Recorded on 11/06/2010, uploaded on 11/06/2010
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
In the midst of searching for his own unique musical voice, Claude Debussy discovered the works of the Symbolist writers Maurice Maeterlinck, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine, and thus found a reflection in words of all he sought in his own music. Maeterlinck provided him the means of escaping Wagner’s operatic influence and the libretto to his one and only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande; Mallarmé offered the inspiration for his revolutionary orchestral tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; Verlaine, the text for nearly one-third of Debussy’s total output of song.
The discovery of Verlaine’s poetry was particularly pivotal in the development of Debussy’s mature style. Both men were fond of nuance and sought the means, particularly through rhythm, to reinvent their respective art forms. Thus, it is no surprise that Verlaine came to have a greater influence over the composer than any of Debussy’s other artistic contemporaries. In 1903, Debussy composed his Ariettes oublieés, a song cycle based on Verlaine’s poetry. Numbering six songs in all, the cycle is a clear display of Debussy’s burgeoning mature style, as he fed off the inspiration he received from Verlaine and distanced himself from the early French masters he idolized.
The finale two songs of the cycle Debussy called together Aquarelles, or “watercolors.” Indeed, each possesses a light and delicate quality that one could easily compare to a watercolor painting. In any case, it is more representative than the titles Verlaine himself gave the two poems from which Debussy created his settings. Titled “Green” and “Spleen,” respectively, Verlaine named them with these English words simply because he liked the way they sounded. For Verlaine, the sound of words was an important factor, and here perhaps the sound of these English words in some way equated within him to the impressions he sought to achieve through the poems actual content.
“Green” is a love song. After a brief introduction from the piano, the listener is introduced with a young lover bringing a gift of fruits and flowers, and with them his heart, to his beloved. The vocal melody here is lyrical and expressive. He is hopeful she will accept his gift; his anxiety, eloquently heightened by the duple rhythms of the vocal melody against the compound meter of the piano, matched only by his fatigue from the journey to greet her. Debussy sets Verlaine’s three stanzas in a ternary form with the middle stanza featuring a more embellished accompaniment from the piano. Yet, the final stanza returns to the music of the opening, and the young lover finds rest in the arms of his beloved as the supple vocal melody comes to rest on the dominant just before the piano softly closes the song.
“Spleen,” however, is a song of despair. The narrator looks out upon the world around him and knows that something is amiss and fears his beloved is plotting some “cruel deceit.” Debussy’s music is heavy and moves slowly, burdened by the weight of the narrator’s emotions. The vocal line is initially monophonic, unable to move and suffering from the numbness that a betrayed love can so easily inflict. Yet, with passion, the voice utters the remaining stanzas of Verlaine’s poem, but ultimately trails off with no sense of resolution or consolation. Joseph DuBose
Claude Debussy: Ariettes oubliées
Year/Date of Composition 1885-1887:
I and II: March 1887
III and IV: 6 and 10 January 1885
V: January 1886
Year of First Publication 1888 Librettist Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) Language French Dedication Mary Garden Piece Style Early 20th century Instrumentation Voice and Piano
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