Debussy's Six Epigraphes Antiques

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INTRODUCTION

Debussy and his love for the mysterious realm of the antique are epitomized in his piano duets Six Épigraphes Antiques.

The work evolved over an extended period to become a prime example of his style of composition. The poems Chansons de Bilitis written by his close friend Pierre Louÿs (1894) inspired Debussy to compose firstly Trois Chansons de Bilitis (1898) three songs for soprano and piano, then Chansons de Bilitis (1901) instrumental music to accompany the reading of a selection of Pierre Louÿs poems, and finally Six Épigraphes Antiques (1914) for piano four hands and eventually reduction for solo piano. These works contribute to a musical language that continues to influence and shape music today.

Debussy was originally
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1: B-Lydian motif Bar 1-4 Fig. 2: B-Lydian motif Bar 12
La flûte de Pan La flûte de Pan

Figure 1 as it appears in bars 1-4, and again in bar 12, Fig. 2, where it is expanded over almost 2 octaves but with a slightly darker undertone in the base lowering a third, possibly foreshadowing darker moments to come, and in the final presentation in the last line Fig. 3 where the base rises again, perhaps to allow a sense of renewed hope. Fig. 3: B-Lydian motif Bar 27
La flûte de Pan

The first epigraph entitled Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’ete, gets its name from the first line of Louÿs poem Chant Pastoral, which translates to “we must sing a pastoral song, invoke Pan, god of the summer wind”. This invocation of the gods is typical of the ancient Greek dramas, where the first line calls upon the divinities for inspiration of the work, similar to an opening prayer. Examples include Homer’s great epic poems Odyssey and the Iliad, as well as the Homeric hymn to Pan, XIX, “They sing of the blessed gods and high Olympus and choose to tell of such and one as luck-bringing Hermes above the rest.” Pan, who was the son of the god Hermes, also favoured by Dionysus, “Then all the immortals were glad in heart and Bacchic Dionysus in especially; and they called for the boy Pan because he delighted all their hearts” (Evelyn-White 1914 as quoted in Astilla, 2007). There are surviving fragments of Sappho’s third and fourth odes, as translated
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6 Bar 1 Pour la danseuse aux crotales

The fifth epigraph, Pour l’Égyptienne, incurs some ambiguity. Although the title has immediate reference to the poem Les Courtisanes Egyptiennes, and imagery through association with it, the music is not related to the music of that chanson. In fact much of the music from the chanson Les Courtisanes Egyptiennes is used in the second epigraph Pour un tombeau sans nom.

The final epigraph, Pour remercier la pluie au matin (To thank the morning rain) relates to the poem very directly as it reads: “And I, in the morning rain, I am writing these verses in the sand…Those who love after me will sing my stanzas together”. In its’ over arching return to the theme of the first epigraph it is quite clear the composer has come full circle in the work. The circularity could also be interpreted through the rain motif used here, see Figure 7 below.

Fig. 7 Bar 1 Pour remercier la pluie au
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