Academic journal article Notes

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

Academic journal article Notes

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

Article excerpt

Setting poetry to music played a decisive role in the musical develop- ment of the youthful Achille Debussy. Indeed, setting poetry to music be- came for him the site of a kind of artistic experimentation that would result in the composition from 1893 to 1895 of Pelléas et Mélisande, 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 mélodies. With the exception of some of the Ariettes, the differences among such sources concern less the structure of the songs than the re- finement 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 rêve," 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 de- scribe the circumstance in which Debussy undertook the composition of this cycle of mélodies.

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 Médicis, home of the French Academy in Rome, he did not attempt to find regular professional employment in the French capi- tal. He rather followed a somewhat nontraditional itinerary for a period that François Lesure, in his celebrated biography of the composer, ap- propriately calls "les années bohèmes" (the bohemian years).3 He partic- ularly enjoyed confabulation and deliberation in the Parisian cafés, 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 café so- ciety provided great nourishment for his musical imagination, and led indirectly to his pursuit of new musical forms. From the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the String Quartet, both works begun in the same year as the Proses lyriques, all the way to the 1916-17 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy's oeuvre in its entirety appears to be marked by the intel- lectual stimulation he experienced in the years between 1888 and 1892. In 1911, in a letter to his friend and publisher, Jacques Durand, he looked back upon those years with nostalgia: "I thank you, my dear friend, because in the sad 'factory' of the present moment, your message refreshed my memory of the period in which I was writing my String Quartet, a period which did not bring me much gold but which was nonetheless a truly golden age."4

When Debussy took up the Proses lyriques in earnest, he was already an experienced composer of art songs. Between 1879 and 1885, while still a student at the Conservatoire, he wrote some fifty of the one-hundred songs we have from his pen, most of which remained unpublished dur- ing his lifetime, with the conspicuous exception of Nuit d'étoiles, a setting of the poem by Théodore de Banville, and the first work by Debussy that would see publication, in June 1882.5 At first he interested himself in the poets who were popular at the time, among them Banville and Leconte de Lisle as well as Paul Bourget and Stéphane Mallarmé, one of whose poems he set in those years. …

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