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Six Epigraphes antiques

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Six Epigraphes antiques

1. Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'été
2. Pour un tombeau sans nom
3. Pour que la nuit soit propice
4. Pour la danseuse aux crotales
5. Pour l'Egyptienne
6. Pour remercier la pluie au matin

The outbreak of the War in 1914 oppressed Debussy profoundly; on the 8th of August he wrote to his publisher, Durand: “I am just a poor little atom crushed in this terrible cataclysm. What I am doing seems so wretchedly small.” Nevertheless, that year he completed the concise duets of Six Epigraphes antiques, which drew their imagery from poems by his friend Pierre Lou˙s, some of whose “Chansons de Bilitis” he had set to music earlier. (The Bilitis of Lou˙s’ title was an imaginary poetess of ancient Greece whom Lou˙s presented as a real historical figure, even writing a short biography for her.)

In the opening “Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'été” it is easy to hear the waft of the wind and a sense of summer peacefulness (along with a whiff of “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”). The poem describes in considerable detail the actions of two shepherdesses amusing themselves, and the music follows these gentle activities fairly closely.

“Pour un tombeau sans nom” arises from a poem in which a girl visits the tomb of her mother’s lover, reading the inscription which ends, “I tell not my name.” Debussy’s deeply descending piano line is wonderfully evocative, and his characteristic use of the whole-tone scale adds to a sense of mystery.

The whole-tone scale turns up again in “Pour que la nuit soit propice” (Lou˙s’ “Hymn to the Night”), contributing to the prevailing atmosphere of distance and darkness.

“Pour la danseuse aux crotales,” a steamy poem depicting the increasing ecstacy of the dancer as she moves to the accompaniment of her castanets, calls forth dashing displays of pianistic flamboyance, alternating with episodes of muted sensuousness; the click of castanets comes through clearly.

“Pour l'Egyptienne” (from Lou˙s’ “The Egyptian Courtesans”) sets glistening oriental ruminations above a pulsing tread in the bass that continues almost to the end.

Delicate raindrops patter down in “Pour remercier la pluie au matin” (“The Rain of Morning”) reminding one of the popular solo piano work “Jardins sous la pluie”; at the same time, there are harmonies that might have come straight from “The Sunken Cathedral.” As the last raindrops die away, there is an unexpected reference to the opening of the first piece of the set.

© Shirley Fleming

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