Claude Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” ranks right up there alongside his “Clair de Lune,” “Beau Soir,” and “Afternoon of a Faun” on my “favorite short classical pieces” list. In spite of their brevity, all of them immediately transport you, taking you to a vivid, sensual, evocative place that, once you’ve returned to the “real world” and the slog of daily life, you feel the piece’s presence still, a deep vibration in your core.[1]

“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” or “La fille aux cheveux de lin” in its original French, is the eighth piece in Book I of Debussy’s solo piano Préludeswritten around 1910. The title was inspired by an 1852 poem by Charles-Marie René Leconte de Lisle, which I’ll post below.

Although it was written for solo piano, different arrangements abound. The first version I heard, actually, was Joshua Bell on violin with orchestral accompaniment. I discovered it a dozen years ago, mid-December, where Bell’s compilation CD slotted in nicely with the Christmas music I play regularly around that time. Best of all, once the holidays had passed, the Christmas CDs shelved for the year, Mr. Bell’s “Romance of the Violin” was still there for me. It’s a lovely CD, the perfect musical touch for those early January days when, much as the holidays exhausted you, you find yourself still yearning to light candles and plug in festive lights. (Or is that just me? Tell me some of you do the same.) Each year, now, it is my favorite January CD, and “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” my favorite song. It always sounds fresh, nuanced, and ephemeral. Within it, there’s a sense of space, of simplicity, and yet, it’s got all those trademark nuances that makes me adore Debussy’s music—its unexpected intervals, parallel chords, exotic scales, ethereal harmonies.

Here’s the arrangement—and the CD—I love so much.[2]

I was going to post Leconte de Lisle’s poem next, but before that, let’s pause to hear one more rendition that is amazing. The group is the Los Angeles based cello quintet, SAKURA (Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda, and Peter Myers). This arrangement, for five cellos, is just stunning, fascinating to watch and listen. Such a rich sound, from cellos alone. Who knew?! (Note to self: research SAKURA for a potential future blog.)

Now for the poem. English translation follows below.

La fille aux cheveux de lin
by Charles-Marie René Leconte de Lisle

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise,
Qui chante dès le frais matin ?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Ta bouche a des couleurs divines,
Ma chère, et tente le baiser !
Sur l’herbe en fleur veux-tu causer,
Fille aux cils longs, aux boucles fines ?
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Ne dis pas non, fille cruelle !
Ne dis pas oui ! J’entendrai mieux
Le long regard de tes grands yeux
Et ta lèvre rose, ô ma belle !
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

Adieu les daims, adieu les lièvres
Et les rouges perdrix ! Je veux
Baiser le lin de tes cheveux,
Presser la pourpre de tes lèvres !
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.

And now, the English version.

Sitting amidst the alfalfa in flower,
Who sings in the cool morning hour?
It is the girl with the flaxen hair,
The beauty with cherry lips so fair.
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

Your mouth has colors so divine,
It tempts a kiss, o, were it mine!
Come chat with me in the flow’ring grass,
Girl with the long lashes, silken tress.
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

Do not say no, o cruel girl!
Do not say yes, far better still
To read your large eye’s longing gaze,
Your rosy lips which I so praise!
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

Farewell to deer, farewell to hare!
And to red partridges! I shall dare
a kiss of your crimson lips to steal,
your flaxen locks to caress and feel!
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight.

And, okay, I suppose I should include a solo piano arrangement, since that’s how Debussy composed it.

Which one is YOUR favorite?

Republished with gracious permission from The Classical Girl (January 2020).

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[1] I’ve blogged about the above three pieces before; you can find them HERE, HERE, and HERE, respectively.

[2] HERE is the link to peruse and/or buy the CD yourself.

The featured image is “The Girl with Linen Hair” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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