La fille aux cheveux de lin
(The girl with the flaxen hair)
By Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894)

There was a true obsession with women's hair in the era of art nouveau, and the obsession centered on both the curves and the character of the women involved. Debussy was immersed in that same world of art and poetry, even though the piano music itself sports few coiffures. Here’s the poem that inspired Debussy’s lovely prelude, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”  Unlike many Belle Époque maidens, this one is exceedingly innocent.

On the grass, sitting in flowers
Who sings since the fresh morning?
It is the maiden with the flaxen hair
The lovely one with lips like cherries.

Love, in the clear sun of summer
Sang with the lark.

Your mouth has divine colors,
My dear one-- and tempts the kiss!
On the flowering grass, do you want to chat,
Maiden with the the long eyelashes, and the delicate curls?

Love, in the clear sun of summer
Sang with the lark.

Don’t say no, cruel maiden!
Don’t say yes!!! I will better understand
The long look of your big eyes
And your red lip, O my beautiful!

Love, in the clear sun of summer
Sang with the lark.

Good-bye to the bucks, good-bye to the hares
And the red partridges. I want
To kiss the flax of your hair,
To press the crimson of your lips!!

Love, in the clear sun of summer
Sang with the lark.

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise,
Qui chante dès le frais matin ?
C'est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.

L'amour, au clair soleil d'été,
Avec l'alouette a chanté.

Ta bouche a des couleurs divines,
Ma chère, et tente le baiser !
Sur l'herbe en fleur veux-tu causer,
Fille aux cils longs, aux boucles fines ?

L'amour, au clair soleil d'été,
Avec l'alouette a chanté.

Ne dis pas non, fille cruelle !
Ne dis pas oui ! J'entendrai mieux
Le long regard de tes grands yeux
Et ta lèvre rose, ô ma belle !

L'amour, au clair soleil d'été,
Avec l'alouette a chanté.

Adieu les daims, adieu les lièvres
Et les rouges perdrix ! Je veux
Baiser le lin de tes cheveux,
Presser la pourpre de tes lèvres !

L'amour, au clair soleil d'été,
Avec l'alouette a chanté.

English translation by Catherine Kautsky.

 

Baudelaire and other later symbolist poets were entranced by the sensuality of swirling long hair and saw it as a mysterious repository for memories and fantasies. 

La chevelure (The hair) from Fleurs du maL
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

O fleece, that foams down unto the shoulders bare!
O curls, O scents which lovely languidness exhale!
Delight! to fill this alcove's sombre atmosphere
With memories, sleeping deep within this tress of hair,
I'll wave it in the evening breezes like a veil!

The shores of Africa, and Asia's burning skies,
A world forgotten, distant, nearly dead and spent,
Within thy depths, O aromatic forest! lies.
And like to spirits floating unto melodies,
Mine own, Beloved! glides within thy sacred scent.

There I will hasten, where the trees and humankind
With languor lull beside the hot and silent sea;
Strong tresses bear me, be to me the waves and wind!
Within thy fragrance lies a dazzling dream confined
Of sails and masts and flames — O lake of ebony!

A loudly echoing harbour, where my soul may hold
To quaff, the silver cup of colours, scents and sounds,
Wherein the vessels glide upon a sea of gold,
And stretch their mighty arms, the glory to enfold
Of virgin skies, where never-ending heat abounds.

I'll plunge my brow, enamoured with voluptuousness
Within this darkling ocean of infinitude,
Until my subtle spirit, which thy waves caress,
Shall find you once again, O fertile weariness;
Unending lullabye of perfumed lassitude!

Ye tresses blue — recess of strange and sombre shades,
Ye make the azure of the starry Realm immense;
Upon the downy beeches, by your curls' cascades,
Among your mingling fragrances, my spirit wades
To cull the musk and cocoa-nut and lotus scents.

Long — foraye — my hand, within thy heavy mane,
Shall scatter rubies, pearls, sapphires eternally,
And thus my soul's desire for thee shall never wane;
For art not thou the oasis where I dream and drain
With draughts profound, the golden wine of memory?

Ô toison, moutonnant jusque sur l'encolure!
Ô boucles! Ô parfum chargé de nonchaloir!
Extase! Pour peupler ce soir l'alcôve obscure
Des souvenirs dormant dans cette chevelure,
Je la veux agiter dans l'air comme un mouchoir!

La langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique,
Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque défunt,
Vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique!
Comme d'autres esprits voguent sur la musique,
Le mien, ô mon amour! nage sur ton parfum.

J'irai là-bas où l'arbre et l'homme, pleins de sève,
Se pâment longuement sous l'ardeur des climats;
Fortes tresses, soyez la houle qui m'enlève!
Tu contiens, mer d'ébène, un éblouissant rêve
De voiles, de rameurs, de flammes et de mâts:

Un port retentissant où mon âme peut boire
À grands flots le parfum, le son et la couleur
Où les vaisseaux, glissant dans l'or et dans la moire
Ouvrent leurs vastes bras pour embrasser la gloire
D'un ciel pur où frémit l'éternelle chaleur.

Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d'ivresse
Dans ce noir océan où l'autre est enfermé;
Et mon esprit subtil que le roulis caresse
Saura vous retrouver, ô féconde paresse,
Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!

Cheveux bleus, pavillon de ténèbres tendues
Vous me rendez l'azur du ciel immense et rond;
Sur les bords duvetés de vos mèches tordues
Je m'enivre ardemment des senteurs confondues
De l'huile de coco, du musc et du goudron.

Longtemps! toujours! ma main dans ta crinière lourde
Sèmera le rubis, la perle et le saphir,
Afin qu'à mon désir tu ne sois jamais sourde!
N'es-tu pas l'oasis où je rêve, et la gourde
Où je hume à longs traits le vin du souvenir?

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

 

Un hemisphere dans une chevelure
(A hemisphere in a tress)
By Charles Baudelaire

Let me breathe, long, long, of the odor of your hair, let me plunge my whole face in its depth, as a thirsty man in the waters of a spring, let me flutter it with my hand as a perfumed kerchief, to shake off memories into the air.

Laisse-moi respirer longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux, y plonger tout mon visage, comme un homme altéré dans l’eau d’une source, et les agiter avec ma main comme un mouchoir odorant, pour secouer des souvenirs dans l’air.

If you could know all that I see! all that I feel! all that I understand in your hair! My soul journeys on perfumes as the souls of other men on music.

Si tu pouvais savoir tout ce que je vois! tout ce que je sens! tout ce que j’entends dans tes cheveux! Mon âme voyage sur le parfum comme l’âme des autres hommes sur la musique.

Your hair meshes a full dream, crowded with sails and masts; it holds great seas on which monsoons bear me toward charming climes, where the skies are bluer and deeper, where the atmosphere is perfumed with fruits, with leaves, and with the human skin.

Tes cheveux contiennent tout un rêve, plein de voilures et de mâtures ; ils contiennent de grandes mers dont les moussons me portent vers de charmants climats, où l’espace est plus bleu et plus profond, où l’atmosphère est parfumée par les fruits, par les feuilles et par la peau humaine.

In the ocean of your hair I behold a port humming with melancholy chants, with strong men of all nations and with ships of every form carving their delicate, intricate architecture on an enormous sky where lolls eternal heat.

Dans l’océan de ta chevelure, j’entrevois un port fourmillant de chants mélancoliques, d’hommes vigoureux de toutes nations et de navires de toutes formes découpant leurs architectures fines et compliquées sur un ciel immense où se prélasse l’éternelle chaleur.

In the caresses of your hair, I find again the languor of long hours on a divan, in the cabin of a goodly ship, cradled by the unnoticed undulation of the port, between pots of flowers and refreshing water-jugs.

Dans les caresses de ta chevelure, je retrouve les langueurs des longues heures passées sur un divan, dans la chambre d’un beau navire, bercées par le roulis imperceptible du port, entre les pots de fleurs et les gargoulettes rafraîchissantes.

At the glowing hearth-stone of your hair, I breathe the odor of tobacco mixed with opium and sugar; in the night of your hair, I see shine forth the infinite of the tropic sky; on the downy bank-sides of your hair, I grow drunk with the mingled odors of tar and musk, and oil of coconut.

Dans l’ardent foyer de ta chevelure, je respire l’odeur du tabac mêlé à l’opium et au sucre; dans la nuit de ta chevelure, je vois resplendir l’infini de l’azur tropical; sur les rivages duvetés de ta chevelure je m’enivre des odeurs combinées du goudron, du musc et de l’huile de coco.
 

Let me bite, long, your thick black hair. When I nibble your springy, rebellious hair, it seems that I am eating memories.

Laisse-moi mordre longtemps tes tresses lourdes et noires. Quand je mordille tes cheveux élastiques et rebelles, il me semble que je mange des souvenirs.

English translation reprinted from Baudelaire, his prose and poetry, ed. by T. R. Smith, 1919.

 

This text is the second of the Chansons de Biltis, by Pierre Louys, set by Debussy in 1897. Hair is again featured as a central player in the drama. Without its coupling properties the man and woman would remain apart.

La chevelure
By Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925)

He told me: "Last night I had a dream.
Your hair was around my neck,
it was like a black necklace
round my nape and on my chest.

"I was stroking your hair, and it was my own;
thus the same tresses joined us forever,
with our mouths touching,
just as two laurels often have only one root.

"And gradually I sensed,
since our limbs were so entwined,
that I was becoming you
and you were entering me like my dream."

When he'd finished,
he gently put his hands on my shoulders,
and gazed at me so tenderly
that I lowered my eyes, quivering.

Il m'a dit: « Cette nuit, j'ai rêvé.
J'avais ta chevelure autour de mon cou.
J'avais tes cheveux comme un collier noir
autour de ma nuque et sur ma poitrine.

« Je les caressais, et c'étaient les miens ;
et nous étions liés pour toujours ainsi,
par la même chevelure, la bouche sur la bouche,
ainsi que deux lauriers n'ont souvent qu'une racine.

« Et peu à peu, il m'a semblé,
tant nos membres étaient confondus,
que je devenais toi-même,
ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe. »

Quand il eut achevé,
il mit doucement ses mains sur mes épaules,
et il me regarda d'un regard si tendre,
que je baissai les yeux avec un frisson.

English translation © 2000 by Peter Low, reprinted with permission.

 

Lassie wi’ the lintwhite locks (1794)
by Robert Burns (1759-1756)

Chorus: Lassie wi'the lint-white locks,
Bonie lassie, artless lassie,
Wilt thou wi' me tent the flocks,
Wilt thou be my Dearie, O?

Now Nature cleeds the flowery lea,
And a' is young and sweet like thee,
O wilt thou share its joys wi' me,
And say thou'lt be my Dearie, O.
(Chorus)

The primrose bank, the wimpling burn,
The cuckoo on the milk-white thorn,
The wanton lambs at early morn,
Shall welcome thee, my Dearie, O.
(Chorus)

And when the welcome simmer shower
Has cheer'd ilk drooping little flower,
We'll to the breathing woodbine bower,
At sultry noon, my Dearie, O.
(Chorus)

When Cynthia lights, wi' silver ray,
The weary shearer's hameward way,
Thro' yellow waving fields we'll stray,
And talk o' love, my Dearie, O.
(Chorus)

And when the howling wintry blast
Disturbs my Lassie's midnight rest,
Enclasped to my faithfu' breast,
I'll comfort thee, my Dearie, O.
(Chorus)

 

Rosetti was a remarkable artist who both painted and wrote poetry.  Debussy set the poem excerpted below in his cantata, La Damoiselle Élue, begun during his stint in Rome as winner of the Prix de Rome.  He owned, and was no doubt influenced by, a copy of the painting which Rosetti had also made of this mysterious and seductive woman.  Her golden hair again acts to bring together man and woman.

The Blessed Damozel (1850)
By Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.

(To one, it is ten years of years.
... Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she leaned o'er me—her hair
Fell all about my face...
Nothing: the autumn fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)

 

Images

Rosetti was a Pre-Raphaelite artist, one of the founders of this English group that prized detail, color, and beautiful, unknowable women.

  Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) , The Blessed Damozel (1878)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), The Blessed Damozel (1878)

 

In this painting, entitled "Lady Liluth," also by Rosetti, the artist attached these words from Goethe’s to the frame: “Beware... for she excels all women in the magic of her locks, and when she twines them round a young man’s neck, she will not ever set him free again.”  Hair is clearly a snare as well as an adornment.

  Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882),  Lady Liluth  (1866-1873)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Lady Liluth (1866-1873)

And Caravaggio's Medusa provides a splendid illustration of the  demonic possibilities a woman's hair can encompass. Here venomous reptiles and woman's hair become one and the same.

  Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610),  Medusa  (1597) 

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610), Medusa (1597) 

Pictured here is Galatéa, a sea-nymph in love with Acis.  She is beset by the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who loves her also and murders her lover in a jealous rage. Heartbroken, Galatéa transforms the blood of Acis into an eternally flowing river.  Galatéa’s hair fuses with the blood of Acis, and the blood remains a living entity--the hair becomes a vehicle for sexual union after death. Moreau, whose symbolist paintings are unfailingly eerie and disturbing, was one of Debussy's favorite painters. He avoids the outright terrors of Medusa and the seductions of the Blessed Damozel; his painting instead accesses a subconscious space of ominous mystery that defies definition.

  Gustave Moreau (1826-1898),  Gelatée vers  (1880)     
  
 
  
    
  
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Gustave Moreau (1826-1898),
Gelatée vers (1880)

The impressionist painters  loved the sheer beauty and dreaminess of long hair-- it often conveys an unthreatening and innocent sexuality. Here the woman contemplates only her hair-- no lover in sight.

  Pierre Georges Jeannot (1848-1934),  Femme se poignant  (1890-1892)  

Pierre Georges Jeannot (1848-1934), Femme se poignant (1890-1892) 

And similarly here, only the woman is pictured.  She is faceless; it is the hair that defines her.

  Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910),  La chevelure  (ca. 1892)

Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910), La chevelure (ca. 1892)

This Renoir painting of the Lerolle sisters at the piano will be familiar to any pianist who has dabbled in Debussy, for it adorns so many covers to his piano music.  The upright piano, with the two long-haired and sweet-looking young women surrounded by swirling curtains and blooming flowers, conveys numerous stereotypes about the accomplished young woman whose amateur pursuits at the instrument increase her innocent attractions.

  Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919),  Young Girls at the Piano , ca. 1882

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Young Girls at the Piano, ca. 1882

Art Nouveau artists in France, often connected with the Pre-Raphaelites in England, were even more obsessed with hair than the impressionists, for its swirls fit their idea of the arabesque to perfection.   The woman below looks typically contemplative, even vacant-- these women were wrapped up in their own thoughts, and their resultant passivity is notable.

  Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939),  Poetry  (1898) 

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), Poetry (1898) 

The vase below is another good example of Art Nouveau, which featured work in jewelry and ceramics as well as painting. Most of the objects were made for women, either as bodily or household accoutrements, and the swirling images featured from nature were similar to those of hair in their curvaceous forms.  Gallé was one of the leading exemplars of work in glass.

  Emile Gallé (1846-1904),  Les Feuilles des douleurs passés  (The leaves of past sadnesses), 1900

Emile Gallé (1846-1904), Les Feuilles des douleurs passés (The leaves of past sadnesses), 1900

Here we come to an image Debussy might easily have seen in his daily journal, where hair played as central a role as it did in the painters' studios. This image, entitled "Offering," of a naked woman proferring her hair, appeared in the Oct 6, 1901 issue of the Courrier Français. It was accompanied by a text reading: "For your fingers, here is my hair." Debussy took the offering for his music.

  Courrier Français ,   Offrande

Courrier FrançaisOffrande

 

Musical examples

Deux Arabesques, 1888/1891 (Walter Gieseking, 1925)

The shape of the arabesque inspired art nouveau painters of Debussy's era, as well as architects, jewelers, sculptors-- and musicians.  Listen to the curving lines and fluid rhythms here, and you can't help but be reminded of the curvaceous lines of women's flowing long hair and spiraling jewelry.

La fille aux cheveux de lin, Prelude no. 8, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

This is, of course, the piece with the title which justifies a discussion of hair in Debussy's piano music, but in the Robert Burns and Leconte de Lisle's poems which formed the inspiration for the maiden at hand, we glimpse only one aspect of hair's many guises.  This long-haired maiden is sweet and innocent and possibly a bit forlorn; those pictured in poetry, painting, and Debussy's own opera, Pélléas et Melisande,are often seductive, vacant, or hopeless -- their hair entangles them in a multitude of life's vicissitudes.

Bruyères, Prelude no. 5, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

Bruyères (Heather) features no mention of hair in its title, or of arabesques for that matter, but its lines turn in and out in much the same shape as an arabesque and its name certainly suggest all the suppleness of the blowing heath.  It's one of the most peaceful of the preludes, and like La fille aux cheveux de lin it delights in the firm cadences which Debussy so often avoids.

La damoiselle élue, 1887-1889 (Gieseking)

This early Debussy cantata sets Rosetti’s poem of the same name; a mere glance at Rosetti’s accompanying painting (see above) makes it clear that this blessed damozel looking down from heaven is herself hypnotized by her flowing hair as her lover may be as well. Hair played a central role for the English Pre-Raphaelites painters like Rosetti, and Debussy was attracted by the same pale, wan maidens.  Though intended for orchestra, female chorus, and solo singers, it's interesting to hear even this small portion on the piano.

Pelléas et Mélisande, 1893-1902 (Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado)

Debussy's single completed opera stands as one of the great monuments of 20th century music.  Debussy took as the basis of his libretto Maeterlinck's symbolist play, and its story about a sad and lost woman whose involvement with the brother of her husband leads to her lover's death and ultimately her own death in childbirth was set by both Faure and Schoenberg as well. The tragic story is told here with music that sounds preternaturally like speech; there are very real traces of Wagnerian harmony and leitmotifs, but the grandiosity of Wagner has been banished and an overwhelming delicacy has taken its place.  Mélisande's hair plays a strangely large role in the drama; it very literally ties her to Golaud, her lover.  A Mélisande with short hair is unimaginable, the long tresses are an essential extension of this woman's body, and she occupies herself in combing them when she is unable to embark on any other action.

La Chevelure from Chansons de Bilitis, 1897-1898 (Dawn Upshaw)

Here again, this time in a text by Pierre Louÿs, hair is the binding agent between lovers.  The "frisson" or shiver that ends the text captures the mystery of the entire song, where dream and reality merge as surely as do the lovers.