Recorded on 04/06/2005, uploaded on 03/21/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Throughout the many decades since Debussy emerged as one of France’s leading composers of the early 20th century, his vocal music has been resigned to live in the shadows of his imaginative and influential piano and orchestral music. Regretfully so, as his skill is no less on display in his essays in French art song than any other genre he attempted. Like his early piano music, Debussy’s early attempts at setting poetry to music stand upon the threshold of the late Romanticism and the burgeoning Impressionism of the composer’s mature style. It is no surprise then that in these first songs, Debussy chose appropriate Romantic texts by poets such as Paul Bourget and Alfred de Musset. In later years, he abandoned these poets altogether, preferring the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarmé to emphasize and compliment his mature Impressionistic style.
A setting of a poem by Bourget, Beau Soir is a fairly early work in Debussy’s oeuvre. As with many of the composer’s youthful works, it is difficult to pinpoint for sure its date of composition given the undated manuscripts and a disparity between their composition and subsequent publication. Yet, it is believed the song was composed as early as 1878, while Debussy was still a teenager and the year of his brief visit to London. Bourget’s text draws on the picturesque imagery of the sun setting amidst rivers and wheat fields as in imploration to enjoyment of life and youth. Yet, even in this rosy view, the poet is aware of life’s brevity, concluding the poem with a direct analogy between the rivers’ destination and that of every living soul. Debussy’s setting, in a modally-infused E major, adopts the tranquil atmosphere of Bourget’s text with an accompaniment of triplets beneath the serene vocal melody. The height of the song comes in the second line of the final stanza, from which the music quickly recedes. Displaying a keen sensitivity to the text and dramatic effect, Debussy inserts a moment of silence and two measures of interlude in the midst of the final line, separating and making more poignant the two ends of Bourget’s analogy. Joseph DuBose
Lyrics by Paul Bourget
When the rivers are rosy in the setting sun,
and a mild tremor runs over the cornfields,
an exhortation to be happy seems to emanate from things
and rises towards the troubled heart.
An exhortation to enjoy the charm of being alive
while one is young and the evening is beautiful,
for we go away, as this stream goes:
the stream to the sea, we to the tomb.
The fine white clouds go drifting by
through the deep blue like fine silent dreams;
I feel as if I have long been dead,
and happy, drift in eternal regions too.
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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