Chapter III: Dance Steps out of LinE

Section 1 - Images and Poetry
Section 2 - Music

Fin-de siècle Paris was caught in the throes of change on every front, and dance was especially well-suited to represent the forces of both new and  old. Watteau's eighteenth century painting nicely conveys the restraint and propriety of old-fashioned dance; new-fangled dances like the cakewalk were an affront to this tradition of order and formality.  Debussy found himself smack in the middle of that debate, and he wrote both minuets and cakewalks! 

  Jean-Antoine Watteau, le Contredanse (1716-1719)

Jean-Antoine Watteau, le Contredanse (1716-1719)

The curvacious arabesque, so beloved by Debussy,  is put to both artistic and utilitarian architectural use in this Paris metro stop at Abbesses, designed  by Hector Guimard. It's one of only two of his metro designs still remaining. Debussy's piano pieces entitled "Arabesques" mimic those curves in the shapes of their melodies, and many of his other pieces have similar contours which turn in on themselves.  The curvaceous lines of art nouveau were found in far-flung places, most of them pertaining to the feminine: jewelry and ceramics were favorite mediums, and paintings often fixated on the shape of women's long hair.

  The metro stop at Abbesses

The metro stop at Abbesses

Maud Allan was famous already as Salomé when she undertook her ill-fated collaboration with Debussy on Khamma in 1911.  Looking at this photo one can well-imagine how she might have affronted Debussy; he was far from a prude, but was given to far more delicate expressions of sensuality.

  Maud Allan as Salome

Maud Allan as Salome

Here's the poem that inspired Debussy's 4th Prelude from Book 1, "Le sons et les perfumes tournament dans l'air du soir."  Already in the first verse it refers to a melancholy waltz; dance was never far from Debussy's sensibility, and a waltz bridged nicely across centuries. Moreover, the poem brings to mind Loie Fuller, that seductive dancer with veils who inspired Voiles, the second prelude of Book I. She,like Baudelaire, was fascinated by synesthesia and used lights and colors in revolutionary ways to augment her dance spectacles.  Debussy, like Fuller, Baudelaire, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Scriabin and countless other luminaries, loved the idea of the senses blending and refusing to acknowledge boundaries.

Harmonie du soir from Fleurs du maL
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

The hour approacheth, when, as their stems incline,
The flowers evaporate like an incense urn,
And sounds and scents in the vesper breezes turn;
A melancholy waltz — and a drowsiness divine.

The flowers evaporate like an incense urn,
The viol vibrates like the wailing of souls that repine.
A melancholy waltz — and a drowsiness divine,
The skies like a mosque are beautiful and stern.

The viol vibrates like the wailing of souls that repine;
Sweet souls that shrink from chaos vast and etern,
The skies like a mosque are beautiful and stern,
The sunset drowns within its blood-red brine.

Sweet souls that shrink from chaos vast and etern,
Essay the wreaths of their faded Past to entwine,
The sunset drowns within its blood-red brine,
Thy thought within me glows like an incense urn.

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s'évapore ainsi qu'un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Chaque fleur s'évapore ainsi qu'un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu'on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.

Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu'on afflige,
Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s'est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.

Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s'est noyé dans son sang qui se fige...
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

English translation reprinted from Cyril Scott, Baudelaire: The Flowers of Evil (London: Elkin Mathews, 1909)

Here's Loie Fuller in her full swirling panoply of colors. Posters of her abound; the combination of color and motion was irresistible to artists of the time, and the Louvre still features sculptures of her as well.

One would expect ballet to be a bastion of conservatism, but Diaghilev's Ballets Russes took Paris by storm in the early 20th century with its uninhibited take on sexuality. Nijinsky's portrayal of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun was shocking to both the public and the composer, and the dancer and composer were set on a collision course which culminated in the disastrous production of Jeux.

  Nijinsky in L’après-midi d’un faune

Nijinsky in L’après-midi d’un faune

 

Musical examples

Danse Bohemienne, 1880 (Walter Gieseking)

The early dance pieces are all testimony to Debussy's life-long affinity for dance as well as an interesting reminder of how much more adventurous his interests became later on. At all times, though, the suppleness of his rhythm inevitably invited movement and as the titles below illustrate, his interests ran the gamut across traditional genres.

Ballade, 1890 (Gieseking, 1956)

Mazurka, 1890 (Gieseking)

Valse romantique, 1890 (Gieseking, 1956)

Nocturne, 1892 (Gieseking, 1949)

Petite Suite, 1886-1889 (Martha Argerich, Cristina Marton, 2013)

Petite Suite is one of Debussy's most popular pieces with students: it's full of charm, and it presents no serious technical obstacles. The titles of its movements refer to a boat ride, a parade, a minuet, and a ballet-- they testify again to the more conservative tendencies in his earlier compositions and the pastimes they evoke.

Suite Bergamasque, 1890-1905 (Gieseking, 1956)

Suite Bergamasque has achieved fame because it includes "Clair de Lune," but its other movements are equally important. Their reserve and refinement remind us of Debussy's allegiance to the the baroque dances which had engaged his countrymen, Couperin and Rameau, some 200 years earlier.

Khamma, 1911-1912 (Michael Korstick, 2012)

This little-known ballet was a failure as a dance, but has benefitted from the recent trend to perform Debussy's orchestral scores on the piano. 

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, 1894 (piano transcription by Leonard Borwick)

Debussy's take on Mallarmé's poem has been wildly successful in its orchestral version, but it is only rarely performed by a solo pianist.  Again, the piano version, with its evocative pedaling and enormous dynamic and registrar range, deserves attention.

Voiles, Prelude no. 2, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

This is one of the most delightfully ambiguous of the preludes, sporting a title that can mean either "sails" or "veils."  Both float and billow in the wind, but the image of Loie Fuller, the American dancer who entranced Paris with her dances of veils, makes the choice of "veils" a more intriguing title.  It's no coincidence that she choreographed several of Debussy's works; the two artists shared an aesthetic that prioritized mystery and coloration.