AN 2 8761

Ravel - Shéhérazade; Debussy - Proses lyriques

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Seeking a vocabulary to convey the intangible

Verlaine, Mallarmé and Laforgue brought us new sounds and sonorities. They imbued words with a heretofore unseen glow; they used techniques unknown to the poets before them; they applied effects to the spoken word whose subtlety and power were previously unsuspected; and above all, they wrote verse or prose like composers, and also like composers, they combined images with their sonorous counterparts. Debussy was influenced most not by other composers, but by writers…
(Paul Dukas, Revue musicale)

Whether at Mallarmé’s home, in the back room of the L’Art indépendant bookstore or at impromptu gatherings of artists, Claude Debussy rubbed shoulders with both Impressionist painters and Symbolist poets. As someone who had once hoped to be a painter and also tried his hand at poetry, he could not help but be drawn to the idea of a unification of all arts, one that would break down the barriers among the various languages and highlight the connections. “But good heavens, music is the dream from which the veil is lifted! It is not even the expression of feeling, it is feeling itself,” he exclaimed in a letter dated September 9, 1892, only a few months before composing his Proses lyriques.

Master and commander of this work, Debussy wrote both the texts and the music for this unique cycle. While the verse is meant to be highly poetic, it is willingly convoluted, cultivating a certain abstruseness in vogue at the time. Debussy played around as much with multiple instrumental textures as he did with the text itself, deftly manipulating consonances and assonances to extract the least morsel of sonority and rhythm. Phrases such as “Gazon grêle,” “la caresse charmeuse des hanches fleurissantes,” or “les grands iris violets violèrent méchamment tes yeux” serve equally as musical and poetic images. To clarify his artistic intentions, Debussy also employed certain melodic phrases as driving motifs, much like Wagner’s leitmotifs. The first two of these mélodies were premiered in February 1894 in Paris, and the whole cycle received its first performance that same year in Brussels, sung by Thérèse Roger with Debussy himself at the piano.

From the very opening notes of “De rève,” the purposely vague arpeggios take the listener into the Debussian universe, with the almost disembodied melody floating above with ethereal transparency. The syllabic diction and repeated notes already foreshadow Pelléas et Mélisande of 1902.

“De grève” is a high point of Debussy’s vocal writing, with its skillfully measured amalgam of fine humour and contemplative poetry, in the style of an “English watercolour.” The poem’s three verses have a distinct character, supported supplely by the piano accompaniment. In the third verse, the piano part subtly evokes the “lingering bells of floating churches” with the repeated sounding of a single note emerging above the undulating accompaniment.

Opening with a series of chords—elements of a sound palette rather than any kind of harmonic structure—”De fleurs” is dedicated to the wife of composer Ernest Chausson, one of Debussy’s close friends at the time. Rather than evoking images of beauty, these flowers “entwine hearts in their spiteful stems,” creating a mood dominated by stifling anguish and the stench of poisonous perfumes, much like the forest in Pelléas et Mélisande.

Completed in August 1893, “De soir” paints a humourous portrait of a Sunday in Paris. The metre initially imbues the piece with effervescence, but this eventually evolves into a soft, serene nocturne. The main melodic motif is borrowed from the old French children’s song “La tour, prends garde,” an allusion to “obstinate rounds in which good towers have only a few days left to stand.”

Fewer than ten years later, in 1902, a group of young avant-garde artists, founded notably by Maurice Ravel and Tristan Klingsor, began to meet on Saturday evenings at the home of artist Paul Sordes. The group, who called themselves Les Apaches (Parisians’ enthusiasm at this time for North American Indians being at its height), was particularly united around their attraction to Debussy’s new opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

From his earliest works, Ravel admitted his fascination with the Orient. In 1903, when Klingsor read him excerpts of his one hundred poems inspired by Rimski-Korsakov’s orchestral suite Scheherazade, Ravel knew immediately that he must set some of these texts to music. “His choice of texts was not meant to surprise,” explained Klingsor; “he did not consider those whose melodic nature would allow their easy transformation into song. Instead, he selected those with a more descriptive nature, and even those whose long phrases (“Asie,” for example) would not appear to easily lend themselves to such a purpose. But for him, setting a poem to music was to transform it into an expressive recitative, to intensify the inflections of speech into song, to intensify all the possibilities of the word, but not to subjugate them.”

Ravel concentrated his efforts on three of the poems: “Asie,” “La flute enchantée” and “L’indifférent.” Shéhérazade was premiered on May 17, 1904 by soprano Jane Hatto (dedicatee of “Asie”) with the orchestra conducted by Alfred Cortot. (The version with piano accompaniment was composed at the same time.)

“Asie” is based on 48 lines of oriental impressions, which successively evoke visions of “islands of flowers,” Persian cities, “dark amorous eyes,” viziers, “potbellied mandarins,” an enchanted palace, “the executioner’s smiling assassins,” and then the poet’s desire: “I wish to see death by love, or else by hate.” The piece would become one of Ravel’s masterworks, as much in terms of texture and abundance of detail as in the way Ravel appropriated the narration.

After the magnificence of “Asie,” closely related to Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, “La flute enchantée” has a disarming simplicity, evoking the sensual tone of the flute, a caress on the lover’s cheek, light as a kiss.

The enigmatic accompaniment of “L’indifférent” is an echo of the ambiguous sexuality conveyed by the poem. The mystery of the adolescent’s androgynous charm remains whole, with each phrase seeming to disappear only a few moments after it takes shape.

Premiered several years previously, in Prague on March 31, 1901, Rusalka remains the most famous of Antonín Dvo?ák’s operas. Inspired by Friedrich La Motte-Fouqué’s Undine and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the libretto traces the story of the tragic love felt by the water nymph Rusalka (Ondine) for a prince. She pours out her feelings to the moon in the opera’s most well-known aria, “M?sí?ku na nebi hlubokém” (Song to the Moon), asking the moon to reveal to her lover that she is waiting: “Tell him, oh pale moon, that my arms enfold him, that he may, at least for a moment, see me in his dreams.”

© Lucie Renaud
Translation : Peter Christensen

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