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This morning I woke up with Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream running through my head, and then I remembered that I was intending to do a full-length post on Ariettes Oubliées by Debussy, which I’ll be singing IN ITS ENTIRETY (oh help) in exactly a month. So now I’m hopping from one genre of weird difficult music to another. Wish me luck!

Anyway. I feel like I’ve been yearning to sing Ariettes Oubliées for years, but until I started learning them in earnest, I had never really listened to most of them (there are six). They’re not the easiest to get interested in (though tell just about any singer or voice-savvy person that you’re singing them and the reaction is usually something along the lines of “OooooOOOOOOOooooooh!”), but once you are, there’s no turning back. Learning these pieces has also been an incredible learning experience for me–not only in terms of how to sing them, French diction, technical stuff, all that, but also in terms of what I am capable of. Why yes, I can learn six exceptionally difficult songs (to the point where in every lesson, Madame looks at me and goes, “These are HARD!”) in a couple of months, yes, I can sing pianissimo high notes without killing myself, yes, I can project comfortably in my lower and middle range. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and here’s why!

We had actually originally planned to do this set after intermission on our May 5th recital, but I realized that if we played our cards right, we could have the audience in the palm of our hands with the first two lines of this song, which I have wanted to sing since the first time I heard them (thanks, Dawn Upshaw!): “C’est l’extase langoureuse / c’est la fatigue amoureuse.” To me, this cycle is just about the pinnacle of musical sexiness, and actually, in at least two of the songs (this one and the fourth one, which may be my favorite), the musical writing pretty much indicates people having sex. (I mean, it’s not in the stage directions or anything, but just go ahead and listen to this one and tell me you’re not a little hot and bothered at the end.)

Anyway, the interesting thing about this poem (apart from the sex) and in fact, the text of the whole set, is that it uses natural metaphors for love, for two souls blending together. Normally I hate French nature songs, because as Alan Darling pointed out in his French song class, they don’t really assign much meaning to nature. “It’s nature, what do you want from me?” *smokes a cigarette* Unlike the Germans, who can make a confidant out of a brook. But these are impressionistic–Debussy illustrates the natural elements in the text through music, so that when you sing them, it’s as if nature is a part of your body and your body is a part of nature, which is pretty cool because that’s what the poem is about. Cool, huh?

I have some baggage with “Il pleure dans mon coeur.” When I was sixteen, the summer before my senior year of high school, I learned me some art songs and shipped off to Oberlin Conservatory for the Vocal Academy for High School Students. The goal of the program was not only to train young singers, but also to give kids who thought they wanted to go to music school a little taste of what it would be like. I know for sure that some of the people I knew there are no longer singing, but for me and some of my friends, it was like a wake-up call; I knew as soon as I left Cleveland that I had to be surrounded by music all the time, and it wouldn’t do to just do it for fun or on the side. Anyway, they staged a couple of master classes, and one of them was basically a coaching (to show us what a college coaching looked like). They brought in an actual Oberlin student, a junior soprano, who sang “Il pleure dans mon coeur.” I think it was the first Debussy song I had ever heard, and I’ve been listening to it, and trying to sing it myself, ever since.

Which makes it the hardest of the six for me. The rest of them I learned from the ground up, but this one has been in my head for so long that I’ve had to pretty much unlearn it to learn it again. Musically, you have to keep a perfect legato line going while making sure the text is understood over the “bruit de la pluie” in the piano part. Acting-wise, this is the song that Professor Darling used to illustrate what he calls “existential nausea.” It’s basically three minutes of saying you’re sad but you don’t know why…and that’s okay. No soul-searching, no reasons, no analysis. Just SAD. Being by nature a thinky person, I find this mind-boggling.

(This is Eileen Farrell, by the way, whom I love so so so much. I first heard about her in The History of Singers and Singing, a class that only got offered once in college. When I told my coach, who had introduced me to her, how much I loved her, he said, “You’ll never sound like that.” I was like…well, yeah, I know, but that doesn’t change how glorious she is. Plus she eventually retired from singing opera to have a career singing torch songs, and she does both incredibly well.)

I find “L’ombre des arbres” quite luxurious to sing and very difficult to understand…so truth be told, I don’t worry too much about it. I think it’s about apathy, and lost hopes. The word “blême” figures prominently–“Combien, o voyageur / ce paysage blême / te mira blême toi-même?” It means “pale”; the traveler, which I think is pretty much anyone traveling through life, is looking on a pale, sad, uninteresting landscape, and realizes that it reflects how pale, sad and uninteresting his own life is. But again, no contemplation or analysis of that.

“Chevaux de bois”! Tournez, tournez! Um, this song is about a carousel. Okay, so it’s probably more about the endless whirl of life itself, but right now I’m so worried about memorizing it that I’m just going to take it literally. It’s about wooden horses turning around and around, and all of the people paying to take a ride on the carousel. And then the dinner bell sounds and everybody goes home. I really enjoy singing it, but since the fourth song is my favorite, I’m just going to move on.

I don’t really care for Cheryl Studer, but there are no good recordings of this song on Youtube. Argh.

Good story about this poem. Paul Verlaine (did I mention him? he’s the poet) was involved with the much younger Arthur Rimbaud, and this poem is, as I recall, a depiction of being reunited with his lover after a long absence. I’ve always loved the opening line (though actually my favorite setting is the Reynaldo Hahn), because it’s like in the instant of seeing his lover again, he’s suddenly aware of the details of the scene around him, whereas while he was waiting, the anticipation overcame every other sensation. So before he even says anything about the person he loves, he says, “Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches…” (Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and branches), and THEN “…et puis, voici mon coeur, qui ne bat que pour vous.” (And then, here is my heart, which only beats for you.) It’s like everything stands still for a second while he takes stock. And then they go ahead and get their “bonne tempête” on in the middle section, and at the end, Debussy repeats the opening motif, but slower, as the lovers fall asleep in each other’s arms.

The trick to this piece is floating the vocal line smoothly over the very active piano part. I feel like I can picture Verlaine (or somebody) maybe standing at the dock, or in a market, or in a very busy park, and there’s all of this activity going on around him, but his thoughts move unswervingly in the direction of his lover; it’s like the end of the 1995 film version of Persuasion when Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth finally confess that they’ve never stopped loving each other, and as they kiss (in the street, a point of contention with some Austenites), an insane carnival goes by, but the sound is muted. So you can see the swirling colors and the fire breathers and everything, but the point of the scene is the quiet contentment of the lovers in the foreground. Neat, n’est-ce pas?

“Spleen” is an interesting concept. My understanding of it, from classes I’ve taken and poems I’ve read, is that it’s sort of general discontentment, being out of sorts, being unhappy without much reason. (Actually, Fauré’s setting of “Il pleure dans mon coeur” is entitled “Spleen,” which is probably why I’ve always associated the idea of “spleen” with that poem.)

I like this song. It’s the “don’t leave me” song, but at the same time it’s clear that the speaker doesn’t really have any reason to believe that his lover will leave. It starts with this gorgeous MELODY–the first in the cycle, maybe?–which never makes it into the vocal line, unfortunately. Every movement of the object of affection indicates to the speaker that he is about to be abandoned; the sky is TOO blue, the the sea is TOO green, the air is TOO sweet. Something has to go wrong; you can just feel it. But the song is all about dreading that event, even if there isn’t really any indication of it, feeling uneasy about all of that happiness. At the end of the song, the dread bubbles up into an enormous high B-flat climax and then trickles down to an “hélas” (alas) which doesn’t fit at all with the harmony. The cycle ends uneasily.

That Debussy really knew what he was doing. It’s just brilliant stuff.