Debussy's friend, Pierre Louÿs, wrote the Chansons de Bilitis as a hoax, claiming the erotic poems were written by an ancient Greek maiden and that he had discovered them and simply provided a translation. He enjoyed this deception, and clearly Debussy enjoyed both the pretense and the texts as well: he used them as the basis for 3 songs as well as works for 4 hand piano, solo piano, and a chamber ensemble. Both poems below feature crossovers: Pan was half goat, and the water nymphs were half fish. Crossovers are, of course, yet another outlet for the exoticism and mania for masks which ran rampant in the Belle Époque.
La Flûte de Pan (The pan‑pipes)
By Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925)
For the festival of Hyacinthus
he gave me a syrinx, a set of pipes made
from well-cut reeds joined
with the white wax
that is sweet to my lips like honey.
He is teaching me to play, as I sit on his knees;
but I tremble a little.
He plays it after me, so softly
that I can scarcely hear it.
We are so close that we have
nothing to say to one another;
but our songs want to converse,
and our mouths are joined
as they take turns on the pipes.
It is late:
here comes the chant of the green frogs,
which begins at dusk.
My mother will never believe
I spent so long
searching for my lost waistband.
Pour le jour des Hyacinthies,
il m'a donné une syrinx faite
de roseaux bien taillés,
unis avec la blanche cire
qui est douce à mes lèvres comme le miel.
Il m'apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux ;
mais je suis un peu tremblante.
il en joue après moi,
si doucement que je l'entends à peine.
Nous n'avons rien à nous dire,
tant nous sommes près l'un de l'autre;
mais nos chansons veulent se répondre,
et tour à tour nos bouches
s'unissent sur la flûte.
Il est tard,
voici le chant des grenouilles vertes
qui commence avec la nuit.
Ma mère ne croira jamais
que je suis restée si longtemps
à chercher ma ceinture perdue.
English translation © 2000 by Peter Low, reprinted with permission.
Le tombeau des Naïades (The tomb of the water‑nymphs)
By Pierre Louÿs
I was walking along in the frost-covered woods;
in front of my mouth
my hair blossomed in tiny icicles,
and my sandals were heavy
with muddy caked snow.
He asked: "What are you looking for?"
"I'm following the tracks of the satyr -
his little cloven hoofprints alternate
like holes in a white cloak."
He said: "The satyrs are dead.
"The satyrs are dead, and the nymphs too.
In thirty years there has not been such a terrible winter.
That's the trail of a he-goat.
But let's pause here, where their tomb is."
With his hoe he broke the ice
of the spring where the water-nymphs used to laugh.
There he was, picking up large cold slabs of ice,
lifting them toward the pale sky,
and peering through them.
Le long du bois couvert de givre, je marchais;
Mes cheveux devant ma bouche
Se fleurissaient de petits glaçons,
Et mes sandales étaient lourdes
De neige fangeuse et tassée.
Il me dit: "Que cherches-tu?"
Je suis la trace du satyre.
Ses petits pas fourchus alternent
Comme des trous dans un manteau blanc.
Il me dit: "Les satyres sont morts.
"Les satyres et les nymphes aussi.
Depuis trente ans, il n'a pas fait un hiver aussi terrible.
La trace que tu vois est celle d'un bouc.
Mais restons ici, où est leur tombeau."
Et avec le fer de sa houe il cassa la glace
De la source ou jadis riaient les naïades.
Il prenait de grands morceaux froids,
Et les soulevant vers le ciel pâle,
Il regardait au travers.
English translation © 2000 by Peter Low, reprinted with permission.
Here is yet another poet and poem that Debussy loved and set, featuring another faune, this one a bit less famous than the one featured in L'après-midi-d'un faune, but equally elusive.
Le faune (1869)
By Paul Verlaine
An ancient terra-cotta Faun,
A laughing note in 'mid the green,
Grins at us from the central lawn,
With secret and sarcastic mien.
It is that he foresees, perchance,
A bad end to the moments dear
That with gay music and light dance
Have led us, pensive pilgrims, here.
Un vieux faune de terre cuite
Rit au centre des boulingrins,
Présageant sans doute une suite
Mauvaise à ces instants sereins
Qui m'ont conduit et t'ont conduite,
-- Mélancoliques pelerins, --
Jusqu'à cette heure dont la fuite
Tournoie au son des tambourins.
BY Friedrich DE LA MOTTE FOUQUE (1777-1843)
Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), the famous English children's book author, was beloved by Debussy and provided the title illustration for "Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, as well as the illustrations for Midsummer Night's Dream, which inspired Debussy's La Danse de Puck. Here we have the inspiration for Debussy's Ondine, the water sprite who was half fish, half human. She appears below, all charm and innocence, her later incarnation as femme fatale as yet unknown.
Ondine wasn’t only of interest to children’s book illustrators. Her appeal was sophisticated and widespread, and Paul Gauguin was one of many who portrayed her illusive charms, picturing her in multiple works.
It wasn't only children's books that featured betwixt and betweens, and many were far more threatening than Ondine. Klimt's mermaids carry with them a sinister allure that was undoubtedly precisely their fascination. Klimt, a forerunner of the expressionist painters in Austria, was, interestingly enough, Debussy's exact contemporary.
Debussy knew and admired Redon; he would have been both fascinated and repelled by these fantastical creatures, half-human, half beast.
This curvaceous maiden appeared in the Courrier Français on the 30th of March, 1902, her legs bound together like the tail of a fish. She appears able to cross species in a manner far less terrifying than Klimt's and Redon's women; but she's clearly a force to contend with, and Debussy probably took note.
Ondine, Prelude no. 8, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)
Ondine is a complex character-- a capricious child, a femme fatale, a tragic figure deprived of a soul, and all the while not fully human. Ravel painted her in greater depth and detail, while Debussy gives us a fleeting glimpse as she rapidly swims by. She's mischievous and seductive in Debussy's portrait, and the little germ of an idea that he presents in different registers and tempos encapsulates her ability to morph from one mood to another, from one personality to another, and finally from one species to the next.
The wicked maiden who causes the fall of Ys in the ancient Breton tale entitled "The Legend of the City of Ys," is transformed into a mermaid in the sequel to that story. One imagines her continually swimming through churning waters as the sunken cathedral of her doomed city rises periodically to remind the fallen inhabitants of their sins.
These songs, with texts by Debussy's good friend, Pierre Louys, are inhabited by the ancient traces of satyrs and the flute of the god, Pan. Both partake of crossover creatures, here half-human, half-goat. They create the mythical and erotic world which Bilitis, Louys' imagined Greek maiden, inhabited--yet another universe infused with magic to which Debussy was drawn.