Debussy loved fairy tales -- in part, no doubt, because he was so attached to his young daughter and shared in her many delights. But his own nature was so imaginative and so intent on denying quotidian life that even had he been childless, he would have been drawn to these tales of magic.
J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (full text from Project Gutenberg), so different from the Walt Disney version we all grew up with, features no Captain Hook or pirates, but instead presents the altogether fantastical lives of the fairies in Kensington Gardens with whom Peter Pan takes up residence. It's this version that Debussy knew and set in "Les Fées sont d'exquises danseuses." The following excerpts give a nice sense of the fairy kingdom, but any interested reader should by all means explore the entirety of the original tale.
Excerpts from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)
J.M. Barrie (1860-1937)
The fairies sit round on mushrooms, and at first they are well-behaved and always cough off the table, and so on, but after a bit they are not so well-behaved and stick their fingers into the butter, which is got from the roots of old trees, and the really horrid ones crawl over the tablecloth chasing sugar or other delicacies with their tongues. When the Queen sees them doing this she signs to the servants to wash up and put away, and then everybody adjourns to the dance, the Queen walking in front while the Lord Chamberlain walks behind her, carrying two little pots, one of which contains the juice of wallflower and the the juice of Solomon’s seals. Wallflower juice is good for reviving dancers who fall to the ground in a fit, and Solomon’s seals juice is for bruises. They bruise very easily, and when Peter plays faster and faster they foot it till they fall down in firs. For, as you know without my tell you, Peter Pan is the fairies’ orchestra. He sits in the middle of the ring, and they would never dream of having a smart dance nowadays without him. ‘P.P.’ is written on the corner of the invitation cards sent out by all really good families. They are grateful little people, too, and at the princess’s coming-of-age ball (they come of age on their second birthday and have a birthday every month) they gave him the wish of his heart.
The way it was done was this. The Queen ordered him to kneel, and then said that for playing so beautifully she would give him the wish of his heart. They they all gathered round Peter to hear what was the wish of his heart, but for a long time he hesitated, not being certain what it was himself.
‘If I chose to go back to mother,’ he asked at last, 'could you give me that wish?’
Now this question vexed them, for were he to return to his mother they should lose his music, so the Queen tilted her nose contemptuously and said, ‘Pooh! Ask for a much bigger wish than that.”
‘Is that quite a little wish?’ he inquired.
‘As little as this,’ the Queen answered, putting her hands near each other.
‘What size is a big wish?’ he asked.
She measured it off on her skirt and it was a very handsome length.
Then Peter reflected and said, ‘Well, then I think I shall have two little wishes instead of one big one.’
When Peter Pan found five pounds and needed to divide it up, he quite literally did so by simply “cut[ting] it off his bank-note with a sharp stick.” When the fairies wished to determine whether their Duke of the Christmas Daisies had finally fallen in love, they did so by checking the temperature of "the Duke’s heart immediately after any lady was presented”. Though his heart had previously been “cold, quite cold,” the heart was not just warm, but “evidently on fire” when the right woman finally appeared.
When, for instance, Peter’s human friend Mamie, who almost decided to marry him and stay forever in Kensington Gardens, said “I shall give you a kiss if you like... [Peter] held out his hand, thinking she had offered to put something into it... with charming delicacy she gave Peter a thimble which happened to be in her pocket and pretended that it was a kiss...he quite believed her and to this day he wears it on his finger.”
“He made a pipe of reeds, and he used to sit by the shore of the island of an evening, practicing the sough of the wind and the ripple of the water, and catching handfuls of the shine of the moon, and he put them all in his pipe and played them so beautifully that even the birds were deceived, and they would say to each other, ‘Was that a fish leaping in the water or was it Peter playing leaping fish on his pipe?’ And sometimes he played the birth of birds, and then the mothers would turn round in their nests to see whether they had laid an egg.”
Not only is the text exquisite in this volume, but also the images by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), the famous British book illustrator. The top one pictured below is the title image for Debussy's Prelude "Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses;" the dozens of others in the book are equally entrancing.
Here's Peter Pan, sprouting fairy wings, in a picture entitled, "The Fairies would tickle him."
The preludes were Debussy's favorite repository for fairy tales. Though it may be more likely that Debussy based "Ce qu' a vu le Vent de l'Ouest," on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale,"The Garden of Paradise" than on the poem below, Shelley's wild wind seems another possible source for the relentless force of Debussy's creation.
Ode to the West Wind (1819)
By Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being –
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
If I were a dead leaf thou mightiest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest, Prelude no. 7, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)
It's fun to read the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, "The Garden of Paradise," which presumably inspired this prelude. Those winds are as merciless as is Debussy's music-- roaring relentlessly as they wreak destruction. The prelude demands a degree of force and speed from the pianist more typical of Liszt than Debussy.
The delicacy of this Prelude is far more typical of Debussy's preference for understatement than is Ce qua vu le vent d'ouest, and the fairies whom Peter Pan joined in Kensington Gardens fly by in trills and fleeting arpeggios, suspended mid-air just as they are in Rackham's painting which gave the title for the piece.
See the comments on this prelude in the previous chapter. It's sad that it remained a glimmer in Debussy's eye, never completed, but even its conception allows us to see Debussy's pleasure in the magical interactions between humans and mythical beasts. Magic was sacrosanct for this most disconsolate of composers, and Toomai, the wondrous boy from the Jungle Book who superseded all other humans in his ability to consort with elephants, offers a happy example of cross-species amitié.
It's easy to imagine Puck's cadre of fairies here, decked out in dappled costume as Rackham imagined them and happily cavorting through the woods as they wreaked havoc on the lives of every human they encountered. As in "Les Fées song d'exquises danseuses," the music here delights in high registers, rapid figuration, and soft dynamics-- all of which surely characterized a midsummer's dream.