Present Absence: Debussy, Song, and the Art of (Dis)appearing

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Debussy’s early song settings, of Banville and 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 22 years from 1882-1904, juxtaposes such evocations of intense sensuous presence with songs of alienated absence and ironic distance. The poems he set from Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes (1869) provoke both kinds of song, with 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 The usual account is that these show the composer’s progression from romantic lyricism to the more sophisticated but withdrawn style of the later songs, a stylistic development paralleled by a biographical story, from his youthful passion for the dedicatee of the early songs,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 misses their exploration of the economy of desire at the heart of the piano song.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-256
Number of pages18
Journal19th-Century Music
Issue number3
Early online date3 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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