Friday, May 1, 2009

Debussy in Love

I didn't start learning German until I went to college, when I applied myself wholeheartedly to studying it in the hope of understanding German musical style as deeply as possible. But I'd fallen in love with French first, in high school. I had won some prizes in it, and the first music I studied seriously was Debussy's mélodies (the composer is pictured above). My love of the language was inextricably linked with my love of the repertoire, and, as later with German, I believed that the better I understood the nation's language and literature, the better I would be able to sing its music.

I read the poets set by Debussy, chiefly Baudelaire and Verlaine, whom I especially loved, as well as the later poets set with such wistfulness and charm by Francis Poulenc, the great mélodie composer of the twentieth century (and also a Catholic revert) -- Guillaume Apollinaire, Louise de Vilmorin, Paul Éluard. When I was a sophomore in high school, I won admission to the prestigious New York All-State Chorus (which remains the best concert choir I've ever sung with) with my performance of a song by Debussy, "Mandoline," and I got in trouble at sixteen for sneaking out of the house when I was already grounded to attend a French art song recital. In my first year at college, I listened incessantly to the complete recorded edition of Debussy's songs at the music library (I only recently bought a copy for myself with last year's tax return). But soon I was swept up in the very different style and sensibility of German music (and I would eventually spend most of my professional career singing Italian music, but that's a different story).

My soprano friend Mary L. was a superlative interpreter of Debussy's songs. Our vocal coach used to wonder at her unusual sensitivity in this highly subtle repertoire, for Mary was as Irish as the grass by way of New York, and somehow this did not equate in our coach's staunchly WASP mind. But then the coach would muse aloud that, after all, the mists covering Ireland were the same mists that blanketed Scotland, and Debussy's greatest interpreter, Mary Garden, for whom he wrote the role of Mélisande, was Scottish; somehow the Debussyan nuages must have rained down even upon this singing descendant of New York's shanty Irish.

A few years later, French mélodie acquired a new meaning for me. Its delicacy, its indeterminateness, its tonal vagueness, and the way its great poets and composers limned an emotion with whispers and suggestions without ever actually naming it -- so unlike the direct, even at times devastating, emotional appeal of their German counterparts -- became a fitting backdrop for my life. I was in love with a man who, it seemed, was not in love with me, and late-nineteenth-century French music -- the music of the nuance, of the sigh, of ambiguity and equivocation -- was the perfect aural symbol of a love that was not really a love. Not long after, ill-advisedly no doubt, I married him.

I wonder now if a life lived in pursuit of an elusive aesthetic ideal -- especially one that wavers between varying aesthetic sensibilities -- is one that is destined for the ashes. While consumed with my quest for a high level of artistry, I turned a deaf ear to mundane responsibilities, and even to warnings of danger. And it wasn't just striving for professional excellence that preoccupied me: it was also my need to find beauty everywhere, including where it was not. The lure of what is beautiful in creation still stymies me, and I do not know whether it is salutary or a stumbling block as I try to live my life in accord with God's will (trying first to understand what on earth that could possibly mean for me).

Oddly, French repertoire has fallen from favor in my musical pantheon. I almost never listen to it now, and sing it so rarely that the last time I performed French songs in public, a year ago, a close associate who knows my singing very well told me that they were the weakest part of my program. When we moved a few months ago, I got rid of virtually all my French poetry books. But one book that I kept, though I have no idea if I'll ever read it again, was The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck. It's a wonderful book.


Betty Duffy said...

I love that you mentioned the hinting and subtlety of French music. Again, I know I've commented on this before, but I tend to clump the Shostakovich quintet with Ravel's quartet--not because they are comparable, but because they both do what you described so well--which is suggest. I long for what is missing from those pieces.

(p.s. Your blog is my favorite too.)

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Betty! (Blushes.)

That is a really interesting point about Shostakovich and Ravel. I have never been a fan of Mahler or Strauss for the opposite reason -- they leave too much in.

Maclin Horton said...

Intriguing and very well-written post, as always. You make me want to have another go at French songs. Probably at least...pause for mental arithmetic...25 years ago I bought an lp of Debussy songs performed by Marni Nixon. I thought I really needed to find the right time--quiet and uninterrupted, for starters--to listen to them. But that was when our family was young & growing, and I had a demanding job, and time passed, and now, these many years later, the lp is still sitting on the shelf unplayed (yes, I have a lot of lps). What do you think of Marni Nixon as an interpreter?

Maclin Horton said...

Dang it, once again I hit publish instead of preview. And I just realized that it's because they're swapped, right and left, relative to the pub/pre buttons on my blog (not the ones below the edit box, but the ones you get if you want to re-edit after preview--and they're reversed from the others here--whose idea was that, I wonder?!).

Anyway, I was going to add, about French poetry: I made a conscious rejection of it at one point, because I deemed it to have been a bad influence on 20th c. poetry in English, with respect to both technique and content. I wanted to go back and build more directly on the English tradition, more like beer and beef than wine and cheese. But I was constantly betrayed by my own taste and inclinations: I like the whispers, suggestions, hints, and the general sense of mystery in French poetry. Even though I never learned more than just enough French to sound out poetry, I knew bits by memory...what's that Apolinaire one that ends with the "tour abolie"?

Anonymous said...

Gerard de Nerval, I think, Maclin-

"Je suis les tenebreux, la veuve, l'inconsolee..." etc, if I remember correctly.


Anonymous said...

...AND I just embarrassed myself again. It's

"le veuf, l'inconsole", and continues "le Prince d'Acquitaine a la tour abolie," etc.

Anyone else know it from the Donald Swann setting?



Pentimento said...

Marni Nixon is excellent, and not well enough known except for dubbing people like Natalie Wood in Hollywood movies. My favorite French art song interpreter, though, is the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling, whose performance of "Mandoline" I linked to. She was just perfect at every repertoire she took on. She was the first singer whose recordings I studied as a teenager, and later I had the opportunity to see her in what must have been one of her last recitals in New YOrk - it was wonderful.

Gerard de Nerval was a big influence on those others. I don't know that poem, but the line you quote reminds me of a very beautiful one about the first World War by Louis Aragon, "C.," which was set by Poulenc.

I am unfamiliar with Donald Swann's songs and I am intrigued! Are they good?

Anonymous said...

I wondered if any Swann songs had made it to the established repertoire. He was best known as part of a comedy duo, Flanders and Swann.

Here's the bio:

His style is Gilbert and Sullivan begotten on Shostakovich, not surprising when you consider his background.

Here's the address to one of his Tolkien settings. Do ignore the ghastly video with it.

Mmm, the teenager within still likes this song cycle a lot, except for the unaccompanied elvish bit (TOO shy-making!)

I looked for his de Nerval setting but couldn't find it.



Pentimento said...

Really interesting, Otepoti, thanks. The song sounds very early-twentieth-century British to me. I like it. But I'd be really interested to know what his settings of Victorian poetry are like.

Arachne said...

Thank you for you interesting insight on Debussy's songs, which are a particular passion of mine. I'm working on his late ones, some of which are really inscrutable, though I hope I'll "get" them eventually. I stumbled on your blog while looking for clues as to which is considered to be Debussy's best-loved, or most well known, song. I suppose it must be "Mandoline", though I've never really understood why, as for me it seems to be one of his most superficial and least significant. I look forward to exploring your blog further.

Pentimento said...

Welcome, Arachne. What are you working on now?

I agree about "Mandoline," one of D.'s earliest songs, being superficial, but I think Verlaine's aim in the poem -- imitated by Debussy -- was to imitate the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard. And "Fetes Galantes" are sort of the flip side to the brittleness of "Mandoline," especially "Clair de lune." Do you think it's D's best-loved? I was thinking maybe "Beau soir."

What voice type are you? Have you ever sung the "Trois Ballades de Francois Villon"? Those come out of a whole other world. I'm a mezzo, but I remember hearing the soprano friend I mentioned in my post perform "Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison," D.'s last song, and it just knocked me to the ground.

I look forward to hearing your insights.

Arachne said...

I was thinking that "Beau soir" was his second-best loved! It's certainly one of his most beautiful. I'm working on the "Trois mélodies", "Fétes galantes II", "Promenoir des deux amants", and "Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé". How interesting about "Noel des enfants"; the score specifies a baritone voice so I'd ruled it out on the assumption that Debussy didn't have a female timbre and pitch in mind, but I'd love to be contradicted and to think he wasn't bothered!

I've already recorded a load of his earlier cycles, so I'm now exploring the later songs, which are suiting me better now that my voice has become lower pitched in recent years. I haven't looked the "Trois ballades" yet. The first one seems very like "Auprès de cette grotte sombre", which has such wonderfully shifting sonorities in its murky depths.

Pentimento said...

How interesting - I've only ever heard sopranos sing "Noel des enfants"! It certainly seems to make sense in a voice that's closer in range to a child's.

I've browsed to your blog, which I like a lot - I've linked to it here.

Arachne said...

Many thanks. I have reciprocated. Your view of Debussy resonates with mine (see my Oct 12, 2008 post). Did your friend Mary L make any recordings? I would love to hear them. The perfect Debussy voice is as elusive as the man's compositions!

Pentimento said...

Unfortunately, Mary did not make any recordings. She had the single most beautiful voice I've ever heard in my life (and I've heard many great voices, both famous and not); it used to make my hair stand on end. Life circumstances interrupted her fledgling singing career, and she later shifted professions and is working as a psychotherapist.