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Between 1879 and 1915. Debussy composed over 90 songs for solo voice and piano. With the exception of Nuit d'etoiles (1880) by Theodore de Banville, this recital sensibly focuses on the settings of three poets: Paul Bourget (1852-1935), Raul Verlaine (1844-96) and Debussy himself. Bourget, who was a personal friend of the composer, is now better known as a literary and dramatic critic of penetrating psychological insight, but his early poems were widely acclaimed. His 1882 collection, LesAveux [Confessions], particularly appealed to Debussy and four of his nine settings from it are included in this recital (Beau soir and the little-known Musique of 1883, and the Deux Romances of 1886). Verlaine, of course, was in another poetic league altogether and Debussy was first attracted to his Parnassian evocations of the sophisticated 18th-century world of Watteau and Fragonard in 1882, when he set Mandoline from his Fetes galantes collection of 1869. In fact, Verlaine remained the poet to whom Debussy most frequently returned, as in the Ariettes oubliees (1885-7) and the two further series of Fetes galantes settings of 1891-2 and 1904. Debussy's own poetic skills were not quite in the same league: the four Proses lyriques of 1893 are examples of the newly-fashionable vers libre, and in the first, 'De reve', there are echoes of Wagner's Parsifal in the vision of scornful maidens and knights 'on the quest for the Grail'. Similarly, 'De fleurs' experiments with the luxuriating floral imagery of the Art Nouveau, whilst the opening lines of 'De Soir' with their association between 'hearts' and 'towns' are surely modelled on those of the second of the Ariettes oubliees. But Debussy's compendium of Symbolist traits is too self-conscious and sentimental to rise to the realms of great poetry; his images are enshrouded in a twilight world where innocence and boredom meet in a hypersensitive combination that owes much to the poetry of Jules Laforgue, in whose 'usines de Neant' Debussy often found himself as he struggled to create his masterpieces. His mood was similarly depressive when he completed his Noel des enfants on 6 December 1915, the day before his operation for rectal cancer. He had been deeply moved by the plight of the homeless refugee children in Flanders, yet their pathetic catalogue of disasters is redeemed by the passionate intensity of the music which ends with an unusually extrovert climax as the 'children of France' cry out for victory over their oppressors.
In the early years of Debussy's career when he wrote most of his songs, one name stands above all others as the source of his inspiration. This was his first great love, the coloratura soprano Mme Marie-Blanche Vasnier, By the time Debussy met her around 1880 at the singing classes of Mme Moreau-Santi (where he was the accompanist and she a pupil), Marie-Blanche was 32 and Debussy only 18. Surviving pictures show a handsome bourgeiose of commanding presence and her vocal agility is evident from Mandoline and Musique, both of which were dedicated to her. Debussy made his public debut as a composer with her at the Salons Flaxland in Paris on 12 May 1882, and before he left for the Villa Medici as winner of the Prix de Rome in early 1885 he had composed 25 songs in her honour. But soon after Debussy's return to Paris their affair came to an end, his final gift to her being a presentation copy of the Ariettes oubliees in 1888.
After Pelleas et Melisande had transformed Debussy's reputation in 1902, he wrote far fewer songs. The influence of his revolutionary opera can be seen in his second set of Fetes galantes, and especially in 'Colloque sentimental' with its recitative-like vocal phrases which sometimes flower into narrow intervalied arioso. The sparse accompaniment (whose descending arabesque figure in the central and final sections subtly recalls that of 'En sourdine' from the 1891 set) often dissolves into silence, and the prosody is flawless. As always, Debussy demonstrates his ability to capture the essence of the poem in music: he clearly knew his texts by heart for extracts from them pervade his letters, as Margaret Cobb has demonstrated in her excellent book The Poetic Debussy. He further understood, perhaps better than any of his countemporaries, that 'Music and poetry are the only two arts that move in space', and in 1911 he wrote, from the heart, that 'Musicians who do not understand poetry should not set it to music. They can only spoil it.' Even in an early salon romance like Nuit d 'etoiles, no-one could ever accuse Debussy of such incomprehension.
- Robert Orledge, 1992