November 14, 1914
Page 9

How the “Fêtes Galantes” of the Eighteenth Century Painter Have Been Translated Into the Poetry of Verlaine and the Music of Debussy


“THE gayest scenes of pastoral elegance, in a land out of time, a No-Man's Land of blue skies, beautiful women, gallant men and lovely landscapes.” Such is Huneker’s description of the fêtes galantes of Watteau,* the canvases in which that painter idealizes the spirit of eighteenth century France, with a delicacy of feeling and an insight not to be found in the works of his followers Lancret, Boucher and Fragonard. The very mention of Watteau’s name still “evokes in men’s minds a memory of the melancholy that was his, arrayed in garments of azure and rose,” and recalls his dreams of gallant innocence, which cloak in beauty the moral degeneracy of his time.
Like Boucher and Fragonard, Watteau was a society painter, the brilliant gatherings of the lords and ladies who frequented the famous gardens of the Luxembourg, to which he had access as the assistant to the custodian, the fashionable artist, Audran, supplying him with models. Yet while Boucher and Fragonard were content to portray the mere sensuous elegance and voluptuous grace of the society of their epoch, Watteau has limned its very soul in his paintings. The school whose founder and first exemplar he was, marked it is true, a reaction in favor of naturalism against the pompous insincerity and decadent classism of the age of Louis XIV, yet this naturalism was masked with convention. Watteau’s entrancing landscapes, with their clear meadows and shaded woodland dells, are piquantly peopled by the society folk of the Regency, dressed in the latest fashions though the sharp contrast between nature and art only lends the greater charm to his work. In his masterpiece, “L’Embarquement pour Cythère,” the fluttering cupids, accessories of Greek mythology, that hover over this idyllic setting forth of gallants and ladies in court costume to the island of love are the children of some rococo Venus, with talons rouges and powdered hair. They may have played in the gardens of St. Germain, never on the slopes of the Idalian mount. And clear sky and lucent water, tender color and graceful movement emphasize the happy insouciance of this epicurean society whose light laughter was ere long to be drowned in the roll of revolutionary drums on the Place de Grève.
Watteau, when he first went to Paris in 1702 painted saints and madonnas by the dozen for a picture-factory at the Pont-Notre-Dame, in consideration of three francs a week and a diurnal plate of soup. In 1717 he was admitted to the Academy as maître des fêtes galantes, and only four years later his brief career of restless creative activity was ended by consumption. His work was long held in but slight esteem; though after 1875, largely owing to the brothers de Goncourt, he came into his rightful heritage of appreciation. Yet Watteau’s wildest flights of fancy would never have suggested to him that a hundred and fifty years after his death a fellow academician, a poet, would interpret the immobile beauty of his canvases, his fêtes galantes, conversations galantes and fêtes champêtres, in living words. And that a score of years later another poet, a poet in tone, would color with liquid music the word-pictures of his predecessor, and complete the cycle of artistic reactions.
Verlaine’s Poetry
Paul Verlaine shared Watteau’s “nostalgia of the open road,” his excessive poetic sensibility and that feeling for the transitoriness of the mundane which lends an undertone of sadness to the consumptive painter’s joyous lyrical pictures. A symbolist, he responded to the appeal of Watteau’s exquisite and irresponsible art, rich in nuance and haunted by the shadow of approaching dissolution. The fact that Verlaine lacked the gift of concrete imagination only made him the better fitted to reflect the beauty of Watteau’s art in the mobile verse which has lent new distinction to French poesy.
The fêtes galantes are by no means Verlaine’s most important works as a poet. Emotionally they pale beside the passionate conviction and original beauty of the religious poems comprised in “Sagesse” (1881) and other individual secular lyrics. And it need hardly be said that Debussy’s fêtes galantes do not represent the tide-water mark of his genius. But as to Watteau himself, though some of the paintings of his last period (1719-1721) show greater formal development and breadth of delineation, the fêtes galantes is the genre in which he reigned supreme. And even if the impressionistic charm of Watteau’s canvases suggested no more than a phase of the art of Verlaine and that of Debussy, in each case it has evoked a beauty which differs from their own in kind alone and not in quality. And the sympathetic comprehension of these kindred exponents of Watteau’s art, spanning the gulf of years, has given new meaning to his pictures. The songs, “En Sourdine,” “Colloque Sentimentale” and “Fantoches” are delightful instances of how delicately Debussy handles Verlaine’s evanescent dream-lyrics, resuscitating the spectres of emotions past and gone.
Such pictures as “L’Amour au Théâtre Italian” (Kaiser-Friederichs Museum Berlin) and “Une Mascarade” (Sir Edgar Vincent, London) give us a vivid idea of the scaramouche and pulcinella of the songs in question. “Les Ingenus” and “Le Faune” express the spirit of Watteau’s twilight pictures in a more general manner, and it is hard to identify them with any particular canvases; but the Verlaine-Debussy “Clair de lune” at once evokes Watteau’s “Les fetes venetiennes” (National Gallery, Edinburgh ), and “Les plaisirs du Bal” (Dulwich Gallery, London). Then too “The Mandoline,” though not included among the numbers in the two books of the fêtes galantes, is surely at one with them in spirit, for in its measures:

Serenading beaux are courting^
Ladies fair who list, replying . .
Where soft azure shadows falling
Merge and turn in glamor’d splendor
Of a rose-gray moonlight falling
While thro’ the light breezes, tender,
Tinkles a mandolin’s calling.

The English translation, which had to conform to a musical line already fixed, lacks, of course, the perfect suavity of the French, yet anyone who has seen the originals or even copies of “Les Jardins de Saint Cloud” (Prado Madrid), “L’Assemblée dans un Parc” (Kaiser-Friederich Museum in Berlin) “L’sle enchantée” (Leon Michael Levy, Paris), “Reunion champêtre” (Royal Gallery, Dresden), and “Bosquet de Bacchus” (in the possession of Lady Wantage), will recognize the limpid truth and delicate characterization of the verse, so unlike the stilted posey of the time, into which Verlaine has translated the mute beauty of Watteau’s landscapes and figures.
Affinity with Debussy
And Debussy, in his turn, evokes the faint, silver tinkling of the mandolin, “the sighing of-the dark branches” and the silken rustle of trailing gowns in his music. There is an obvious affinity between his tonal-schemes in “half-tints of pearl-gray mists, violet twilights and sunshine the hue of pale primroses” and the atmospheric color of Watteau’s impressionistic canvases. And the verses of the poet are the point of contact between color and sound. It has been well said that “poetry, eluding argument, holds out her hand to music.”
Impressionism, like symbolism, has its climaxes in sensation and feeling. And the charm of Watteau, that protagonist of impressionism in painting, translated into terms of verbal rhythm by the symbolist Verlaine, finds its ultimate and most perfect development in the music of the post-impressionist Debussy, for the elusive and delicate tints of Debussy’s music best interpret the spirit of the fête galante.
And the creative impulse of the musician lends a new quality of charm to the verses of the poet, just as these have reflected a new interest on the paintings that inspired them. Yet neither painter, poet nor musician may altogether escape the limitations imposed by the character of his subject-matter. And the fêtes galantes which Watteau painted picture the artificiality of the life of his time, even though they do so in a highly idealized manner. Then again, both Verlaine and Debussy, though their poems and songs add new and beautiful facets to the jewel of Watteau’s art were not, in the truest sense of the word, developing an original idea. In more plastic mediums of expression they unite one quality of beauty with another. Yet originality in the abstract does not always represent the ulterior need. The flawless pearl is formed of the nacreous flow with which the oyster embalms the grain of sand that irritates it. It is the final result, not the initial cause which is important.
Was the choice of Watteau’s fêtes galantes as subject matter for artistic treatment on the part of Verlaine and Debussy due to chance, like Wagner’s treatment of the “Tannhäuser” legend? Or was it rather the mere instinctive sympathy which draws like to like, the affinity between kindred minds and kindred arts. Debussy is fond of the music of Rameau, who in his own day was called “a distiller of odd chords,” but his art is more closely related to that of Verlaine and Mallarmé than to that of Rameau and Couperin. To employ a paradox: his musical ancestors were literary ones. There is a subtle psychic interconnection between the trinity of creative minds whose collective endeavor has rounded out the cycle of artistic attainment known as the fêtes galantes. The vitality of Watteau’s art was due to the poet’s imagination; the poet in the word-painter reacted to the poet in the colorist, and with so absolute a receptive sensibility that the poet-musician gives the work of his two predecessors its perfect emotional complement in tone.
The Fauré Settings
The name of Gabriel Fauré has been coupled with that of Debussy in connection with the translation of Verlaine’s poesy into music. Yet Fauré’s charming settings lack something of the exquisite appropriateness, the utter fitness of mood of Debussy’s art. Debussy’s own contention that "the beauty of a work of art always remains a mystery, that is to say, it is never possible to verify just how it was brought about” applies in particular to this group of songs.
And the ideal of the fêtes galantes makes itself felt in others of his works as well. The orchestral Nocturnes, seen through a delicate veil of poesy, are, as Lawrence Gilman says, “conceived, half in a spirit of landscape, half in a mood of revery,” for the orchestral poem, “L’isle joyeuse,” is Debussy’s “Embarquement pour Cythère.”—it has the tender charm, the fleeting dreamy stylization peculiar to Watteau.
After Debussy, the composer who, perhaps, has been most successful in reproducing in music the spirit of the fêtes galantes, the spirit of the eighteenth century, is Watteau’s contemporary, the clavecinist, François Couperin. To an even greater extent than Watteau himself he was in touch with the life of good society of the French court. The teacher of the Duke of Burgundy and various other princes of the blood royal, he played “nearly every Sunday” at the little private concerts given at the Louvre. Like Watteau, Couperin was an idealist, and like him he lent to his work an intimate personal charm. His melodious representations of landscapes in tone, Ausonian, Bourbonnais, Charlerois, Basque, have all the delicate color-sense of the paysages of Watteau. The very titles he gives his pieces, “Le Carillon de Cythère,” “Les Silvains,” “Les Gondoles de Delos,” recall the painter and his musical pastels, “L’evaporée,” “La distraite,” “L’attendrissante,” “La douce et piquante,” anticipate the “Kamenoi-Ostrow” series of Rubinstein, and are actual tone-portraits of the fair ladies, who amuse themselves in the canvases of his brother artist.
Though in its way Couperin’s music is inimitable, yet it lacks the deeper sensibility which song lends the winged words of the poet. And as sensibility, the key-note of Watteau’s art, finds its perfect verbal expression in Verlaine’s poesy, so Debussy gives it deeper emotional power in the clear sonorities of song than does Couperin in the broken silvery tinkling of the clavecin.
There are many examples in music of what might be called successive or relayed inspiration. Few of them are more artistically complete than the cycle of art-development represented by the fêtes galantes of Watteau, Verlaine and Debussy. Each artist has done his share. The painter has limned on canvas the fleeting grace and slightly melancholy charm of the social life of his epoch. The poet has endowed this silent beauty with the life of language, and, finally, the musician has colored the black and white of verbal expression with liquid melody. And it is this music of Debussy’s which gives its ultimate perfection to the art of his predecessors and collaborators, for, with its absolute subjectiveness, and limited power of suggestion, freed from the restraints of both painting and poetry, music best realized the dream of symbolism. In Debussy’s own words: “Music is the sum of widespread forces: why transform it into speculative song? Give a few notes from the pipe of an Egyptian shepherd. Such a man is part of the landscape . . .” And Debussy’s music is to Watteau’s paintings and Verlaine’s poems not alone “part of the landscape” but the landscape’s very soul.

*FÊTES GALANTES. 1er recueil. 1. En Sourdine. 2. Fantoches. 3. Clair de Lune. E Froment, Parls. 2e recueil—1. Les Ingénus. 2. Le Faune. 3. Colloque Sentimentale. A. Durand et Fils, Paris.

^THE MANDOLINE,” translated by Frederick H. Martens, from “12 Songs by Claude Debussy,” edited and with a preface by Charles Fontaine Manney. Oliver Ditson Company, Boston.


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