One of my dearest friends from my time at Juilliard is Sasha Cooke, a mezzo who should be very familiar to NYFOS audiences. Her vulnerability and honesty comes to life in this early performance of her, of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.
The poet Louÿs composed Chansons de Bilitis after traveling in Italy in a “Parnassian” style. The poems are actually pseudotranslations—in the orginal collection of poems, he fraudulently claimed that they were translated from Greek, and even invented a fake archeologist who features in the book. The songs are famously erotic, and singers now tend to present them in a rather sultry tone—but this actually goes against Debussy’s intentions. The singer who he selected to premiere the piece, Blanche Marot, was actually selected for her virginity. She later related an anecdote between Debussy and her mother:
“Tell me, Madame, your daughter is not yet twenty? Good. It’s very important, because if she understand the second song, “La Chevelure,” she won’t sing it in the right way; she mustn’t grasp the true brazenness of Bilitis’s language…” My mother set Debussy’s anxieties at rest and everything went splendidly.”
Roger Nichols, Debussy Remembered (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992), 59.
Translations by Pamela Dellal
La Flûte de Pan
Pour le jour des Hyacinthies,
Il m’apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux;
Nous n’avons rien à nous dire,
Il est tard: voici le chant des grenouilles vertes
For Hyacinth’s day,
He teaches me to play, sitting on his knee;
We have nothing to say to each other,
It is late; now the song of the green frogs
Il m’a dit: “Cette nuit, j’ai rêvé.
“Je les caressais, et c’étaient les miens;
“Et peu à peu, il m’a semblé,
Quand il eut achevé,
He said to me: “I dreamed last night.
“I caressed them, and they were mine;
“And little by little, it seemed to me,
When he finished,
Le tombeau des Naïades
Le long du bois couvert de givre, je marchais;
Il me dit: “Que cherches-tu?”
Il me dit: “Les satyres sont morts.
Et avec le fer de sa houe il cassa la glace
The tomb of the naiads
Along the woods covered in frost, I walked;
He said to me: “What are you looking for?”
He said to me: “The satyrs are dead.
And with his iron hoe he broke the ice
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