Academic journal article Notes

From Debussy's Studio: The Little-Known Autograph of De Reve, the First of the Proses Lyriques (1892)

Academic journal article Notes

From Debussy's Studio: The Little-Known Autograph of De Reve, the First of the Proses Lyriques (1892)

Article excerpt


In the early part of his career, one of the areas in which Debussy carried out extensive experimentation was the art song--the melodie. Having at first set poetry by Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Mallarme, Debussy decided in the eighteen-nineties to write his own poetry for musical setting, taking inspiration from the free verse ("vers libre") of the Symbolists. Completed in the years 1892-93, the group of four melodies that he symbolically entitled Proses lyriques was conceived at the moment at which the composer was completing both the String Quartet and the Prelude a Vapres-midi d'un faune. And it is not by chance that he completed these melodies just as he was beginning work on the opera Pelleas et Melisande.

For the Proses lyriques we possess several manuscript versions, including the autograph manuscript that served the engraver (the Stichvorlage), today on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. For the first of the group, "De reve," another autograph is preserved in the collections of the Juilliard School. Comparison of the Morgan and Juilliard manuscripts reveals differences not in the structure of the melodie as much as in the subtle refinements Debussy made in the writing for voice and piano. Indeed these refinements reveal the experimental and pragmatic predilections of a composer anxious to offer his interpreters a musical text accurately reflective of his sonic universe.


Setting poetry to music played a decisive role in the musical development of the youthful Achille Debussy. Indeed, setting poetry to music became for him the site of a kind of artistic experimentation that would result in the composition from 1893 to 1895 of Pelleas et Melisande, his sole completed opera, based on the eponymous play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Evidence of this experimental attitude is to be found in the existence of more than one finished manuscript for the very same melodies. With the exception of some of the Ariettes, the differences among such sources concern less the structure of the songs than the refinement of their writing for voice and piano. Such in particular is the case of the Proses lyriques, for three of which we possess, in addition to the autograph manuscripts that served the engraver of the published score, four further manuscript versions. (1) With special attention to the specific case of "De reve," the first of the four Proses lyriques, it is my intention here to offer close examinations of some of the relevant texts and logical explanations of the reasons that led Debussy to modify them. But before looking into the nature of his transformations, I should like first to describe the circumstance in which Debussy undertook the composition of this cycle of melodies.

In 1892, when he began to conceive a new song cycle entitled Proses lyriques, Debussy was hardly a well-known composer. Even though he had won the Grand Prix de Rome--the highest honor that a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire could receive--at the relatively early age of twenty-two, the young man, still known at the time (1884) as Achille, was determined

not to follow the traditional trajectory of other Rome Prize winners of the time. (2) Returning to Paris in 1887 after spending the required two years at the Villa Medicis, home of the French Academy in Rome, he did not attempt to find regular professional employment in the French capital. He rather followed a somewhat non traditional itinerary for a period that Franqois Lesure, in his celebrated biography of the composer, appropriately calls "les annees bohemes" (the bohemian years). (3) 4 He particularly enjoyed confabulation and deliberation in the Parisian cafes, which had long been hotbeds of learning and debate. Debussy was a self-educated man, he had tremendous intellectual curiosity, and he would become as seriously interested in painting and literature as he was in poetry and philosophy. The free and wide-ranging discussions of cafe society provided great nourishment for his musical imagination, and led indirectly to his pursuit of new musical forms. …

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