Dramatic Vocalise Database

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

Printemps (1887)

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, French vocal music was under the influence of Wagnerian declamation, and moved progressively away from a free, melismatic style. The vocal music of Fauré, Charbrier, Chausson, Hahn, and others clearly exemplify this development. For Claude Debussy a similar progression can be seen within his own vocal settings during the 1880s. By the time of Ariettes oubliées (1885–87) Debussy’s approach to vocal setting was fully declamatory in nature. In his Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (1887–89), the voice is further limited to monotone recitation over a piano accompaniment that carries all the musical surroundings in a thick, rich texture. This approach also predominates in Debussy’s later opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). In Printemps, however, melismatic, textless vocal writing is the norm.

The use of voices as an orchestral color, without the use of text, was a long-standing preoccupation for Debussy. Printemps was composed during his stay at the Villa Medici in 1887 as a winner of the Prix de Rome. In a letter to Ernest Chausson written on 7 March 1889, Debussy provided the following description:

That Debussy’s imagery in the above letter is borrowed from the visual arts is no surprise, since a painting by Marcel Baschet, who had been inspired in turn by Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, was the inspiration for Printemps. In addition, it was this same work that was called “Impressionist” by the members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

According to Léon Vallas, Debussy played Printemps as a piano duet with his friend Savard at one of the receptions given by Hébert, director of the Académie.2 The members of the Académie did not grant the work its unqualified approval. The official report of the permanent secretary of the Académie was as follows:

What likely upset them most of all was the instrumental treatment of the voices, and the use of F-sharp major, which was not considered suitable for orchestral writing. As Camille Saint-Saëns famously—and flatly—observed, “One does not write in F-sharp major for orchestra.” 4

A performance of Debussy’s works was to occur in 1890, according to the academic tradition of the Académie, which was devoted each year to the compositions sent in by the laureate who had just completed his term of residence at the Villa Medici. In the letter to Chausson already discussed, Debussy briefly details the situation regarding the reconstruction of the full score of Printemps for this concert:

Debussy expected that his Printemps would be performed with his other works, but the Académie forbade the performance of a work that it had condemned three years previously. Debussy stubbornly refused to agree to the exclusion of his score. He preferred to forgo the honor and the advantages resulting from this concert.

A four-hand piano arrangement with vocal parts of the first movement was published in three installments in La Revue musicale (supplement musical) in 1904.6 The work was orchestrated without chorus by Henri Büsser in 1912, under Debussy’s general supervision, and published in this arrangement by Durand in 1913.7

In the original version of Printemps, the loose sharing of thematic elements between voices and instruments stretches across the two movements. This larger cyclical form is reminiscent of works by other contemporaries of Debussy, notably Franck and d’Indy; motivic recurrences seem similar to the leitmotifs of Wagner. Thematic interaction between voices and instruments can be seen at the very opening of the first movement.

Debussy, Printemps, mvt. 1, mm. 1–8 8

Following the first primary motive (mm. 1–4), comprised of two two-measure statements of a lyrical gesture, an iambic secondary motive sounds in the first piano part, immediately echoed an octave lower by the female voices. Motivic interactions between voices and instruments in this piece, as in the example, serve as Debussy’s “mingling of the colors.” However, more typical is the presentation of musical ideas separately by the two groups within the larger sectional design of the work.

This same interaction, the same sense of dialogue between the differing groups in Printemps foreshadows the beginning of “Sirènes” from Debussy’s Nocturnes (1897–99), as was noted by Louis Laloy in the preface to the 1904 edition of the first movement in La Revue musicale:

Printemps is not as tightly interwoven, nor is the larger structure as clear as in the latter work. If the voices “answer” the orchestra in Printemps, they engage in full dialogue as an equal member of the orchestra in “Sirènes.”

(Nauman 2009, 80–85)



mvt. 1 (opening)

Printemps, mvt. 1

Printemps, mvt. 2


1 François Lesure and Roger Nichols, eds., Debussy Letters, trans. by Roger Nichols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 24.

2 Léon Vallas, Claude Debussy: His Life and Works, trans. by Maire and Grace O’Brien (New York: Dover, 1973), 41.

3 Ibid., 42.

4 Louis Laloy, La Musique retrouvée, 1902–1927 (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1928), 128: “On N’écrit pas en fa dièse majeur pour l’orchestre.”

5 François Lesure and Roger Nichols, eds., Debussy Letters, 24.

6 Claude Debussy, “Printemps,” La Revue musicale (15 February 1904): 25–32; (1 March 1904): 33–40; and (15 March 1904): 41–48.

7 James Briscoe, Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (New York: Garland, 1990), 36.

8 Claude Debussy, “Printemps,” La Revue musicale (15 February 1904): 25.

9 Louis Laloy, preface to Printemps, by Claude Debussy, La Revue musicale (15 February 1904): 25.