This set of three songs for female voice and piano, composed by Claude Debussy, was published in 1897 with a dedication to the writer André Gide. The texts were based on prose poems by Pierre Louÿs from a collection titled Les Chansons de Bilitis. Notable for their sensuality and beguiling mild eroticism, the three songs were first performed in public by singer Blanche Marot at a Société Nationale de Musique concert on March 17, 1900, with Debussy at the piano.
Biilitis was a fictional Greek courtesan who lived in the sixth century BC. In the Louÿs poems, she reflects on the events of her life from childhood to death. Debussy set to music three poems that describe the attraction, consummation, and termination of a youthful relationship between Bilitis and the shepherd boy Lykas, her first lover.
Here’s a recording of a 2008 performance at the Gardner Museum in Boston by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Pei-Yao Wang:
I. La Flûte
Bilitis describes how Lykas teaches her to play the syrinx, or pan flute.
For the festival of Hyacinthus he gave me a syrinx, a set of pipes made from well-cut reeds joined with the white wax that is sweet to my lips like honey. He is teaching me to play, as I sit on his knees; but I tremble a little. He plays it after me, so softly that I can scarcely hear it. We are so close that we have nothing to say to one another; but our songs want to converse, and our mouths are joined as they take turns on the pipes. It is late: here comes the chant of the green frogs, which begins at dusk. My mother will never believe I spent so long searching for my lost waistband.
II. La Chevelure
Bilitis relates an erotic dream that Lykas described to her.
He told me: Last night I had a dream. Your hair was around my neck, it was like a black necklace round my nape and on my chest. I was stroking your hair, and it was my own; thus the same tresses joined us forever, with our mouths touching, just as two laurels often have only one root. And gradually I sensed, since our limbs were so entwined, that I was becoming you and you were entering me like my dream. When he'd finished, he gently put his hands on my shoulders, and gazed at me so tenderly that I lowered my eyes, quivering.
III. Le Tombeau des Naïades (water-nymphs)
The pastoral atmosphere is shattered. Bilitis’ languor has given way to feelings of loss.
I was walking along in the frost-covered woods; in front of my mouth my hair blossomed in tiny icicles, and my sandals were heavy with muddy caked snow. He asked: What are you looking for? I'm following the tracks of the satyr - his little cloven hoofprints alternate like holes in a white cloak. He said: The satyrs are dead. The satyrs are dead, and the nymphs too. In thirty years there has not been such a terrible winter. That's the trail of a he-goat. But let's pause here, where their tomb is. With his hoe he broke the ice of the spring where the water-nymphs used to laugh. There he was, picking up large cold slabs of ice, lifting them toward the pale sky, and peering through them.