The history of Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques is anything but straightforward. In 1901 they were a part of the incidental music for two flutes, two harps and celesta that he had composed for the stage work Les Chansons de Bilitis. This was made up of twelve tableaux-vivants combined with the recitation of Greek erotic poetry from the eponymous volume by Debussy’s close friend Pierre Louÿs published in 1894. The poet had deceived his readers by stating that he had translated the poems from the Greek; Bilitis was supposed to have been a contemporary of and kindred soul to Sappho (6th century BC), and the poems of Bilitis were said to have been discovered on the walls of her sarcophagus by the German archaeologist G. Heim — his English equivalent would be S. Ecret. It was also planned that dancers in varying stages of nudity would appear on stage, although this proved too controversial an idea for the time.
The production was finally given one private performance; the music was not published and the celesta part was missing when the other parts were found in 1954. Pierre Boulez (1954), Arthur Hoérée (1971) and the Dutch composer Rudolf Escher (1972) all attempted reconstructions, but none of these became popular.
Three of Pierre Louÿs’ poems had already been set by Debussy in 1897 as his Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy returned to Louÿs’ poems in 1914; the First World War was raging, his friendship with Louÿs had soured and Debussy himself was mortally ill. He took six movements from his incidental music from 1901 and created little masterpieces from them, transcribing them for piano four and two hands. Debussy wrote to his publisher Durand that he also intended to make an orchestral version of the same pieces.
Debussy died in 1918 before he could begin the orchestrations, but Ernest Ansermet made a highly atmospheric orchestration of the work in 1939 that he would later record with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for Decca. This orchestration sounds warm and sumptuous but traditionally Western. The conductor Jean-François Paillard made a version for string orchestra in 1978 for his own Orchestre de chambre Jean-François Paillard that is somewhat monochrome by comparison.
Rudolf Escher was finally able to portray the exoticism of the notes in terms of orchestral timbre. His orchestration dated 1977 contains an important role for percussion as well as for the two harps and celesta from the original 1901 version that Escher had also reconstructed some five years earlier. His emphasis on these instruments gives this version of the Epigraphes antiques the carefully dosed spiciness of an Eastern meal. Debussy would surely have approved of Escher’s version.
Translation: Peter Lockwood