Asie from Shéhérazade
by Tristan Klingsor (1874-1966)

While Africa purportedly boasted wild beasts and hunters, monkeys in trees, and naked humans of both sexes, the appeal of Asia was more muted. Debussy loved the quietness of eastern religion, and touted Asia in many of his piano works. Here his countryman, Ravel, chooses a text which is focussed on the poetry, the princesses, and the palaces of Asia, though not without a small paean to its violence as well. This poem is the first of the 3 songs of Ravel's cycle, Shéhérazade. Again the Orient shines in its exoticism.

Asia, Asia, Asia!
Ancient, wonderful land of nursery stories
Where fantasy sleeps like an empress,
In her forest filled with mystery.
Asia, I want to sail away on the schooner
That rides in the harbour this evening
Mysterious and solitary,
And finally unfurls purple sails
Like a vast nocturnal bird in the golden sky.
I want to sail away to the islands of flowers,
Listening to the perverse sea singing
To an old bewitching rhythm.
I want to see Damascus and the cities of Persia
With their slender minarets in the air.
I want to see beautiful turbans of silk
Over dark faces with gleaming teeth;
I want to see dark amorous eyes
And pupils sparkling with joy
In skins as yellow as oranges;
I want to see velvet cloaks
And robes with long fringes.
I want to see long pipes in lips
Fringed round by white beards;
I want to see crafty merchants with suspicious glances,
And cadis and viziers
Who with one movement of their bending finger
Decree life or death, at whim.
I want to see Persia, and India, and then China,
Pot-bellied mandarins under their umbrellas,
Princesses with delicate hands,
And scholars arguing
About poetry and beauty;
I want to linger in the enchanted palace
And like a foreign traveller
Contemplate at leisure landscapes painted
On cloth in pinewood frames,
With a figure in the middle of an orchard;
I want to see murderers smiling
While the executioner cuts off an innocent head
With his great curved Oriental sabre.
I want to see paupers and queens;
I want to see roses and blood;
I want to see those who die for love or, better, for hatred.
And then to return home later
To tell my adventure to people interested in dreams
Raising – like Sinbad – my old Arab cup
From time to time to my lips
To interrupt the narrative artfully…

Asie, Asie, Asie.
Vieux pays merveilleux des contes de nourrice
Où dort la fantaisie comme une impératrice
En sa forêt tout emplie de mystère.
Asie, Je voudrais m'en aller avec la goëlette
Qui se berce ce soir dans le port
Mystérieuse et solitaire
Et qui déploie enfin ses voiles violettes
Comme un immense oiseau de nuit dans le ciel d'or.
Je voudrais m'en aller vers des îles de fleurs
En écoutant chanter la mer perverse
Sur un vieux rythme ensorceleur.
Je voudrais voir Damas et les villes de Perse
Avec les minarets légers dans l'air.
Je voudrais voir de beaux turbans de soie
Sur des visages noirs aux dents claires;
Je voudrais voir des yeux sombres d'amour
Et des prunelles brillantes de joie
En des peaux jaunes comme des oranges;
Je voudrais voir des vêtements de velours
Et des habits à longues franges.
Je voudrais voir des calumets entre des bouches
Tout entourées de barbe blanche;
Je voudrais voir d'âpres marchands aux regards louches,
Et des cadis, et des vizirs
Qui du seul mouvement de leur doigt qui se penche
Accordent vie ou mort au gré de leur désir.
Je voudrais voir la Perse, et l'Inde, et puis la Chine,
Les mandarins ventrus sous les ombrelles,
Et les princesses aux mains fines,
Et les lettrés qui se querellent
Sur la poésie et sur la beauté;
Je voudrais m'attarder au palais enchanté
Et comme un voyageur étranger
Contempler à loisir des paysages peints
Sur des étoffes en des cadres de sapin
Avec un personnage au milieu d'un verger;
Je voudrais voir des assassins souriant
Du bourreau qui coupe un cou d'innocent
Avec son grand sabre courbé d'Orient.
Je voudrais voir des pauvres et des reines;
Je voudrais voir des roses et du sang;
Je voudrais voir mourir d'amour ou bien de haine.
Et puis m'en revenir plus tard
Narrer mon aventure aux curieux de rêves
En élevant comme Sindbad ma vieille tasse arabe
De temps en temps jusqu'à mes lèvres
Pour interrompre le conte avec art...

English translation: Wikipedia


The World Exposition of 1889 in Paris had an enormous impact on artists who reveled in the exposure it provided to a non-European world. Gauguin painted this woman in response to the same Javanese dancers who enthralled Debussy and who inspired gamelan-like pieces such as Pagodes and Cloches à travers les feuilles.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903),  Caribbean Woman  (1889)

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Caribbean Woman (1889)


Musical examples

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

The dignity of this music encapsulates the beauty of the sculpture unearthed at Delphi that Debussy sought to evoke.  Archeological digs were making headlines across Paris during Debussy's lifetime; they offered invaluable glimpses of other times and other cultures-- but, of course, did so at the expense of the current inhabitants forcibly evicted from their homes in order to facilitate digging.

Canope, Prelude no. 10, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

Like Danseuses de Delphe, this prelude offers the musical depiction of a beautiful object from a far away place, in this case a burial urn from Egypt.  Debussy owned the object he depicted, and it was one of a number of objects he lovingly collected from the greater Oriental world.

Cloches à travers les feuilles from Images, Book II, 1907 (Walter Gieseking)

Yet another homage to the whole-tone scale and to the gongs of the gamelan, this first piece of Images, Book II is far more other-worldly than Reflects dan l'eau, the first piece of Images, Book 1 written just a few years earlier.  It fully explores the concept of layers in sound and rhythm and regards major and minor tonalities as a worn-out western fashion in need of replacement.

Et la lune descend sur le temple que fut from Images, Book II, 1907 (Gieseking)

There are few pieces by Debussy more still than Et la lune descend sur le temple que fut, few more eager to show that time need not march onward, and few more illustrative of Eastern mindsets that confer a serenity rarely granted in the West.

La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, Prelude no. 7, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

This is one of the longest and most elaborate of the preludes. Its subtle opening reference to the French song, "Au Clair de la Lune" alerts us to its French origins, but it is the shaded glow of the moon in distant lands that dominates the music.   The title refers to the coronation of the English king, George V, as emperor of India, and the French journalistic reports on the ceremonies exemplified the dangers of colonialism in a nutshell: they conveyed wide-eyed fascination with a native population, mixed with an unmitigated sense of the conquerer's superiority.

Toomai des elephants, 1913, completed by Robert Orledge, 2010 (Michael Korstick, 2012)

This prelude was never completed and was replaced with Alternating Thirds, the second to last prelude in Book II. We're indebted to Robert Orledge for providing a completed version of Toomai, making use of material from La Boîte à joujoux, which is similarly entranced with elephants. The story here is drawn from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, and Debussy no doubt enjoyed identifying with young Toomai who happily crossed boundaries to  cavort with elephants.  Such fantasies of crossing borders across centuries, countries, and species abound in Debussy's oeuvre.