There is an old Greek fable that goes as follows. Two flowers, a rose and an amaranth (the latter an immortal purple flower), are having a conversation, as flowers do. In a rare retelling I once heard, the amaranth at one point turns to the rose and asks it, ‘Why are you so beautiful?’—the fact implicit in the question, of course, being that the amaranth’s beauty for some reason falls short of that of the rose, who then replies, ‘It's because I can die.’
Musicians seem to be acutely attuned to this theme of the curious interplay between death and life. Arlo Guthrie famously quipped that "You can't have a light without a dark to stick it in." Jason Mraz wrote that "It takes a night to make it dawn." And Emilíana Torrini, in her astoundingly beautiful song "Serenade," crooned: "For the dark finds ways of being / Engraved in the light / And the heart bears indentations / Of yesterday's hurting child / The now we will run with smiles."
Before any of these musicians had even been born, however, Claude Debussy, in his "La fille aux cheveux de lin," which translates roughly as “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” wordlessly captured this same poignancy. It's been just over a year since I first discovered the song, and, after writing countless poems inspired by it, I've decided to dig a little deeper and see if I can't make out a little something more about its origin.
Born into poverty in France in 1862, Claude Debussy took up the piano at age 7, and quickly found himself growing in notoriety and skill. By the time of his death in 1918, aged just 51, he'd come to be regarded as one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries and the effective founding father of musical impressionism.
Debussy wrote increasingly complex music, and was always at the forefront of musical innovation. Perhaps that is why "La fille aux cheveux de lin," the eighth song in Book I of his Préludes, is so unique. It is an island of calm amid a tumultuous sea of thought, and stands in marked contrast with the rest of his work, which seems to aspire towards Beauty through ornate textures rather than the impossibly serene and subtle fluidity of “La fille aux cheveux de lin.”
Debussy's piece is named after Leconte de Lisle’s poem "The Girl with the Golden Hair,” and indeed derives a surprising degree of its inspiration therefrom. Siglind Bruhn, a German musicologist and pianist, explores the similarities between the two in rather more technical terms, writing that the “four musical shifts of perspective” in Debussy’s song correspond with the “four occurrences of the refrain in the poem,” and “should [therefore] be regarded as major eye-openers for the understanding of this piece.” She goes on to say that “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” as with the poem, adopts a “dual frame of reference that underlies this and any other budding love stories: the obvious, unquestioned, enchanted involvement here and now (as presented in the stanzas), and the knowing, slightly wistful look backward at past elation (as apparent in the refrain).”
This refrain to which Siglind is referring, as found in the poem, reads: "For, love, in clear summer sunlight, / Has soared with the lark and sung now." Thus, when properly interpreted, the enrapturing quality of "La fille aux cheveux de lin" is that of being caught up in the moment of some love, while its melancholy undertone is due to the fact that, deep down and in your heart, you know it shall be soon gone.
It's been said, in rather vague and untenable terms, that Debussy wrote this song after falling in love with a woman he glimpsed in a crowd, only to lose her forever in that same instant. I used to find this story satisfactory, until I learned that in 1909, the same year he began writing his Préludes, Debussy was diagnosed with colon cancer. With this in mind, "La fille aux cheveux de lin“ begins to take on new significance. Claude was not simply writing about young love: he was contending with his own mortality. (Another in Préludes is titled “Feuilles mortes,” or “Dead Leaves”, and one need not much wonder why.)
The circumstances attending its creation offer us a glimpse into the profound and aspirational longing that suffuses this already bottomless reservoir with its transcendent quality. Claude, in this piece, has woven into sound the conflicting passions of rapture and bereavement, the experiencing of life while having it simultaneously torn from your embrace. Thus, to listen to "La fille aux cheveux de lin" is to enter into a timeless kingdom, and to abide therein. John Keats, himself writing only two years before his lamentable death at the ripe age of 25, conveyed this same feeling as he mused upon an image engraved on a Grecian urn: "Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu..."
Nothing quite surpasses the reverence and ingenuity of "La fille aux cheveux de lin"; it is as raw and exquisite a song as we are likely ever to find. The splash of a note that sings into the silence and is gone, the waves of ecstasy that spill and cease as soon as they are born—These are all life, which is itself nothing if not the obsolescent music of desire.
For all of these reasons, I consider this piece to be Debussy's masterwork, an anguishing celebration of loss and liberty, the ultimate alchemy of deriving out of an ocean of darkness the liquid song of Light. In the words of William Blake: "Eternity is in love with the creations of time." Here is one such creation, loved by the gods who sang it into being.