Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) – Claude Debussy
The short work linked above, from Debussy’s second volume of preludes, has a decidedly straightforward title. For the composer, at the height of his career, but having learned recently that he had cancer, perhaps the desolation he expressed in this music required such a stark title. Though the music can seem blurry, Debussy was a master of clarity in capturing the essence of a feeling or a moment in sound, in this case the leaves of autumn, fallen and desiccated. Harmonically and rhythmically vague, as his music often is, it is music that seems filled with mournful sighs.
Why do we sigh? Whether we do so from frustration or from sadness, there’s one theory that suggests that our sighs serve as a re-set button. In all the ways that breath is life, our sighs overcome the shallow breathing we sometimes fall into and re-energizes our lungs. Maybe it’s a pointed “snap out of it” message from our brain. We can’t really know what was going on in Debussy’s own brain as he composed, but I’m grateful for the “snap out of it” messages that keep me from settling too comfortably into melancholy.
Feuilles mortes had another incarnation that many of you will recognize –
The translation of “Dead Leaves” sounds somewhat more alluring in French – Feuilles mortes. But then, as I learned this past summer while traveling in France, even the voice of the GPS sounds more alluring when he (there was no way this GPS voice was an “it”, nor a “she”) gave directions.
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, les souvenirs et les regrets aussi. Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful, so can memories and regrets.
The American version softens death into merely falling, and changes the title from Dead Leaves to Autumn Leaves, but we often retreat into the prettier words of euphemism in order to save ourselves from confronting the hardest truths.
Of course, as with the lefts and rights of my friend’s French navigation system, allure is part of anything sung by Yves Montand. He sings here a tender song of nostalgic longing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this was a song written in France in 1945. There is no euphemism for all that is lost in wartime.
Nor for the loss of talent taken too soon: Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves.
Debussy’s dead leaves are disorienting and bleak. Cassidy’s autumn leaves are heartbreaking. I gave myself permission to cry and to live in melancholy for just a bit as I listened, and so should you before you sigh and reset for whatever comes next.
if you’ve read down this far, you might be interested in a concert I’ll be doing on October 21 – Debussy’s Feuilles mortes is included – let me know if you’d like to attend. Four Seasons of Caring – a house concert
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was, and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.
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