Chiming, repeated notes in the piano underscore the first ghost’s imploring questions with increasing intensity, but the song ultimately fades into desolate silence.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Fêtes galantes, 2ème recueil, FL. 114
Text by Paul Verlaine (1844–1896)
Two ghosts pass each other in a deserted park in Paul Verlaine’s melancholy poem ‘Colloque sentimental’ (Sentimental Conversation). One repeatedly prompts the other to remember their past love, but the second ghost is unable – or unwilling – to remember and speaks only of despair.
Debussy’s Fêtes galantes consists of two sets of three songs, settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine from his collection of the same name. Debussy chose ‘Colloque sentimental’ for the final song in his second book of Fêtes galantes, which was published in 1904.
The first book revisited poems Debussy set as a young man while infatuated with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a married amateur singer whose singing class he accompanied, but this second book he dedicated to Emma Bardac, a married woman with whom he was having an affair and for whom he left his wife Lilly. (Parisian social circles were apparently small enough that Gabriel Fauré had also been moved to write songs on poetry by Verlaine for Bardac a few years earlier, in his La bonne chanson.)
Musicologist Stephen Walsh describes ‘Colloque sentimental’ as one of the French composer’s ‘most darkly moving compositions’ and, while the music is exquisitely beautiful, it’s hard to imagine Bardac being particularly flattered by the dedication given the subject matter.
The song opens with uneasily descending figures in the piano before the voice enters alone, the music sparse as the lonely park of Verlaine’s poem. Chiming, repeated notes in the piano underscore the first ghost’s imploring questions with increasing intensity, but the song ultimately fades into desolate silence.
© Angus McPherson, 2023