The Prismatic Debussy – Festival 2012 – Eastman School of Music

Debussy Premieres

Saturday, October 27, 9:30 AM – 5 PM, Hatch Recital Hall

Performances of and presentations on Debussy’s songs – including the North American premieres of five  previously unknown songs: “L’Archet”; “Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau”; “Romance”; “Les Elfes”; “Séguidille”

Symposium organized by Ralph P. Locke, professor of musicology, Eastman

Guest Scholars:

  • Denis Herlin, Centre national de la recherché scientifique
  • Jonathan Dunsby, professor of music theory, Eastman
  • Marie Rolf, professor of music theory, Eastman
  • Mylène Dubiau-Feuillerac, Université de Toulouse

Helen Smith, technical director

9:30–12:30: early songs of Debussy, including five previously unknown works

2 PM – 5 PM: master class and study session

In the longstanding spirit at Eastman of combining first-rate performance with cutting-edge scholarship, the School devotes this final event of its Prismatic Debussy festival to Debussy Premieres: a “study day” on Debussy’s early vocal works, including five songs that here receive what we believe to be their North American public premieres.  Participants include faculty and students from the Eastman School and from the Royal College of Music (participating via Internet2), as well as eminent scholars from England, France, and Wales who have contributed notably to a better understanding of Debussy and of the art song.

Debussy’s vocal works—aside from Pelléas et Mélisande and a few oft-repeated songs—are much less well known outside of France than are his works for piano, chamber ensemble, or orchestra.  Particularly fascinating are the songs and choruses that he wrote during his late teens and early twenties.  Several of these are among his earliest published works; many others remained unpublished and unknown until very recently.  Yet all these early songs are remarkably accomplished and inventive.  They also are highly responsive to their poetic texts, which comes as no surprise: Debussy was an avid reader, with a particular interest in Symbolist literature and in poets such as Verlaine, who would only become widely accepted somewhat later.

We will never know why Debussy left so many of his early vocal works unpublished.  Many of the songs held a highly personal significance for him, notably those that he composed for Mme Marie Vasnier, a married woman with whom he apparently had a long-term affair and who—a not irrelevant fact—possessed a highly trained and stratospheric soprano voice.  (For a  splendid introduction to Debussy and his creative partnership with Mme Vasnier,visit:  Debussy clearly intended the songs for Mme Vasnier as gifts to her, as he indicated in the dedication on the manuscript of the song “Caprice”: “To Mme Vasnier, these songs, conceived in some way through memory of you, can belong only to you, as does their composer.”  Perhaps, too, Debussy felt that to publish the songs he wrote for his muse would be risky to her reputation or to his own.  More generally, he may have come to view most of the early songs as “laboratory” works, in which a wide range of literary styles and subjects had stimulated his creativity and had helped him to find his compositional voice, which then took full flower in the piano works (e.g., Suite bergamasque and Estampes), the orchestral Nocturnes and La Mer, and Pelléas et Mélisande (which is, not coincidentally, an opera about a young man of poetic temperament in love with a married woman).

Even when the early songs are not “Debussyan” in a way that is familiar to us, they are extremely well composed.  And they show—better than any testimony we might have in words from the composer—the musical styles and aesthetic attitudes that Debussy was trying on, like so many suits of clothing.  These include manners and moods typical of the salon romance of the day (“Nuit d’étoiles,” “Romance”), coloratura writing (“Les Elfes,” “La Romance d’Ariel”), exoticism (“Rondel chinois,” “Séguidille,” the “Chanson espagnole” duet), and an openness to the whole world outside of the bustling cities: that is, ocean, trees, and desert (as in the songs “Flots, palmes, sables” and “Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau”).  The range of poets that the young Debussy set is remarkable and shows a distinct progression, from the clarity (and, at times, sentimentality) of the Parnassians—e.g., Charles Leconte de Lisle and Théodore de Banville—to the challenging imagery, word play, and synaesthesia of the Symbolists—e.g., Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Most of the songs to be performed and studied in our Debussy Premieres session are still little known.  Four of them—“L’Archet,” “Le Matelot qui tombe à l’eau,” “Romance,” and “Les Elfes”—were published for the first time this past March, thanks to the efforts of Denis Herlin, editor-in-chief of the Debussy complete-works edition.  A fifth, “Séguidille,” remains unpublished but has been reconstructed by Marie Rolf (professor of music theory and associate dean of graduate studies at Eastman) and here receives what may well be its first performance since Debussy and Mme Vasnier no doubt performed it together in intimate surroundings.

Eminent specialists on Debussy and on the song genre will launch the day’s events by presenting the compositional history of the five new songs, the many distinctive features of these and other early songs, and the unique role of poetry in Debussy’s creative development.  These scholars include Denis Herlin (CNRS, Paris), Mylène Dubiau-Feuillerac (Université de Toulouse), Marie Rolf, and Eastman professor and chair of music theory Jonathan Dunsby.

The performers to be heard in the course of the day’s events include Paris-based soprano Elizabeth Calleo (who received her MM from Eastman in 1996), Russell Miller (professor of vocal coaching and repertoire), current voice and piano students of the Eastman School, and—participating by special Internet2 linkup—students from the Royal College of Music (in London) as well as scholar Chris Collins (University of Bangor, Wales). The texts of the five previously unknown songs will be read in French by the noted authority on music and its relationship to language Jean-Jacques Nattiez (Université de Montréal).

Students will perform other songs from Debussy’s earliest period (ca. 1881-83, when the composer was between 19 and 21 years old), and the performances will be enriched by coaching and interpretive commentary from several different perspectives.  Participating in this “master class” part of the day’s events will be the scholars mentioned above, other Eastman faculty members, David Grayson (University of Minnesota), and noted Debussy authorities Richard Langham Smith and Roy Howat (joining us “on screen” from the Royal College of Music).

The Eastman School is delighted to be able to share these performances and scholarly insights with the wider music-loving community.  Music lovers and Francophiles alike are invited to come for all or part of the day’s events.