, and you will see what I mean:

In what is (in this particular rendition) the second piece, a young, probably pre-teenage Bilitis spends the afternoon having a flute lesson from the god Pan. Their lips touch on the flute – accidentally, of course. Then she hears ‘the song of the green frogs that begins with the night’. This is expertly reproduced at 05:25 in the section marked Plus lent (‘Slower’). Lastly, she reflects that her mother will never believe her story that she has been gone for so long because she was looking for a lost belt.

The third and last song begins with an ostinato passage that sets the scene for Bilitis’s walk through the frozen wood. The accompaniment keeps to the middle register – until on the second beat of the second bar (right on the borderline between 06:22 and 06:23) the left hand plays an octave B in the bass that sends a shiver up your spine. There is another spare, chilling chord (F sharp minor, but with the third missed out) at 06:58 / 06:59; this announces the mysterious figure’s challenging ‘Que cherches-tu?’ – ‘What are you looking for?’ The girl answers that she has been following the tracks of a satyr, and the figure – let us assume it is Pan – retorts that both the satyrs and the nymphs have perished in the cold: the hoof-prints she saw were those of a goat.

To save you the bother of scrolling up what is now quite a long way to the video in question, here is a second link to it:

At 07:56 there begins a heart-melting sequence of descending piano chords that ought to be on the curriculum of students of composition at every conservatoire the world over. Somehow, I still haven’t understood how, they land on a dominant seventh with E in the bass. After that, astonishingly, Debussy hits that button again with a giddy-making upward swirl of parallel chords, then swoops down to a repetition (at 08:05) of the dominant seventh. Your gut takes several seconds to adjust as the lift hits ground zero.

Following another vertiginous upward swirl and a crescendo there is a triumphant transition to F sharp major, marked forte, at 08:17. Notice that at this ecstatic climax in the music, the poem is only telling you that Pan is using his hoe to break off pieces of ice from the frozen spring ‘where the naiads once laughed’. The drama is entirely Debussy’s creation. Another heady sequence of descending chords – sock those suspensions to me, baby! – starts at 08:27, and this sets the relaxed mood in which the song comes to a close on a hanging sixth. (Debussy was the first major composer to make added sixths part of his standard chordal repertoire. Pretty well every film sound track until Alien used them.) Somehow, when Pan ‘holds up large pieces of ice to the sky’ and gazes through them, this gesture is understood – encouraged by the upbeat tone of the music – as symbolising a renewal of hope after the deadly winter that has killed off so many elemental denizens of the woods and streams.

This next performance of Trois Chansons de Bilitis puts the three songs in chronological order according to the demands of the overall narrative, the ‘girlish’ La flûte de Pan preceding the more ‘adult’ La chevelure. We hear the voice of Régine Crespin (1927-2007), who after receiving training at the Paris Conservatoire had a highly successful career as an operatic soprano – first at the Opéra National de Paris in the 1950s and 1960s, then at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she made 125 appearances – before shifting down to the mezzo-soprano register. Régine Crespin is one of my favourite singers of all time. Her accompanist here is John Wustman:

I love the way they manage the ritardando that begins at 01:25. Soon afterwards the pianist very sensibly slows down when ‘the voices of the green frogs’ begin to be heard at 01:54. After all, we’ve just been told it’s early evening, and in my view any pianist who rushes this bit is ignoring the lyrics. The duo begin the second song at a tempo slow enough to allow for a satisfying build-up to you-know-what, and towards the end Ms Crespin’s voice has a hypnotic quality that I have heard no other singer achieve at this point. In the last song the descending cascade of piano chords at 08:23 is a bouchée of pure bliss in which every morsel of the chromatic caviare is savoured to the full. When the singer comes in I am over the hills and far away. They let it rip for the final flourish, of course, but after that Mr Wustman slows the pace for an A-plus-plus ending, every note masterfully timed. Totally magnificent!  

After that encomium, I cannot bring myself to describe any other rendition of Trois Chansons de Bilitis, but I will none the less list a couple. The first is by mezzo-soprano Nathalie Stutzmann and pianist Catherine Collard:

The second is a live performance by Sasha Cooke (another mezzo) and Pei-Yao Wang. It is a pity the singer feels she has to rush the vocal part at the end of the second song, but she makes up for it in the third – though the piano, I have to say, is occasionally intrusive. Don’t miss the excellent notes under the YouTube version: 

In 1901, Debussy produced a second work based on Pierre Louÿs’ book. Entitled Six épigraphes antiques, it is a suite of instrumental pieces designed to accompany a dramatic recitation of 12 of the prose poems. The story of this work’s development is an extremely complex one, described in detail in the following article: https://www.concertgebouworkest.nl/en/debussy-6-epigraphes-antiques.

Here are the pieces in an orchestrated version created in 1939 by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (of Orchestre de la Suisse Romande fame):

Ansermet (1883–1969), who before he took up conducting was a professor of mathematics, met both Debussy and Ravel, and so was able to ask them how they wished their works to be performed. In addition, from 1915 to 1923 he was the conductor of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. I feel bound to record, however, that he blotted his copy-book with some entirely uncalled-for remarks on Arnold Schoenberg’s Jewishness.

Now, back to Debussy’s songs. In 1904 a second set of Fêtes Galantes appeared. Again they are three in number: Les ingénus (‘The Innocents’), Le faune (‘The Faun’) and Colloque sentimental (‘Lovers’ Dialogue’ – literally, ‘Sentimental Conversation’). Wikipedia notes the following:

Unlike the first book, where the three songs are not connected by a common narrative thread, the second book has a continuous theme of the difficulty of relationships between men and women. Youens writes of ‘the mutual incomprehensibility of the sexes, from its inception (‘Les Ingénus’) to its death-in-life (‘Le Faune’) and finally to its grim remains after death (‘Colloque sentimental’).

Hmm. One wonders where the theme of unhappy relationships is coming from. Clues are provided by the fact that the cycle was dedicated to a certain Emma Bardac, and that it was published in 1904. This turns out to be the year in which Debussy announced to Rosalie (‘Lilly’) Texier, his first wife, that he was leaving her, packed her off on the train to stay with her parents, and took his new love, Emma, off to Jersey. Their island holiday was in fact the inspiration for the piano piece L’Isle joyeuse, ‘Island of Joy’. I will leave the job of describing this turbulent period in the composer’s life to Georg Predota on the Interlude website, and say no more. ‘Gaby’, by the way, is Gabrielle Dupont, the woman Debussy was living with throughout most of the 1890s:

If you have not already done so, I encourage you to click on the ‘Claude Debussy: Nocturnes - Sirènes’ video in the above article. Apart from being a classic illustration of the Neptune / the sea / vagueness / deception theme (the French for ‘wave’ is, of course, vague), Sirènes is also the only one of the three pieces in the orchestral suite Nocturnes, completed in 1899, to have a ‘wordless libretto’ sung by female chorus. (Debussy never said what sound the ladies should make, but he is commonly assumed to have intended it to be an extended ‘Aaa’.) Sirènes is commented on extensively in an article I drew attention to in Part A. Here is the link once again – you will need to scroll down to the Nocturnes heading:

To return to Fêtes Galantes, the style of the second set is musically much more ‘advanced’ than that of the first. One notices the unaccustomed strangeness of the chords, and the closeness to ordinary speech of the vocal line in Le faune – though it does not quite venture into the territory of Sprechstimme (‘Spoken Voice’), a famous example of which is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

Here is a performance of Fêtes Galantes II by Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin. The songlist that appears directly under the video is incorrect, by the way (Neptune strikes again!), being that for the first volume. You will need to scroll further down to see the correct titles:

Time for the ladies to make their appearance: here is a rendition by Hélène Carpentier and Marie-Dominique Loyer.

In the first decade of the 20th century yet another new cultural influence made itself felt in Debussy’s output: black music. Ragtime and blackface minstrels were popular in Paris, where music inspired by the African-American tradition had been heard, probably for the first time, at the Paris Exposition of 1900. On that occasion the American conductor and composer John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) had performed instrumental rags, two-steps and arrangements of ‘old Negro melodies’ as well as his own military marches.

Debussy wrote two piano pieces making use of ‘jazzy’ syncopation and banjo imitations: Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (from Children’s Corner, 1908), and Le Petit Nègre (1909). The slow middle section of Golliwogg’s Cakewalk features tongue-in-cheek quotations of the ‘Love-Death’ leitmotif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Here the piece is played by the technically brilliant Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995):

Two cultural notes. Number One: The ‘cakewalk’ was a dance or ‘strut’. In a competitive event, the dancer performing the most elaborate steps won a cake (‘took the cake’). Number Two: The appellation ‘man’, seen earlier in the phrase ‘Cool sounds, man!’, was first used by black men when speaking to other black men – as a reaction to white employers’ demeaning use of ‘boy’ when addressing their adult black servants. 

The year 1910 saw the composition of Debussy’s Trois Ballades de François Villon. The sequence of the songs is as follows: Ballade de Villon à s’amye (‘Ballad of Villon to his love’), Ballade que Villon feit à la resqueste de sa mère pour prier Notre-Dame (‘Ballad made at his mother’s request for a prayer to Our Lady’) and Ballade des femmes de Paris (‘Ballad of the women of Paris’). The strange spellings of the French words are accounted for by the fact that Villon lived and wrote in the 15th century.

In the Trois Ballades, gone are the dreamy chords of the earlier chansons. I am tempted to call these latter ‘impressionistic’, but that is a description Debussy himself vehemently rejected: this new style is brittle, direct and really quite modern. In this recording, Bruno Laplante (a baritone from Québec) is accompanied by John Newmark. You also get the score, and the notes under the YouTube version are excellent:

We now come to the last of Debussy’s song cycles – Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. Their titles are Soupir (‘Sigh’), Placet futile (‘Futile petition’), and Éventail (‘Fan’). These songs have an angularity of style, and occasionally a minimalism, that is worlds apart from the lushness of Printemps, the piece with which I began this exploration of Debussy’s chansons. Here the singer is the eminently versatile soprano Sandrine Piau, and the accompanist Jos van Immerseel:

The First World War brought nothing but grief to Achille-Claude. In dire financial straits and terminally ill, he was especially grieved by the fate of children made homeless by the carnage. Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison (‘Christmas carol of the homeless children’) was written in 1915; the words are his own. The notes below the YouTube version give you an account of the terrible situation in which the poor man found himself in the final years of his life, with Paris under occupation. It is bitterness at his personal plight that accounts for the asperity of the lyrics. The operation referred to was no doubt for the rectal cancer that would kill him three years later. At least he did not live to see the premature death of his daughter Chouchou, his only child, the following year.

In this first version, for solo voice and piano, we hear Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin:

Now, a rendition by the girls of Westlake Girls’ High School, accompanied by Cathy Bennett. Their conductor is Fiona Wilson: 

Not wishing to end on such a depressing note, I will hark back to happier times in the composer’s life. Trois Ballades de François Villon was not his only excursion into the world of early French poetry: Chansons de Charles d’Orléans, a setting of three poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394–1465), was Debussy’s first and last composition for unaccompanied choir. The first and third songs – Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder! (‘Lord! How good it is to look on her!’) and Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain (‘Winter, you are nothing but a rogue’) – are revised versions of pieces first written in 1898, while the second, Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin (‘When I heard the drum’), was finished in 1908.

In this video (which gives you the score), we hear the Monteverdi choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Much use is made of modes – something medieval music was wont to do:

And so we say goodbye to Debussy – but only until the next time we watch a film. Then we will remind ourselves that without him the soundtrack would be completely different, and would probably lack the range of emotional vocabulary that was his lasting contribution to our music.



In connection with the Chansons de Bilitis, Pierre Louÿs’ 1894 book of ‘fake-antique’ prose poems, I would like to give a gifted visual artist his due. The most famous illustrations ever made for this work, including the one at the beginning of this article, were those accompanying an English translation that was privately circulated in 1926. The creator of these pieces of artwork, which were executed in an Art Nouveau style, was the Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany (1882–1955). After an art course in Budapest, a spell as an impecunious artist in Paris and ten years as a book illustrator in London, in 1914 Pogany went off to New York, where he started designing stage sets and costumes for various shows, as well as for the Metropolitan Opera House. He ended up serving as an art director for several Hollywood film studios.

During his London years he created three books of fine illustrations based on Wagner operas: his Tannhäuser appeared in 1911, while Parsifal followed in 1912 and Lohengrin in 1913. Here are videos of these works, with the music they are designed to accompany:



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