Debussy's Vocal Music

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Debussy with his first wife, Rosalie Texier (Lilly)

Emma Bardac, Debussy's second wife

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Early Songs for Mme Vasnier


          Renée Fleming, soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

    Clair de lune (Moonlight) — 1st version

          Dawn Upshaw, soprano; James Levine, piano

    Flots, palmes, sables (Waves, Palms, Sands)

          Gillian Keith, soprano; Simon Lepper, piano; 

          Cecilia Maria de Sultana, harp

    La Romance d'Ariel

          Natalie Dessay, soprano; Philippe Cassard, piano

The first three songs above were written in 1882, when Debussy

was twenty; Ariel was written two years later. All these, and many

more, were written for the agile coloratura soprano voice of

Mme Marie Vasnier, an amateur soprano with "the voice of an angel." 

She was, at the time, romantically involved with Debussy, who was

fourteen years her junior. (See Faun book, pgs 27-29, 51-56.)


Fêtes galantes, 1st set

    1. En sourdine (Muted) — 2nd version

          Véronique Gens, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano
    2. Fantoches (Puppets) — 2nd version

          Véronique Gens, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano
    3. Clair de lune (Moonlight) — 2nd version

          Gérard Souzay, baritone; Dalton Baldwin, piano

Paul Verlaine was Debussy's favorite source for song lyrics. The poet's often casual, conversational verses—their imagery, the unforced rhymes, abundant musical references, and pervasive lyricism—were easily matched to Debussy’s natural manner. Among the early Verlaine songs written for Marie Vasnier, these three were rewritten in the early 1890s. To measure the creative distance the composer traveled in a decade, listen to the first and second versions of the song, Clair de lune, above. (See Faun book, pgs 53-56.)


   Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) complete on one video 

    1. C'est l'extase langoureuse (It's the langorous ecstasy) 
    2. Il pleure dans mon cœur (It's raining in my heart)
    3. L'ombre de arbres (The Shadow of Trees)
    4. Chevaux de bois (Wooden Horses) 
    5. Green

    6. Spleen 

These six songs on poems by Verlaine were written in 1885-1887, after Debussy's unhappy tenure at the Villa Medici in Rome (his reward for winning the Prix de Rome). Debussy revised the songs and reissued them in 1903 after the success of his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, created a demand for his music. (See Faun book, pgs 53-54.)

Dawn Upshaw, soprano; James Levine, piano

Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire complete on one video

    1. Le Balcon (The Balcony)
    2. Harmonie du soir (Evening Harmony)

    3. Le Jet d'eau (The Fountain)
    4. Recueillement (Meditation)

    5. La Mort des amants (The Death of the Lovers)

The five Baudelaire songs (1887-1889) marked a turning point for Debussy. The music reflects his preoccupation with Wagner, as well as his struggle to find a musical path beyond Wagner. The texts are from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) — poems made of memories and tinged with melancholy, recalling unending kisses and sighing violins. (See Faun book, pgs 77-79.)

Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto; Catherine Collard, piano

Trois Chansons de Bilitis complete on one video

    1. La flûte de Pan (Panpipes) 
    2. La Chevelure
(The Hair) 
    3. Le Tombeau des naïades
(The Tomb of the Naiads)

Debussy wrote the three Bilitis songs, on poems by his close friend Pierre Louÿs, in 1897-98, after he had completed the score of Pelléas et Mélisande. Louÿs's book, Chansons de Bilitis, had begun as a hoax, pretending to be a document recovered from an ancient Greek tomb. The verses record the erotic memories of Bilitis, looking back on her adolescence and her later life as a courtesan. When the hoax was uncovered, Louÿs was launched as one of the most successful French writers of the 1890s. The poems that Debussy chose tell us about the teenage Bilitis's dalliance with a young shepherd. (See Faun book, pgs 170-173.) 

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Pei-Yao Wang, piano


Chansons de Charles d'Orléans complete on one video

    1. Dieu! qu'il la fait bon regarder! (God, what a vision she is!)
    2. Quant j'ai ouy le tabourin (When I hear the tambourine)
    3. Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain (Winter, you're nothing
but a villain)

For his texts, Debussy borrowed three of the hundreds of poems by the 15th-century Duke of Orléans, written during his 25-year imprisonment after the Battle of Agincourt. The music has an archaic flavor, thanks to Debussy's use of church modes and counterpoint associated with the Middle Ages, and he maintained the Old French language of the original poems. (See Faun book, pgs 94, 293.) 

Eric Ericson Chamber Choir


Fêtes galantes, 2nd set complete on one video

    1. Les ingénus (Young Lovers)
    2. Le faune (The Faun)
    3. Colloque sentimental (Sentimental Dialogue)

Debussy set these Verlaine poems to music in 1904 and dedicated them to Emma Bardac, with whom he would soon elope. Les ingénus describes memories of the kind of autumn evenings when a young lady in high heels might linger in her lover's arms. The Faun is a terra-cotta statue that laughs at passing strangers. Colloque is the sardonic conversation of two lovers' ghosts walking in a desolate park.

Gérard Souzay, baritone; Dalton Baldwin, piano

Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons

(Christmas of the children who have no home)

Debussy wrote this heart-wrenching song in December 1915, when the devastation of the war, and his inability to fight for his country, weighed heavily on his mind. Written for solo voice and piano, the song has since been arranged for chorus, as it is heard here. The words, written by the composer, tell of the thousands of children orphaned by the war: "They burned the school and our teacher too. They burned the church and Jesus Christ. . . . Papa is at the war. Poor mama died before seeing all this. What are we to do?" (See Faun book, pgs 289-290.)

Cantare (Westlake Girls' High School, Auckland, New Zealand)

Fiona Wilson, conductor; Cathy Bennett, piano

To listen to the music,
click on the titles


Music titles are linked to YouTube videos selected for quality of performance and other criteria. 


Page numbers refer to the book, "Afternoon of a Faun," where these works are discussed.

Portrait of Marie-Blanche Vasnier, by Jacques-Émile Blanche