Debussy: Forgotten Songs

Program notes


…the poet fearing abandonment and tired of the world – except the beloved.


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs), L. 60
Text by Paul Verlaine (1844–1896)

1. ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’
2. ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur’
3. ‘L’ombre des arbres’
4. ‘Paysages belges. Chevaux de bois’
5. ‘Aquarelles I. Green’
6. ‘Aquarelles II. Spleen’

French composer Claude Debussy was just beginning to find his musical voice when he penned the six settings of poems by Paul Verlaine that would come to be the Ariettes oubliées or ‘Forgotten Songs’.

The young composer had an uneasy relationship with the musical establishment, but during his studies at the Paris Conservatoire and his residency in Italy’s Villa Medici from 1885 to 1887 – a result of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome – he increasingly found inspiration in poetry. Debussy began composing the ‘Forgotten Songs’ in Rome, but they wouldn’t be published together as a set, or under that name, until 1903.

Debussy first used words by Verlaine in 1882, setting the poem ‘Clair de Lune’, which also inspired his famous piano movement. ‘Verlaine triggered a new level of imagination in Debussy’s writing,’ writes musicologist Stephen Walsh. ‘Something less effortlessly charming, more precise and suggestive.’

The poetry Debussy sets in Ariettes oubliées comes from Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles (Romances Without Words), which the poet wrote during his tempestuous relationship with Arthur Rimbaud in 1872.

‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (It is the languid ecstasy) depicts the languor that follows pleasure before Debussy’s piano writing evokes the sound of gentle rain in ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur’ (Tears are falling in my heart). ‘L’ombre des arbres’ (The shade of the trees) is sorrowful and reflective, while the music takes a more playful turn in ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Wooden horses). Beauty and languor return in ‘Green’ before ‘Spleen’ brings the cycle to a quiet, pleading close, the poet fearing abandonment and tired of the world – except the beloved.

© Angus McPherson, 2023

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