Last week saw the release of a four-CD collection of the complete songs of Claude Debussy on the Ligia label, distributed by harmonia mundi. The project seems to have been organized by pianist Jean-Louis Haguenauer, who plays the 1905 Blüthner instrument that once belonged to Debussy. The vocalists he recruited for this project include sopranos Liliana Faraon and Magali Léger, mezzo Marie-Ange Todorovitch, tenor Gilles Ragon tenor, and baritone François Le Roux. The box also includes a 240 page booklet (included the front and back covers) that provides texts for all 424 songs in both French and English along with an essay by Haguenauer about the piano and a comprehensive study by Debussy scholar Denis Herlin (both of which also appear in both French and English). As in the old joke about a child’s book report on penguins, many may feel that this release will tell them more about Debussy’s vocal music than they would ever want to know.
It probably goes without saying that I do not number myself among that group of listeners. Indeed, last October I wrote about the three CDs that had been released in pianist Malcolm Martineau’s project for Hyperion to record the complete songs of Debussy. At that time I observed that the songs “comprehensively cover the full span of time he put into composition.” The very first entry in François Lesure’s catalog is a setting of a ballad to the moon by Alfred de Musset (whose manuscript has never been found), while the antepenultimate entry (L 139) is a Christmas carol for homeless children composed in 1915, in the middle of the First World War, to a text written by Debussy himself.
This raises one quibble. The Ligia release is clearly the product of serious scholarly effort. Indeed, one of the sources of support was a New Foundation in Arts and Humanities grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at Indiana University. It is therefore hard to understand why such a comprehensive booklet chose to omit the Lesure numbers. Haguenauer seems to have ordered his tracks chronologically, not always following Lesure’s ordering; but there are some questionable decisions that are not really addressed in the text.
Thus, at the very beginning of the first CD, Lesure’s ordering of “Madrid” (L 2) and “Nuits d’étoiles” (starry night, L 4) is reversed. On the other hand, “Il dort encore” (he is still asleep) his held off until track 22, even though the date given is 1879. However, it was probably included among the 1882 compositions because it is part of the incidental music for Théodore De Banville’s play Hymnis (L 37, listed with the date 1882).
These, however, are minor details. Far more interesting as a listening experience will be the discovery of cross-fertilization that takes place between these songs and Debussy’s piano music. This can involve have one version with words (“Fête galante”), composed in 1882, that shows up again in the minuet movement of the four-hand Petite Suite, composed between 1886 and 1889. This suggests that Debussy compositions that are often taken as abstract may actually involve an interpretation of text left unuttered.
That departure from abstraction is strongest in that Christmas carol at the end of the set. Little is known about Debussy’s thoughts about the First World War. He had been diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1909; so he had other things on his mind in 1915 (the year in which he had one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed). However, the decision to set his own text for unaccompanied soprano voice (sung on this recording by boy soprano Antonin Rondepierre) was clearly a shrewd rhetorical maneuver; and to this day is has far more impact than any of the schmaltz summoned up in Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for the musical Les Misérables.