Gillian Keith Soprano

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The Debussy Connection – Gillian Keith on The Vasnier Story

The Debussy Connection – Gillian Keith on The Vasnier Story


Soprano Gillian Keith’s search for the lost songs of Debussy led her to discover the love story behind the melodies he wrote for his muse, Blanche Vasnier. From her first encounter with the “Chansons de jeunesse” during her student years, Gillian has always felt a strong connection to Debussy’s songs. After years of performing and studying this music, a series of revelations led her to unearth several works that had been unpublished. She has brought them together, for the first time, as pieces of a puzzle that tell the tale of Debussy’s passionate yet forbidden affair with the woman who inspired his earliest work.


How did you hear about these songs?

When I recorded my first Debussy CD I read a book called The Poetic Debussy by Richard Miller, which outlined all the songs Debussy wrote during his early period. Several were described as lost, or unpublished, and I found this frustrating and sad. How could so many songs by a musical giant remain unshared and private for all these years? Not enough interest? Secrecy of the collector? Or had someone simply been careless with them at some stage, and not recognised their importance?


A recital in 2012 with London Song Festival’s director Nigel Foster introduced me to two of these “disappeared” songs, which Nigel himself tracked down to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Then, an overheard conversation between two pianists in the backstage green room at the Salle Pleyel in Paris let me in on the secret that there was a ‘new’ Debussy song being prepared as part of the edition of complete works.


Taking on the case in earnest, I tracked down another song to the New York Public Library, another through a French accompanist who had done his own transcription of Debussy’s only song for voice and harp, and finally I struck gold when I made contact with a scholar at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She agreed to share with me a song that had not been sung since its composition almost a century ago. My treasure hunt was leading me to significant rewards.


Where did these songs come from?

When Debussy was 18 years old and a struggling student, he took a part-time job as a piano accompanist in the music studio of a famous Paris teacher, playing for singing lessons of wealthy society ladies. He needed the position in order to make ends meet, although he found the work tedious and beneath his talents. It was here that he met and fell in love with a talented amateur singer, Blanche Vasnier. Although 14 years his senior, and married with two children, he fell in love with her, and she inspired him to write dozens of exquisite melodies for her unusual, yet beautiful voice. It was during this period of great happiness, creativity and self-discovery that Debussy wrote some of his most touching, pure and perfect music.



What did that household mean to Debussy?

Debussy’s relationship with Madame Vasnier and the whole Vasnier household nourished him in so many ways. As the eldest of five children, he was used to being part of a busy household, and in some ways Madame Vasnier might have been a maternal figure to him, and her children reminding him of his own siblings. Unlike Debussy’s own parents, the Vasniers were intellectually stimulating and would have encouraged and guided his academic development. But not only was Blanche Vasnier a musical partner and inspiration for Debussy’s compositions, his infatuation for her awakened in him the first mature emotions and passions of his adult life.


And what do the songs mean to you?

Although I have always loved his music, it is the story behind these songs that have made them special for me. Knowing how Debussy felt about this woman – how she became a part of his life, and how he integrated himself into her world – gives these songs deep significance.  Her daughter’s descriptions of their exuberant croquet games during summer holidays, his sulking fits when other guests were unexpectedly invited to dine (meaning he had to share her company), and his early encounters with the poetry of Verlaine through Monsieur Vasnier’s personal library, make me look at these songs in a much more personal way. The scenarios and intimate situations behind each composition seep out between the lines of music, and the suggestive poetry he chose to set for her become infused with messages of love and longing.


Are there similarities between you and Madame Vasnier?

Vocally I am incredibly well suited to the Vasnier songs. Her voice was very high, light, flexible and agile, and he loved to write vocalises for her – extended, wordless passages sung to the syllable ‘Ah’.  Her range seems to have been almost identical to mine, and like her, I find an ease with the coloratura passages.


So the songs feel as if they’re written for you? 

It’s like trying on your great-grandmother’s wedding dress and finding it fits you perfectly. The more these songs become a part of me and my performing experience, the more I feel I am channeling his music through her voice.


Like Degas’ young ballerinas in bronze, or Picasso in his Blue Period, I feel Debussy used a unique palette when he crafted his lines for Vasnier that he never used for another singer again. Was their relationship star-crossed? Was their passion physical or solely musical? Whatever secrets are held within these songs, the alchemy of their union is undeniable.


Gillian Keith appears at Wilton’s Music Hall with Simon Lepper, piano, on 27, 28 and 29 April, 2015 in ‘Debussy And His Muse’.

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