Debussy's early song settings of Théodore de Banville and Paul Bourget foreground the Romantic topic by which the singing voice revokes lost presence. The closed aesthetic space of music becomes, in these songs, the space of the nocturnal garden in which the souls of lovers merge with the containing landscape. But Debussy's fascination with the poetry of Paul Verlaine, over a period of twenty-two years from 1882 to 1904, juxtaposes such evocations of intense sensuous presence with songs of alienated absence and ironic distance. The poems Debussy set from Verlaine's Fêtes galantes (1869) provoke both kinds of song, the latter embodied through the shadowy figures of the commedia dell'arte. In the case of two such poems, “En sourdine” and “Clair de lune,” Debussy produced two different settings of the same text, ten years apart. The usual account is that these show the composer's progression from Romantic lyricism to a more sophisticated but withdrawn style, a development paralleled by a biographical story moving from his youthful passion for the dedicatee of the early songs, Marie-Blanche Vasnier, to the breakdown of his first marriage in 1904. But neither the stylistic nor the biographical narrative provides an adequate account of the Verlaine songs, and both miss their exploration of the economy of desire at the heart of the piano song.
Present Absence: Debussy, Song, and the Art of (Dis)appearing
Julian Johnson is Regius Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was formerly Reader in Music at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. Anne's College (2001–2007), and a Lecturer at the University of Sussex (1994–2001). Originally a composer, his research explores aesthetic and historical issues in music from the eighteenth century to the present day. He is the author of five books, most recently, Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: OUP, 2015).
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Julian Johnson; Present Absence: Debussy, Song, and the Art of (Dis)appearing. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2017; 40 (3): 239–256. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2017.40.3.239
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