Gillian Keith Soprano

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Hidden Treasure

Debussy Songs For His MuseMy 2014 finished with the realisation of a dream – my latest CD, Debussy Songs For His Muse is pressed and packaged, and 100 copies arrived on my doorstep last month. Although the official release won’t be until February, having the finished product in my hand felt like enough of a cause for celebration.

For over two years I have pushed the project forward, often in frustratingly slow stages, and once or twice I thought it would die before its time – frustrations in coordinating schedules, a glitch with performing rights and complicated discussions over translations all hampered progress. Classical music recordings are no longer money-making ventures, and in my case this was a labour of love fueled by my imagination.

The recording features a ‘new’ song by Debussy, a composer who has been dead for nearly 100 years. Not technically a recent discovery, (we have known of its existence for a long time) this song has been well guarded in a private collection in the US for decades. I hope that the details of the story will come to light with its publication, but for now it remains a bit of a mystery. How could a song by a musical figure so well known to us (and one who is famed for his vocal output) remain unknown for all these years? Simply not enough interest? A change in the circumstances of the collector? New copyright or public domain regulations? Whatever the answers may be, we Debussy fans are benefitting from a rare and thrilling treat.

In the course of my research I discovered that an established Debussy scholar (Marie Rolf, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York) had presented a group of recently edited songs at a symposium in New Orleans, and this elusive composition was on her list. The song Séguidille was written by Debussy for his muse Blanche Vasnier, an amateur soprano with a high, agile voice whom he met when he held a part-time job as an accompanist for singing lessons in a Paris studio. Although not a professional performer, Madame Vasnier clearly had an impressive technique, judging by the demanding music written for her. This song, set to a poem by Théophile Gautier, describes the alluring physique and sultry flirtations of a Spanish ‘Manola’, and requires the singer to throw off fast runs, high trills, and cover a range of over two octaves. Lasting nearly 5 minutes, it is a major addition to the repertoire – an old song for a new generation.

How did I manage to get my hands on it? I suppose it helped that I have built a modest reputation as a Debussy performer, having released a disc of his early songs in 2003, and that Marie Rolf already knew of my work. But I like to think it was my genuine enthusiasm for her endeavours in bringing this music to the wider world that made me a worthy recipient of this precious material. Marie agreed to share her draft edition with me in August 2013, and at that time I believe there were very few people who had seen or heard these notes.

Since then I have performed several times it in recital, (letting the audience know they were hearing something extremely rare!) and our CD will be one of the first commercial recordings of the piece. I am gratified that the BBC has also taken a keen interest in this project – on December 20th Radio 3 Music Matters featured the release of my recording and gave the first ever broadcast of the piece. Listen to the excerpt here, starting from 40 minutes 30 seconds into the programme.

Séguidille has become part of my programme ‘Debussy And His Muse’, a recital of words and music featuring songs, memoirs and letters describing the extraordinary relationship between Debussy and Madame Vasnier. I feel honoured that I was among the first to add it to my repertoire, and I look forward to hearing what the rest of the world will make of it!