"Les Papillons": Debussy's Autograph Manuscript

When a new work surfaces from a composer of the stature of Claude Debussy, the musical community collectively rejoices. The appearance of "œLes Papillons," composed most likely in 1881, represents one such extraordinary event, for this setting of a poem by Théophile Gautier has been virtually unknown since Debussy's time. The song received its world premiere only in 1962, some eighty years after its composition, at New York's Town Hall; on that occasion, conductor Wilfrid Pelletier observed in a program note that "to my knowledge, this song has never been mentioned by any biographer, nor sung in public." More recently, in February 2004, the work was performed by acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming as part of the recital "The Art of French Song," at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Debussy's autograph manuscript is now held by the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, a gift of the great American soprano Rose Bampton (1907-2007), renowned both for the beauty of her dark-timbred voice and for the dramatic expressivity she brought to the roles she undertook. She gave memorable performances of both standard roles and new repertoire: not only Fidelio under Arturo Toscanini and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni under Bruno Walter, but also the Wood Dove in the U.S. premiere of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder under Stokowski and Daphne in the South American premiere of Richard Strauss's opera. After her retirement from the stage in 1950, Bampton devoted herself to teaching. In 1989 and 1990, when she gave valuable manuscripts "” including Debussy's "Les Papillons" "” to the Music Division, she was still on the faculty of The Juilliard School. In making her gifts to the Library, Bampton emphatically stated that she was motivated by a desire to make the manuscripts available to students. Largely motivated by the desire to fulfill her wish, the Library published a transcription and facsimile of Debussy's autograph manuscript of "Les Papillons" in a handsome portfolio edition in 2004.

The Butterflies ("Les Papillons")

Snow-colored butterflies
Fly in swarms over the sea.
Beautiful white butterflies, when could I
Take the blue path in the air?

Do you know, oh most beautiful of all,
My bayadere with jet-black eyes,
If they could lend me their wings,
Tell me, do you know where I would go?

Without taking a single kiss from the roses,
Across vales and woodlands,
I would go to your half-closed lips,
Flower of my soul, and there I would die.

Théophile Gautier / translation by Marie Rolf

Claude Debussy. "Les Papillons." Setting of a poem by Théophile Gautier. Autograph manuscript in black ink, 1881.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division.

Related Publication: Claude Debussy. Les Papillons: For Voice and Piano

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