In 1897, Claude Debussy composed three songs for female voice and piano and dedicated them to the writer André Gide. The texts were based on prose poems by Pierre Louÿs from a collection titled Les Chansons de Bilitis. Notable for their sensuality and beguiling mild eroticism, the three songs were first performed in public by singer Blanche Marot at a Société Nationale de Musique concert on March 17, 1900, with Debussy at the piano.

Biilitis was a fictional Greek courtesan who lived in the sixth century BC. In the Louÿs poems, she reflects on the events of her life. Claude Debussy set to music three poems that describe intimate encounters between Biilitis and the shepherd boy Lykas, her first lover.

In 2008, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston presented a performance of Trois Chansons de Bilitis by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Pei-Yao Wang. A recording of this fine performance was made available in episode 57 of the Gardner Museum podcast “The Concert”.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2008


1. La flûte de Pan

Bilitis describes how Lykas teaches her to play the syrinx, or pan flute.

French English
Pour le jours des Hyacinthies, For the festival of Hyacinthus,
Il m’a donné une syrinx he gave me a syrinx
faites de roseaux bien taillés, made from well-cut reeds,
unis avec la blanche cire, joined with the white wax
qui est douce à mes lèvres comme le miel. that is sweet to my lips like honey.
Il m’apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux; He is teaching me to play, as I sit on his knees;
mais je suis un peu tremblante. but I tremble a little.
Il en joue après moi, si doucement He plays it after me, so softly
que je l’entends à peine. that I can scarcely hear it.
Nous n’avons rien à nous dire, We have nothing to say,
tant nous sommes près l’un de l’autre; so close are we from one another;
mais nos chansons veulent se répondre, but our songs want to converse,
et tour à tour and as they take turns
nos bouches s’unissent sur la flûte. our mouths are joined on the flute.
Il est tard, It is late,
voici le chant des grenouilles vertes here comes the chant of the green frogs
qui commence avec la nuit. which begins at dusk.
Ma mère ne croira jamais My mother will never believe
que je suis restée si longtemps that I spent so long
à chercher ma ceinture perdue. searching for my lost waistband.

2. La chevelure

Bilitis relates an erotic dream that Lykas described to her.

French English
Il m'a dit: He told me:
Cette nuit, j'ai rêvé. Last night I had a dream.
J'avais ta chevelure autour de mon cou. Your hair was around my neck,
J'avais tes cheveux comme un collier noir it was like a black necklace
autour de ma nuque et sur ma poitrine. round my nape and on my chest.
Je les caressais, et c'étaient les miens; I was stroking your hair, and it was my own;
et nous étions liés pour toujours ainsi, thus the same tresses joined us forever,
par la même chevelure, la bouche sur la bouche, with our mouths touching,
ainsi que deux lauriers n'ont souvent qu'une racine. just as two laurels often have only one root.
Et peu à peu, il m'a semblé, And gradually I sensed,
tant nos membres étaient confondus, since our limbs were so entwined,
que je devenais toi-même, that I was becoming you
ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe. and you were entering me like my dream.
Quand il eut achevé, When he'd finished,
il mit doucement ses mains sur mes épaules, he gently put his hands on my shoulders,
et il me regarda d'un regard si tendre, and gazed at me so tenderly
que je baissai les yeux avec un frisson. that I lowered my eyes, quivering.

3. Le tombeau des Naïades

The pastoral atmosphere is shattered. Languor has given way to feelings of loss.

French English
Le long du bois couvert de givre, je marchais; I was walking along in the frost-covered woods;
Mes cheveux devant ma bouche in front of my mouth
Se fleurissaient de petits glaçons, my hair blossomed in tiny icicles,
Et mes sandales étaient lourdes and my sandals were heavy
De neige fangeuse et tassée. with muddy caked snow.
Il me dit: “Que cherches-tu?” He asked: What are you looking for?
Je suis la trace du satyre. I'm following the tracks of the satyr.
Ses petits pas fourchus alternent His little cloven hoofprints alternate
Comme des trous dans un manteau blanc. like holes in a white cloak.
Il me dit: “Les satyres sont morts. He said: The satyrs are dead.
“Les satyres et les nymphes aussi. The satyrs are dead, and the nymphs too.
Depuis trente ans, In thirty years,
il n’a pas fait un hiver aussi terrible. there has not been such a terrible winter.
La trace que tu vois est celle d’un bouc. That's the trail of a he-goat.
Mais restons ici, où est leur tombeau.” But let's pause here, where their tomb is.
Et avec le fer de sa houe il cassa la glace With his hoe he broke the ice of the spring
De la source ou jadis riaient les naïades. where the water-nymphs used to laugh.
Il prenait de grands morceaux froids, There he was, picking up large cold slabs of ice,
Et les soulevant vers le ciel pâle, lifting them toward the pale sky,
Il regardait au travers. and peering through them.

About the Artists

Sasha Cooke

Two-time Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has been called a “luminous standout” (New York Times) and “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” (Opera News). Ms. Cooke is sought after by the world’s leading orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music ensembles for her versatile repertoire and commitment to new music.

Pei-Yao Wang

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Pei-Yao Wang was the youngest pianist ever to receive the overall First Prize in the Taiwan National Piano Competition, at the age of eight. Four years later, she was invited to study at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she worked with Seymour Lipkin and Institute Director Gary Graffman. She then studied with Claude Frank at Yale University, where she received the Master of Music degree, and also pursued a concentration in architecture. She has performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, including venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Suntory Hall. She is currently a member of Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center, a program to promote emerging artists.