Les Chansons de Bilitis for recitation, 2 flutes, 2 harps & celesta (Vocal Score, 2 copies)
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a revolutionary composer who often ignored the musical rules taught to him at the Paris Conser-vatory. Hewas admitted to that school at the age of ten because of his conspicuous talent, but even famous teachers like Ernest Guiraud found him stubborn and hard to deal with. His talent was unquestionable, however. He wanted to write a new and different kind of music for his own age.
His horizons widened when, in 1880, he became the piano tea-cher to the family of Tchaikovsky’s patron Nadezhda von Meck. She took him to Italy, Austria and Russia where he heard music with differing harmonies and structures, all of which were to influence his compositions.
When he was again in Paris, he fell in love with Blanche Vasnier, the wife of a wealthy Paris lawyer. It was the first of many affairs for the sometimes unconventional composer. In 1884, he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue. That same prize had been won by Hector Berlioz in 1830, Charles Gounod in 1839, Georges Bizet in 1857 and Jules Massenet in 1863. It required Debussy to go to Rome and compose there, so from then on, he saw much less of Madame Vasnier. Although he tended to be shy and reserved, he made friends with many famous writers and musicians of his time and was seldom without female companionship. One of these early friends was composer Ernest Chausson.
A major influence on his early compositions was the work of Richard Wagner. After hearing the first act of Tristan und Isolde in concert, he said it was the finest thing he knew. During 1888 and 1889, he traveled to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, where he saw Parsifal, Die Meistersinger and the complete performance of Tristan. Many years later, he described Wagner’s music as a sunset mistaken for a dawn, but in the eighteen-eighties he was besotted with the German composer’s additions to the contemporary musical tapestry.
In 1889, Debussy attended the Paris Universal Exposition, the event for which the Eiffel Tower was originally built. It was probab-ly there that he first heard the gongs and chimes of Gamelan music from Java. Violinist Robert Godet wrote that the composer spent many pleasant hours there listening to the Javanese sounds and rhythms.
Wagner’s music and the sounds of the Gamelan were just two of the influences that inspired Debussy in his attempt to bring new life and more vibrant tonal color to western music. He stated that his aim was to free music from the age- old traditions that he felt were stifling it. He felt that much had to be explored and possibly discarded before one reached “the naked flesh of feeling.”
Also in 1889, Debussy began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle Dupont, the daughter of a tailor from Lisieux. When the liaison with Dupont was not going well, the composer courted singer, Thérèse Roger, who had performed at a most successful Brussels concert with him a few years earlier. For a while he and Thérèse were engaged, but a series of anonymous letters created a scandal by denouncing the prospective groom’s mounting debts and his affair with Dupont. As a result, he lost his fiancée and his friendship with the rather strait-laced Chausson.
Shortly after that, however, Debussy began an important friendship with the open-minded poet, Pierre Louÿs (1870-1895), who was to write the Chansons de Bilitis. In 1891, Louÿs had helped to found a review called La Conque (The Conch Shell) in which he could print his own poetry along with the works of others.
Louÿs did not acknowledge the Chansons as his own, however. He said they had been written by Bilitis, a Greek woman of the sixth century BCE, and that he had merely translated them. For that reason, he wrote them following the format of ancient Greek poetry as it was then understood.
Accompanying the poems was a biography of Bilitis. He said she was born in Pamphylia where she fell in love with the goatherd, Lykas, and had a child by him when she was about fifteen years old. He said she then went to live in Mytilène on the island of Lesbos, but eventually moved to Cyprus where she worked as a courtesan and, in her old age, recounted her exploits.
Louÿs said he found her memoirs on the walls of an ancient Cypriot tomb. In more than one hundred prose poems, he expressed elegant sensuality in a most refined and accessib-le style. Those supposed tomb writings fooled scholars for a while, but did not do a great deal for the author. It was his 1896 novel, Aphrodite, telling of the life of courtesans in ancient Alexandria, that made him famous. That work also pointed readers in the direction of his earlier works and when the Bilitis hoax was eventually revealed, it did no harm to the author.
Although Louÿs was not gay, he was friends with Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde whose sexual orientation was well known. By writing what purported to be ancient texts, Louys knew he would be allowed considerably more latitude in eroticism than would normally have been countenanced in the eighteen nineties. Debussy, who had become close friends with Louÿs, must have concurred, but when he chose poems to set to music, he tended to select texts that would be acceptable to a general audience. He began to work on the Chansons de Bilitis in 1897, eventually composing music to three of them and forming them into a song cycle.
In 1899, Debussy married fashion model, Marie Rosalie “Lily” Texier, who was head over heels in love with him. Louÿs and fellow composer, Erik Satie, were among the artists in attendance. Five years later, the composer would leave her and she would attempt suicide as Gabrielle Dupont had done earlier.
At this time, Debussy was working on the incidental music for the Chansons as well as on his new opera, Pélleas et Mélisande. Maurice Maeterlinck, who wrote the original story and worked on the opera’s libretto, wanted his mist-ress, Georgette Leblanc, to sing Mélisande, but Debussy wanted the part to go to Mary Garden, who proved to be spectacular on stage. Maeterlinck wrote in the newspaper Le Figaro that he hoped the opera would be an immediate and resounding failure. It This may have motivated more people to shout its praises. The opera was a success in 1902 and again the next season.
A song cycle consisting of three Chansons de Bilitis was first performed on 17 March, 1900. Louÿs wrote to thank him, saying that what he had done with the poems was a delight and it gave him much pleasure. Later that year, Fernand Samuel, director of the Théâter des Variétés, spoke with Louÿs about a recitation of more of his poetry that would include mime. Debussy suggested enlarging the score to go with that performance. A year later he finished and scored incidental music to accompany twelve of the remaining poems.
The recitation of the Chansons de Bilitis, performed in 1901, had living tableaux and incidental music by Debussy. In this score, he utilized poems from all three sections of the Chansons. From Bucoliques en Pamphylie, he set the Chant pastorale (Pastoral Song), Les comparaisons (Comparisons), Les contes (Tales), another poem called Chanson, La partie d’osselets (The Game of Knuckle Bones) and Bilitis.
From the second section, Elegies Mytilènes, à he set only Le tombeau sans nom (The Nameless Tomb), but from the final section, Epigrammes dans l’île de Chypre, he used Les courtisanes égyptiennes, L’eau pure du bassin (Pure Water in the Basin), La danseuse aux crotales (The Dancer with Tiny Cymbals), Le souvenir de Mnasidica and La pluie au matin (Rain in the Morning).
The performance was well received but was only reviewed by only one newspaper. Unfortunately, this lovely work suffered the fate of so many new pieces: i. It was not soon repeated and it did not it enter the core repertoire.
In 1903, Debussy was made a Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur and he seemed to have become a respectable citizen at last, having married Lily Texier a few years earlier. It was not to continue, however. In 1904 he left Lily for Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker, who bore him a daughter. They fled to England where they stayed until their legal problems were resolved and they could return to France. They were marri-ed in 1908 and remained together for the rest of the composer’s life. By that time, his style of composition was losing favor, however, and many of his works were completely eclipsed by the enormously powerful works of Igor Stravinsky.
Although he is often called an impressionist, Debussy is more accurately referred to as a musical symbolist. He used sounds to stir feelings and emotional sensations in the minds of his listeners. He spent much of his time hunting for a new musical language that would give the utmost consideration to timbre and rhythm. He layered sound upon sound, utilizing original harmonies and the widest possible dynamic range in the expectation that the resulting pieces would speak directly to the imagination. In reality, his music is the bridge between the late nineteenth century romanticism and early twentieth century modernism.
Debussy wrote the music to accompany the Louÿs Chansons during his most productive period. It was written simultaneously with the music for his opera Pélleas et Mélisande. Both these works are Debussy at his absolute best. The Chansons need to be heard by many more audiences so that they can find their own way into the pantheon of great French art.
Maria Nockin, 2009
For performance material please contact the publisher Jobert, Paris.