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.