Claude Debussy's Beau soir (Beautiful Evening), one of his youthful works, represents a stage of orthodox romanticism which later lessened with musical mastery. With poetic texts taken from a collection entitled Les aveux (Confessions) by Paul Bourget, a personal friend, Debussy depicts the poet's desire to be happy and enjoy life on a gorgeous evening, even though death is inevitable.
Beau soir, like many of Debussy's early songs, is difficult to date, as manuscripts were usually undated and their publication often occurred many years later. Clues have been found in the dedications as well as in the choice of song text. The composer's first brush with songwriting was made with the more conventional romantic verse of Alfred de Musset and Bourget, poets to whom he did not return upon encountering the work of Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarmé. Thus, it has been determined that the memorable and frequently revisited Beau soir was written somewhere around 1878, while Debussy was studying at the Paris Conservatoire and still signing his work Achille, a birth name he dropped upon reaching maturity.
After three years of preparatory studies with Mauté de Fleurville, once claimed to be a pupil of Chopin, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11. He studied solfège with Lavignac, piano with Marmontel, and harmony with Emile Durand. His achievements there were sporadic and his discipline shaky; however, he won first honorable mention in piano in 1875, took the first medal for solfège in 1876, and shared second prize in the piano competition with the future critic, Camille Bellaigue, in 1877. The following year, at the age of 16, he made a fleeting visit to London, where he heard Pinafore. It was around this time that Beau soir was composed. Shortly thereafter, he met Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and was taken along on her travels throughout Europe and Russia, as pianist in a group of household musicians.
Even though composing vocal music did not win Debussy the majority of his fame, his abilities in this genre were remarkable. In his biography of the composer, Oscar Thompson wrote: "If Debussy had been almost exclusively a composer of songs, like Hugo Wolf,...he still would have been one of the most distinctive and individual figures in music. The essence of Debussy's musical personality is in the songs, and they exhibit virtually every facet of his art." Debussy understood, with great depth, the significance of the art form and that, "music and poetry are the only two arts that move in space." He explained that, "Musicians who do not understand poetry should not set it to music. They can only spoil it." As the gently flowing rhythm of Beau soir clearly indicates, Debussy's talents were comprehensive enough to give honor, through song, to the poetic arts.
Recorded on 04/06/2005, uploaded on 03/21/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Throughout the many decades since Debussy emerged as one of France’s leading composers of the early 20th century, his vocal music has been resigned to live in the shadows of his imaginative and influential piano and orchestral music. Regretfully so, as his skill is no less on display in his essays in French art song than any other genre he attempted. Like his early piano music, Debussy’s early attempts at setting poetry to music stand upon the threshold of the late Romanticism and the burgeoning Impressionism of the composer’s mature style. It is no surprise then that in these first songs, Debussy chose appropriate Romantic texts by poets such as Paul Bourget and Alfred de Musset. In later years, he abandoned these poets altogether, preferring the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarmé to emphasize and compliment his mature Impressionistic style.
A setting of a poem by Bourget, Beau Soir is a fairly early work in Debussy’s oeuvre. As with many of the composer’s youthful works, it is difficult to pinpoint for sure its date of composition given the undated manuscripts and a disparity between their composition and subsequent publication. Yet, it is believed the song was composed as early as 1878, while Debussy was still a teenager and the year of his brief visit to London. Bourget’s text draws on the picturesque imagery of the sun setting amidst rivers and wheat fields as in imploration to enjoyment of life and youth. Yet, even in this rosy view, the poet is aware of life’s brevity, concluding the poem with a direct analogy between the rivers’ destination and that of every living soul. Debussy’s setting, in a modally-infused E major, adopts the tranquil atmosphere of Bourget’s text with an accompaniment of triplets beneath the serene vocal melody. The height of the song comes in the second line of the final stanza, from which the music quickly recedes. Displaying a keen sensitivity to the text and dramatic effect, Debussy inserts a moment of silence and two measures of interlude in the midst of the final line, separating and making more poignant the two ends of Bourget’s analogy. Joseph DuBose
Beau Soir Claude Debussy
Lyrics by Paul Bourget
When the rivers are rosy in the setting sun,
and a mild tremor runs over the cornfields,
an exhortation to be happy seems to emanate from things
and rises towards the troubled heart.
An exhortation to enjoy the charm of being alive
while one is young and the evening is beautiful,
for we go away, as this stream goes:
the stream to the sea, we to the tomb.
The fine white clouds go drifting by
through the deep blue like fine silent dreams;
I feel as if I have long been dead,
and happy, drift in eternal regions too.