Debussy's Earliest Songs

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If we celebrated 1962 as the centenary of Debussy's birth, then we might also remark that 1982 was another centenary, that of the first performance of his music.* On May 12, 1882, Debussy premiered the mélodies "Les Roses" and "Fête galante" with his benefactor Blanche Vasnier, and he performed the chamber duo Nocturne et Scherzo with the violinist Maurice Thieberg. This article discusses Debussy's biography in the period around 1882. It then takes up "Fête galante," "Les Roses" and other songs related in time and style. It finds in these songs departures from the common practice that, following the refinements and intensification of Debussy's maturity, would influence the course of twentieth-century music.

From 1880 to 1884, Debussy encountered four experiences that shaped his personal and musical development. First, he began his Conservatoire training in composition, largely abandoning his earlier emphasis upon piano and receiving in 1884 the Prix de Rome. Second, in the summers of 1880 through 1882, he traveled throughout Europe and Russia as pianist for Nadezhda von Meck, the celebrated "beloved friend" of Tchaikovsky. Third, in 1882 or thereabout he first studied Wagner's Tristan, although the influence of that score did not penetrate his deeper sensibilities until after 1887. And fourth, Debussy met in 1880 the family Vasnier, who befriended him, contributed substantially to his financial support, and guided his path toward literature and the other arts. The Vasniers provided a liberal and progressive atmosphere that encouraged innovation in the mélodies, and most of Debussy's youthful songs were written for Mme. Vasnier. We therefore may explore this relationship with the Vasniers at some length.

In her memoirs, the daughter Marguerite states that Debussy's parents neither shared nor encouraged the intellectual outlook that their son was beginning to cultivate. For this reason, apparently, upon meeting the Vasniers he asked permission to work in their home, and he was accepted by the couple virtually as a son. Marguerite continues by painting this picture of Debussy's personality:

He was very moody, very sensitive, and impressionable in the extreme. A tiny thing would put him in a good mood, but by the same token a little thing would make him sulk or become infuriated. Very unsociable . . . he accepted only rarely the company of strangers . . . He was very ignorant yet too intelligent not to be aware of it. He read a great deal, and I even found him looking through my textbooks for the dictionary, which he studied conscientiously.1

Marguerite Vasnier notes that in this period Debussy preferred the given name Achille, from Greek mythology, to Claude, and he signed his correspondence and autograph manuscripts "Ach. Debussy" until 1887.2

As to the Vasniers, Marcel Dietschy in his Passion de Claude Debussy describes M. Vasnier as reserved, hard-working, a realist in every sense. Mme. Vasnier is his exact opposite. She is lively, he is ponderous; she loves the world, he flees it; she is modern, even avant-garde, he is a member of the French Society of Antiquarians.3

Paul Vidal, a contemporary at the Conservatoire, described Mme. Vasnier as "a pretty woman, she is adoringly pursued, which sustains her dear vanity; a singer of talent, she interprets [Debussy's] works in a superior manner, and all that he writes is for her and because of her."4

During the years 1880 to 1884, Debussy provided for her some twenty-four mélodies, the duet "Chanson espagnole," and his first operatic excerpts, an air and duo drawn from Banville's Hymnis. He accompanied her in the Parisian salons and in public, including the aforementioned debut of his music in 1882. Past research has concluded that Debussy's relationship to Mme. Vasnier became amorous. Dietschy maintains that "Madame Vasnier gave [Debussy] . . . his initial experience as a lover,"5 and Prunières speaks of her as "Debussy's first great love."6 Lockspeiser reviews the relationship in less passionate terms, noting the absence of hard evidence.7 To note such a relationship in Debussy's life is important—and indeed interesting—yet the documentation leaves room for question.

Dedications on the song manuscripts tend to speak for the Naïveté of the relationship. On the autograph of the unpublished mélodie "La Fille aux cheveux de lin," one reads, "All of any good that I can have in my head is here. See and judge for yourself. Ach. Debussy." On the manuscript of "Rondel chinois" appears the inscription "to Madame Vasnier, the only one who can sing this music and cause to be forgotten all that is unsingable and Chinese in it." And on "Caprice:" "These mélodies, conceived in some way by thoughts of you can only belong to you as does their author. Ach. Debussy." Debussy dedicated the Vasnier Songbook, a collection of thirteen mélodies, "To Mme. Vasnier, these songs that have lived only through her and that will lose their charm if ever they cease to pass through her melodious fairy-like lips. The eternally gratefully author, Achille Debussy."8 The nature of these inscriptions is sentimentally flattering yet not necessarily romantic, given the rhetoric of the times. Too, one is hard-pressed to interpret the inscriptions as intimate when they never tutoyer Mme. Vasnier. Thus, the inscriptions do not suggest any lover's involvement between the composer and dedicatee, although one may discover therein a youthful infatuation on Debussy's part.

One piece of evidence, however, is more suspicious. In question is a letter from Debussy, written from Rome to his friend Claudius Popelin. Debussy's physician Pasteur Vallery-Radot, who published the letter in 1938, noted in a footnote that Debussy was referring to a certain "Mme. V. . . .," yet Vallery-Radot does not state how he knows this fact. To be sure, Debussy may have confided in him, but the physician was not on the scene at the time and—as others after him—may have let his imagination leap. The critical passage reads:

Must I tell you that these two months have changed nothing for me, that they have only frustrated certain of my feelings. I am obliged to acknowledge the force of these feelings, since without the one who is their cause, I no longer really live. For it is truly not to live only to see one's imagination no longer obey oneself. As I told you, I am too much in the habit of wishing and conceiving only for her. It is with a certain fear that I tell you this. For I am a long way from your advice to return this foolish love to a durable friendship. I know it, but its very folly hinders me from reflecting. Not only does reflection yield more foolishness, but in fact I end in believing that I have not done enough for this love.9

We may not automatically assume that Mme. Vasnier was the lady of reference, despite their close association for more than four years. However compelling the speculation, there still remains the lack of correspondence between the two, the recollection of someone on the scene, and any other unequivocal evidence of a lover's relationship. Until concrete evidence comes to light, one may not state as fact that Debussy was romantically attracted to Mme. Vasnier or that she reciprocated his feelings. Nonetheless, the above letter to Popelin is of primary importance in exposing the ardent character of Debussy's emotions in the Vasnier period, regardless of who was the object of his feelings. For in understanding the overt quality of his youthful emotions, one may trace more surely how the interiorizing of his emotions as the decade of the 1880s progressed paralleled the maturing and refinement of his musical style.

Although we cannot conclude about the exact role of Mme. Vasnier in the emotional sphere, we can state that she provided a decisive influence in the musical sphere. The mélodies that Debussy composed for her show the "rebellious" side of his early style, which departed from the common practice in the areas of prosody, tonality, and structure. As both performer and benefactor, Mme. Vasnier encouraged Debussy's early development by providing him the opportunity to cultivate this personal, innovative style, which could flourish only outside the walls of the Conservatoire.

A man of financial means, Eugène-Henri Vasnier provided for Debussy throughout a four-year period, from 1880 until the young composer received the lucrative Prix de Rome in 1884, and Vasnier's help recommenced for a short time when Debussy returned to Paris in 1887.10 The older man assumed the role of liberal educator, apparently leading Debussy to the works of Verlaine and Mallarmé. Together with Banville, whom Debussy was already reading at the time, these two poets figured centrally in the composer's developing aesthetic. In his correspondence from Rome Debussy complains of missing "long and earnest discussions" on literature, the theater, and painting that M. Vasnier initiated.11 Thus, the formation of the young composer owed to Vasnier an invaluable guidance toward the related arts.

M. Vasnier encouraged his self-appointed ward in another, specifically musical manner. As the daughter recalls in her memoirs, Debussy the free spirit was little inclined to enter the Prix de Rome competition, considering it too academic and backward-looking. But at M. Vasnier's urging, Debussy did enter the competition twice, in 1883, when he received the second place with the cantata Le Gladiateur, and again in 1884, when he took first place with the cantata L'Enfant Prodigue.

In a bittersweet way and unknown to himself, Debussy later reciprocated the Vasniers for their years of artistic and material encouragement. One of two manuscripts of Debussy's early "Clair de Lune" was sold in 1930 to the Newberry Library, which retains it now. The manuscript dealer Simon Kra, in a letter accompanying the manuscript, wrote to Newberry:

Debussy, in his youth, had a friend named Mme. Vasnier, to whom he dedicated all his creations. After the death of Debussy, this lady found herself in a precarious situation, so she sold many of Debussy's [early songs] to the bookseller Poursin . . . and the remaining few manuscripts of her late friend she sold to me.

We may now turn directly to the songs of 1882. I would like to illustrate Debussy's first experiments in harmonically dissociated texture, new tonal and melodic designs, new scalar and chordal structures, and a truly Debussyan speech-song.

Debussy's two most important innovations in texture in the early works are harmonic parallelism, discussed later, and the dissociation of texture. The component levels of Debussy's mature texture may disagree tonally or rhythmically, creating not a traditional counterpoint of themes but one of sound worlds. "Les Roses," a setting of a poem by Théodore de Banville, shows the beginnings of textural dissociation (see Example 1).


Ex. 1. "Les Roses" (unpublished; by permission of Stiftelsen Musikkulturens främjande, Stockholm, owner, and Mme. Gaston de Tinan, primary heir), mm. 13-24




In measures 16 through 21, Debussy establishes the pedal point B-flat in the bass level. An overlay of dissonance occurs in the middle level, which is heard in the tenor line and right hand of the accompaniment. Of particular interest is measure 19, whose prominent G in the tenor line is dissociated from the surrounding B-flat Major/Minor 7th chord, and in 20, whose F-sharp Minor diminished 7th chord in the upper levels disagrees entirely with the pedal point. Of importance, too, is that the trilevel texture of Debussy's maturity is already present. That trilevel texture here as later consists of a static bass, an ambiguous middle level that veils the tonality, and a melodic level that more typically is rhythmically aloof from the other two levels.

"Les Roses" also exemplifies the expanded tonal relationship Debussy would discuss in 1889 with his teacher Ernest Guiraud. Debussy stated: "In submerging tonality (en noyant le ton), one should always proceed where one wishes, one can go out and return by whatever door one prefers. And our world, thereby expanded, is capable of greater nuance."12

In the early songs, Debussy's explorations of expanded tonality often involve common tones and enharmonics, devices synthesized fully in his later compositions. Again referring to "Les Roses," one observes that the opening and closing sections, in F-sharp Major, relate to the middle section, gravitating around B-flat, through the enharmonic common tone A-sharp. The juncture occurs in measure 15, where A-sharp is respelled B-flat, and from measures 21 to 22, where the process reverses. One of course must add that common tone or enharmonic relationships are observed throughout the nineteenth century. However, the young Debussy concentrates intently upon such relationships: in "Les Roses" an enharmonic common tone allows the large-scale tonal relationship of the composition as it joins the primary key of F-sharp Major with B-flat, the tonal emphasis of the mid-section. Out of this youthful focus upon the remote derives the new tonal discourse of Debussy's maturity.

The companion piece to "Les Roses"—also premiered in the now famous debut—is "Fête galante." A setting of a poem by Banville, it does not relate immediately to the two later series Fêtes galantes on poetry of Verlaine. It does share with them the ambiance of the commedia dell'arte, and Debussy, Banville, and Verlaine alike were inspired by Watteau's mezzotints of an imaginary galante world.

"Fête galante" reveals the Debussy of the future through its novel approach to scalar materials: not only is the A-dorian mode its home scale, but also Debussy goes that important step further in distorting that scale throughout by chromatic nuance. (See Example 2.)


Ex. 2. "Fête galante" (unpublished; by permission of Mme. Gouïn, owner, and Mme. de Tinan, heir), mm. 33-47




The wandering chromaticism of Wagner does not occur frequently in the early music just as it is not basic to the mature Debussy. Instead, melodic inflections, as in "Fête galante," and elsewhere chromatic bridge passages "submerge the tonality," as Debussy expressed it. Furthermore, "Fête galante" already is informed more by the poets, to recall Dukas, than by the musicians. The choice of the Dorian mode, a flute-like, arabesque melody, and quasi-modal chord successions by second and third subtly evoke the unreal world of Banville's poem and reflect a common inspiration by Watteau. The "vogue of the exotic" among Debussy's predecessors, signaled by Frits Noske when he studied the nineteenth-century mélodie, must have suggested novel scales and tonal plans. Yet once again, one observes Debussy dwelling intently upon the innovation, as if testing its absolute value for his future.

"Fête galante" was to be reworked seven years after its composition as the "Menuet" of the Petite Suite, as discussed in my recent article in 19th Century Music (Fall 1981). But in the later version, Debussy would provide a subtle interchange of mode—the Menuet ends in G Major—and an expanded structure based upon two interrelated themes.

Symmetrical chords in parallel motion and unresolved dissonances are regarded as most distinctive hallmarks of Debussy and important legacies for the twentieth century. As early as 1883 at the Conservatoire, Debussy argued:

Dissonant chords—to resolve dissonant chords. How's that? Consecutive fifths and octaves forbidden—Why? Parallel motion condemned and sacrosanct contrary motion beatified—in whose honor?13

The mélodie "Rondel chinois," composed about 1882 on a text perhaps by Debussy, includes his first use of parallel symmetrical chords. In Example 3, Debussy reinforces vertically a descending chromatic line by symmetrical triads in first inversion.


Ex. 3. "Rondel chinois" (unpublished; by permission of the Library of Congress, owner, and Mme. de Tinan, heir), mm. 25-32



The chord sequence of this bridge slips chromatically from C Major of measure 26 (a tonal pillar) through the enharmonic link A-flat/G-sharp in measure 30, and to the cadence on the E dominant chord of measure 32 (also a tonal pillar). The chromatic line, here given Debussy's "sonorous reinforcement," typically provides a nontonal relief that highlights tonal goals and allows a greater freedom of movement between important pillars in the structure. As also with "Les Roses," the tonal plan is prominently linear.

French composers of the 1870s and 1880s—particularly in the innovative genre of mélodie—appear to have suggested to Debussy the potential of symmetrical chords in parallel motion. Space permits me to cite only one brief instance, Example 4.


Ex. 4. Duparc, "La Fuite" (in the public domain)



In question is a passage from Duparc's "La fuite" of 1872, which is analogous to that of "Rondel chinois" in all important respects. The device traces also to Chopin, as for example in the parallel successions of 7th chords in the Polonaise in F Minor, Op. 71 No. 3.

Contemporaneous to Debussy's advanced experiments in the Vasnier songs were his notorious improvisations for Conservatoire colleagues. Maurice Emmanuel would recall:

Sevenths, that far from "resolving downward wisely," had the audacity to ascend or not to resolve at all; shameless "false relations"; chords of the ninth on every scale degree; chords of the eleventh, of the thirteenth: all the tones of the diatonic scale extended simultaneously in formidable structures.14

Every mélodie of the Vasnier period accessible to me contains unresolved dissonances or "added tones," which place Debussy in the vanguard of changing concepts of dissonance. Although 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths all occur, it is the added 13th—the "plus 6"—that holds the greatest fascination for the young composer. In Example 5, Debussy delights in reiterating the B-flat, the added 13th at the end of "Musique." No neighbor tone, the added 13th becomes an established member of this, the final and thus the most stable sonority of the composition.


Ex. 5. "Musique" (by permission of Les Éditions Salabert), mm. 40-49



An extended passage from "Apparition," Example 6, may show innovative processes of melodic structure and prosody. Among Debussy's devices for extending his melodic ideas in the formative period, immediate transformation seems the most forward-looking. In progressively forming anew the theme and thereby recreating its identity, transformation is antithetical to traditional concepts of unity, in which repetition and recapitulation are basic. Whereas it is in nascent stages in the early music, the technique of transformation in the late work Jeux becomes so extensive as to suggest new ways of perceiving structure.


Ex. 6. "Apparition" (by permission of Les Éditions Jobert, Paris), mm. 27-44




In "Apparition," a germinal idea is stated in measures 32-34 of the voice line. That germinal idea ("Quand avec du soleil aux cheveux") consists of a descent followed by an ascent to a focal point, "Che-veux" in measure 34. The descent portion of the idea recurs in measures 37-38 and 39-40 but is subjected to successive transformation through expanding intervals. The phrase beginning in measure 41 retains the characteristic descending contour of the germinal idea, but by now the idea has been transformed rhythmically and intervallically so as virtually to lose its original identity. If melodic transformation in this passage propels the structure forward, then such devices as the B-flat—F pedal point (measures 31-39), the triplet motive of the accompaniment (measures 31-40), and the arrival at and subsequent extension of tonic G-flat (measure 42) provide unity and stability. Debussy's much later remark about Mussorgsky describes strikingly his own procedure, "the form consists of small, successive steps, linked in a mysterious way."15 Such "form by successive steps," as seen now in "Apparition," is a process already apparent in the formative works, before the impress of Boris Godunov and the Nursery Songs was felt.

Debussy's unique sensitivity to the intonation of spoken French yielded a vitally personal melodic idiom. Debussy under the pen name "Monsieur Croche" would blame the awkwardness in contemporaneous French prosody upon foreign influences. In his "open letter to the Chevalier Gluck," he wrote,

Between us, your prosody is extremely bad; at least you make of French a language of accentuation when it is, on the contrary, a language of delicate nuances. (I know . . . you are German.)16

From the time of his earliest songs, Debussy formed melody around the subtle nuance and natural rhythm of the poetry he set. One may take as representative the melodic line "Quand avec du soleil aux cheveux" ("When with sun on your hair") of Example 6, measures 32-34. When spoken, the line aims subtly toward the last syllable, "-veux" of "cheveux," which would be stressed by longer duration and perhaps higher innovation. The ultimate syllables (excepting the e muet) of the succeeding phrases, "soir" (measure 36) and "-rue" or "apparue" (measure 38) also are emphasized when speaking the poem. Debussy's melody line reflects closely the spoken phrase in its basic shape and pattern of agogic and tonal stresses. When, as in measures 29-31, Debussy foreswears the soaring arc of Massenet's air and refers instead to the distilled, purified range of operatic récitatif, the prosody of Pelléas is being learned.

Let these few examples from the more than thirty songs of Debussy's youth represent his first steps toward a remarkable achievement, the importance of which for the twentieth century can scarcely be overestimated. From the outset, Debussy gathered unto himself the sporadic unorthodoxies he found in the French music that comprised his background. He pursued these ever more to the exclusion of conventional processes until he would rarify and fully synthesize them from about 1890. After examining the early works more pointedly, we may conclude that Debussy did not spring fully formed from the head of Wagner, but rather that his style evolved gradually and has its tap root in French vocal music of the nineteenth century. Wagner and the Russians, then, provided a supportive nourishment to an evolution already under way.

*This article was presented in a different version before the 1982 national conference of the American Musicological Society.

1Marguerite Vasnier, "Debussy à dix-huit ans," La Revue musicale (1926), p. 20 (116). Il était très ombrageux, très susceptible, et impressionable au suprême degré; un rien le mettait de bonne humeur, mais aussi un rien le rendait boudeur et rageur. Très sauvage . . . il n'acceptait pas souvent de se trouver avec des étrangers . . . Très ignorant et trop intelligent pour ne pas s'en rendre compte . . . il lisait beaucoup, et je l'ai vu chercher dans mes livres de classe le dictionnaire qu'il etudiait conscieusement.

2Vasnier, p. 20 (116).

3Marcel Dietschy, La Passion de Claude Debussy (Neuchâtel: A la Baconnière, 1962), p. 38.

4Maurice Emmanuel, "Debussy Inconnu," Revue Pleyel 5 (1927), p. 25. (Quoting a letter from Vidal to Henriette Fuchs, of July 12, 1884.)

5Dietschy, p. 39.

6Henry Prunières, "À la Villa Médicis," La Revue musicale (1926), p. 24 (120).

7Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. 1 (London: Cassell, 1962), p. 71.

8On "La fille": "Tout ce que je peux avoir de bon dans le cerveau est là-dedans. Voyez et jugez. Ach. Debussy." On "Rondel chinois": "à Madame Vasnier . . . la seule qui peut chanter et faire oublier tout ce que cette musique a d'inchantable et de chinoise." On "Caprice": "Ces mélodies conçues en quelque sorte par votre souvenir ne peuvent que vous appartenir comme vous appartient l'auteur. Ach. Debussy." The inscription on the Vasnier Songbook is quoted from Lockspeiser, Vol. 1, p. 69.

9Pasteur Vallery-Radot, "Claude Debussy: Souvenirs," Revue des deux mondes (15 mai, 1938), pp. 398-418, of which 400-401 include the letter cited. . . . Faut-il que je vous dise aussi que ces deux mois n'ont rien changé en moi, qu'ils n'ont fait qu'exaspérer certains de mes sentiments. Je suis bien obligé d'avouer leur force, puisque, sans ce qui en est la cause, je ne vis pas, car c'est bien ne pas vivre que de voir son imagination ne plus vous obéir. Je vous l'ai dit, j'ai trop pris l'habitude de ne vouloir et de ne concevoir que pour elle. C'est avec une certaine crainte que je vous dis cela. Car il y a loin de ce que vous m'aviez conseillé de tâcher à ramener à une amitié durable, cet amour qui est fou, je le saie, mais dont la folie m'empêche de réfléchir. Non seulement la réflexion n'aboutit qu'à plus de folie encore, mais elle est toute prête à trouver que je n'ai pas assez fait pour cet amour.

Heretofore unknown letters from Debussy to Popelin were revealed by Margaret Cobb at the Debussy session of the 1982 conference of the American Musicological Society, in Ann Arbor. The letters as quoted by Mrs. Cobb, all of which remain unpublished, recall the tone of the letter cited here without, however, naming Mme. Vasnier as Debussy's lover. The owner of the letters does not wish to share them with researchers at present.

10Vasnier, p. 21 (117).

11Claude Debussy, Lettres, 1884-1918, edited by François Lesure (Paris: Hermann, 1980), p. 10.

12Maurice Emmanuel, Pelléas et Mélisande (Paris, 1926), p. 101, quoting Debussy: ". . . en noyant le ton, on peut toujours, sans tortuosités, aboutir où l'on veut, sortir et rentrer par telle porte qu'on préfère. Et notre monde, agrandi, est aussi plus nuancé."

13Emmanuel, p. 102, quoting Debussy: "Les accords dissonants. . . . Résoudre les accords dissonants. Plaît-il? Les quintes, les octaves de suite, défendues. Pourquoi? Les mouvements parallèles condamnés et le sacro-saint mouvement contraire béatifié. En quel honneur?"

14Emmanuel, p. 103. . . . des septièmes qui, loin de sagement 'se résoudre en descendant,' avaient l'aplomb de 'monter' ou de ne pas se résoudre de tout; de 'fausses relations' éhontées; des accords de neuvième sur tous les degrés; des accords de onzième, de treizième: tous les sons de la gamme diatonique entendus simultanément dans des étagements formidables.

15Quoted in Roger Nichols, Debussy (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 83.

16Claude Debussy, Monsieur Croche et autres écrits, edited by François Lesure (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p. 99. Entre nous, vous prosodiez fort mal; du moins, vous faites de la langue française une langue d'accentuation quand elle est au contraire une langue nuancée. (Je sais . . . vous êtes allemand.)

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James R. Briscoe

James R. Briscoe, a musicologist (PhD North Carolina-Chapel Hill) at Butler University, emphasizes teaching the music history of America and modern Europe. He has served on the AMS Council, as CMS Board Member for Musicology, and as President of the AMS-Midwest Chapter. Briscoe published Vitalizing Music History Teaching (CMS/Pendragon 2010), Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (Garland), Debussy's Preludes for Piano (Schirmer), the Contemporary and Historical Anthologies of Music by Women (Indiana), and Debussy in Performance (Yale). 

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