For a Tuesday, I thought something a little more serious (just a little though) could be in order. I have always loved the songs of Reynaldo Hahn and particularly love Susan Graham’s compilation of Hahn’s songs—”La Belle Epoque”. A particularly summery one is “Quand je fus pris au pavillon”, an upbeat memory song about losing your heart to a fancy lady in her pavillion. The piano captures the exhilaration of youthful love and Susan Graham’s voice sounds so honeyed and sweet.
Two themes are emerging in my week: nostalgia and repeated tunes!
“L’indifferent” is argubly the least well known of Ravel’s three songs that make up his masterpiece Sheherezade. Even so, it garners a good deal of speculation as to the nature of the poem and seems both musically and poetically shrowded in mystery. Although I’ve heard that Ravel originally intended for “L’indifferent” to come second in the trio of songs, I must say I prefer it being last (as it is typically presented) for it leaves the audience often with a slew of questions.
The poem goes as follows:
TES YEUX SONT DOUX COMME CEUX D’UNE FILLE
ET LA COURBE FINE
DE TON BEAU VISAGE DE DUVET OMBRAGE
ET PLUS SEDUISANTE ENCOR DE LIGNE
TA LEVRE CHANTE SUR LE PAS DE MA PORTE
UNE LANQUE INCONNUE ET CHARMANTE
COMME UNE MUSIQUE FAUSSE
ENTRE ! ET QUE MON VINTE RECONFORTE
MAIS NON ,TU PASSES
ET DE MON SEUIL JE TE VOIS T ‘ELOIGNER
ME FAISANT UN DERNIER GESTE AVEC GRACE
ET LA HANCHE LEGEREMENT PLOYEE
PAR TA DEMARCHE FEMININE ET LASSE…..
YOUR EYES ARE SOFT , LIKE THOSE OF A GIRL
YOUNG STRANGER ,
AND THE FINE CURVE
OF YOUR HANDSOME FACE WITH SHADOWED DOWN
IS MORE SEDUCTIVE STILL,
YOUR LIP SINGS ,ON THE STEP OF MY DOOR,
A TONGUE UNKNOWN AND CHARMING
LIKE DISSONANT MUSIC
ENTER ! AND LET MY WINE COMFORT YOU….
BUT NO…YOU PASS BY
AND FROM MY DOOR I WATCH YOU DEPART
MAKING A LAST GRACEFUL GESTURE TO ME
YOUR HIP LIGHTLY BENT
IN YOUR FEMININE AND WEARY GAIT….
Since the subject of the three songs is Sheherezade, one normally assumes that the speaker is Sheherezade herself seducing a young boy. And yet the boy is described in such androgynous terms that one cannot help but wonder why exactly Ravel chose this poem to set. Ravel himself being a sort of sexual enigma and having had no known intimate relationships in his lifetime was often speculated to have been a closeted homosexual. Given this fact, it’s hard not to wonder why he chose to set this song, who this young boy was, and if there was perhaps a deeper message from Ravel himself.
For me, as a singer performing his work, the idea that someone could have been so hidden that he might have spent his whole life putting his emotional and sexual energy into his music touched me deeply. In singing this work, I often imagined myself to be Ravel himself opening his door and heart to a young man whose feminine appearence and walk might have suggested that they were of like minds. I invite him in. I offer him wine. But he passes leaving me still alone, as ever. As he walks on I see him as both everything I want and everything I want to be—while I remain in my doorway, hidden behind the most sensual and touching music.
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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