Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940)
Lucie Hessel, 1905
Oil on cardboard
Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1977.01.P

In 1894, Debussy’s close friend Piere Louÿs published a collection of poems, Les Chansons de Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis). Initially, Louÿs passed the poetry off as originating from 6th century Greece, and it wasn’t until several years later that it was revealed that his translations were really a clever hoax, and he had written the poems and fabricated the life story of Bilitis. Louÿs imagined young Bilitis as a courtesan in Ancient Greece and a contemporary of the poet Sappho. A few years later, Debussy turned a selection of these poems into songs for a woman’s voice and piano, sung from the point of view of Bilitis.

This song, La Chevelure (The Tresses of Hair), depicts a hopeful lover describing a dream where the couple’s hair entwines and unites them. The erotic connotation of flowing feminine hair is also featured prominently in Pelléas et Mélisande. But the passion of this piece is not without its melancholy; ultimately this lover abandons Bilitis, and her memory of their passion cannot help but be tainted with sorrow. Louÿs’ depiction of the young Bilitis recalling her lover’s words in La Chevelure runs parallel to the relationship between Lucie Hessel and her portrait depiction: a muse, an intimate love, haunting every corner of their lover’s mind, even in their dreams.