Live from Elm Court

Episode I Program Note

By Carl Halvorson

While a student at the Conservatoire de Paris, Debussy met and fell in love with a somewhat older soprano, Marie-Blanche Vasnier, who possessed a strikingly high voice. She and her husband became mentors to the penniless musician, and she became his muse and mistress for seven years, during which time he dedicated twenty-seven songs to her. While some are among his most famous songs, a number were not published until somewhat recently, and indeed, La fille aux cheveux de lin was only published in the last decade.  This performance of that song is sourced from the original manuscript in the Frederick C. Koch Collection at Yale’s Beinecke Library, and includes the elaborate second ending written in the composer’s hand, which we believe has never been performed in the modern era!

The style of many of the charming Vasnier songs reflects the woman herself: display pieces for an occasionally coquettish performer who is comfortable with the coloratura soprano’s high tessitura. But these are not simple songs written for a dilettante. She must have been a serious musician, for they are often quite difficult. The Vasnier songbook dates from 1882-4, and include Jane, La fille aux cheveux de lin, La romance d’Ariel, Romance - Silence ineffable, Regret, and the duet Chanson espagnole, the poem of which Delibes had set as a solo song about twenty years earlier with a similar Spanish flavor. Beau soir was written between 1878 and 1880 in a post-Romantic, early Impressionistic style, and remains one of Debussy’s most beloved songs.

The Ariettes oubliées were written several years after the Vasnier songs, and weren’t published together until 1903. They were dedicated to the great star Mary Garden, a very different artist and his first Mélisande.  These are settings of sophisticated Verlaine poems, and his desire to approximate speech in the vocal line and reflect the text, while creating moods of decadence, languorous ecstasy, momentum, sumptuousness, and glorious pianistic colors and effects, all define the work as a masterpiece of the maturing Debussy.