Théodore de Banville’s comédie lyrique Hymnis was written in 1867 and intended to be performed in the following year with music by Jules Cressonnois, although owing to a series of misunderstandings it was not to be performed until the autumn of 1879, at the Théâtre Lyrique; it was published for the first time a year later by Tresse.
Until now, the musical setting of the work by Debussy was known from only two sources, one for the Strophes of the first scene (‘Il dort encore, une main sur la lyre’ in the Martin Bodmer collection), the other from the beginning of scene 7, the Ode bachique (‘À toi Lyaeos’, formerly in the Toscanini Collection, sold at Sotheby's, 26 May 1983, lot 17, £14,000). The present manuscript, untraced since it was sold at auction on 1 June 1926, has never been described in any of the catalogues devoted to Debussy. It is meticulously notated in brown ink and comprises, with new variants, the Strophes of scene 1 and the Ode Bachique, whilst also including three previously unknown sections:
- The duo for Anacreon and Hymnis in scene 1 (‘Sous nos pas le ciel a mis’), pp. 7-8.
- The song of Anacreon in scene 2 (‘Quand par un jour de soleil’), pp. 9-11, lacking the end of the fourth stanza and the fifth stanza.
- The final trio of scene 7 (‘Ah! nous sommes bénis‘), pp. 23-31.
It is clear from a comparison of the shared sequences with the two other known autographs that the present manuscript is a calligraphic fair copy, intended to be offered, as a sort of musical love letter, to Marie Vasnier.
Between 1880 and 1882, at the height of his affair with Marie Vasnier, Debussy set to music 12 poems by de Banville and 3 plays, including Hymnis. Théodore de Banville is, with Paul Verlaine, the poet who most inspired the composer: indeed, Debussy’s first published work, in 1882, was a setting of de Banville’s Nuit d'étoiles. Most – if not all – of Debussy’s de Banville settings are dedicated to Marie Vasnier: an amateur soprano, the daughter of a music teacher, she had married Henri Vasnier, a clerk of works, at the age of seventeen. Her musical talent and charm are preserved in a beautiful pastel made in 1888 by Jacques-Émile Blanche, now in the Petit Palais, Paris.
SALE 29 MAY – 2:30pm
PUBLIC EXHIBITION: Christie’s : 9 avenue Matignon – 75008 – Paris. Free entry.
Dates and opening times: 24 to 28 May, 10am to 6pm (closed on Sunday)