Research question


Because of my profound love for literature and music, the research I conducted is a musico-literary one, focusing on French composition and poetry from the 19th and 20th century by linking French language and music and looking for their convergence and connection, for example in mélodie (French art song) but also in instrumental work written or transcribed especially for oboe and English horn. It was the symbolistic French poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), my favourite French poet from early on, who already spoke about music in poems, stating that in poetry music should come before anything else: De la musique avant toute chose. Therefore, I have chosen a poem – the final poem “Colloque sentimental” from the French poetry collection Fêtes galantes II – written by Verlaine and put to music in the form of mélodie by Claude Debussy, to discover its literary and musical aspects and how poetry and melody intertwine and support each other. Having a bachelor's degree in Classical Oboe with a minor in Classical Voice (and Education) as well as a background in French poetry, thanks to my bachelor's degree in French Language and Literature and to my job as a French coach for singers at the Codarts conservatoire, I considered this research to be feasible. Besides, it also challenged me, because I combined it with a practical and personal research involving a vocal and instrumental approach and analysis of the poetry and pieces, for which I have sung and played oboe/English horn myself.


What interested me most, was to research if a more textual, vocal or instrumental approach explains, influences or even changes the way of playing French music – for example the performance of vocal and instrumental compositions from Debussy, being known for basing most of his music on poetry, which I would love to experiment and experience with while singing, playing, interpreting and unravelling (the meaning of) literary texts. Moreover, the study of French song (transcription), instrumental composition and poetry would be an interesting way to expand the existing oboe repertoire. The transcription of art song to oboe            (-related instruments) could provide a deeper insight in the interpretation and performance of French mélodie and poésie, giving an instrumental version that has taken into account the particularities and possibilities of the language and voice as well as those of the instrument. Hopefully, it will facilitate a better understanding and clearer approach of the material for oboists and therefore add artistic value.

Consequently, I decided to choose this poem and art song Colloque sentimental to delve deeper into the text and music in order to annotate the poem, analyse the melody and eventually transcribe the music for English horn – an instrument close to the human voice and perfectly suitable in terms of tessitura, tone and character for this particular poem (and above all, my favourite instrument since I was six). This specific idea, eventually leading to a more general vision, brought me to the following research question that combines all of my questions and passions – concerning French, poetry, 20th century music, voice and oboe/English horn:


“What influence can a poetical & vocal approach provide to the instrumental performance of French mélodie from the turn of the 20th century on oboe?”


In order to answer this question thoroughly, I will first of all elaborate on the subject of “poésie et mélodie” and after giving an essential literary and musical context, continue with the involved artists and works to subsequently introduce the poetry and melody in question: Colloque sentimental. Moreover, comparing both poem and music, I will analyse and annotate the text to show the “music within the poetry”, regarding aspects like structure, rhyme, rhythm, prosody, inflection and diction, phrasing, tempo, colour, intention and character, and discuss the mélodie to demonstrate the “poetry within the music” at the same time. Finally, I will make a transcription of Colloque sentimental for English horn, showing both the original vocal part and the new English horn part, illustrating and reflecting on the musical choices I have made so far, indicating alternative options in playing and singing phrases but also in their notation, in the end referring back to the poetical, vocal and instrumental approaches, their possibilities and influences to eventually answer the research question in the conclusion.

Research process


In preparation for the research I started reviewing several vocal and instrumental works by Debussy. For example, I have been singing his Trois chansons de Bilitis to discover vocal Debussy and playing (and arranging) a transcription of his Rapsodie pour saxophone et orchestre (from the same period as Colloque sentimental) on English horn to discover instrumental Debussy (I primarily had experience with playing Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune on oboe in orchestras) and the art of transcription. I have been working extensively on both pieces for half a year (January till June 2021), performing and playing them for voice and oboe/English horn teachers (Gerda van Zelm and Ron Tijhuis, also playing English horn for my voice teacher), with coach pianists Kamelia Miladinova and Phyllis Ferwerda, and for fellow students while trying out various versions, using alternative approaches. What is more, I also had the opportunity to work with a specialist in art song: Dutch soprano Elly Ameling whom I spent a lovely afternoon in June with at her house, talking about the art of French mélodie, singing the complete Bilitis with Phyllis behind the piano and discussing different approaches and interpretations. An amazing and special experience to be taught by such a famous soprano who had lessons with Pierre Bernac, the writer of The interpretation of French song – a source I have used a lot during this research and in my teaching of French to singers. Elly Ameling really inspired me, insisting on rhythmical precision, on legato and speechlike (soft) singing with clear vowels, and on portraying different characters, like the youthful (character of a) girl in La flûte de Pan.


Besides, I also followed composition lessons to help me write my ideas on sheet music, composing a duet for alto voice and English horn on a poem of Verlaine, Chanson d'automne – the first poem I ever read by Verlaine, and to have help with transcribing works. Fun fact is that I actually sang a poem of Verlaine, Clair de lune, also from Fêtes galantes, on my bachelor's oboe exam and I was already familiar with singing his poetry through songs of Fauré I sang during my minor in Classical Voice with Gerda van Zelm. Investigating more and more the mélodies of Debussy – which I discovered eight years ago when I came to study French at University –  I listened and compared a lot of renditions of his art songs (also to opera, chamber music and orchestral compositions). Eventually I started studying singing Colloque sentimental – a text I had already been familiar and in love with due to my French coaching for voice students – and took it to singing lessons, always writing little notes with what to look for, new ideas, inspirational insights and details. Moreover, I went to the music library to find all the books about my subject of interest, this research topic, and started annotating the poem and transcribing the voice line into an English horn part. During this research process I made a plan to follow, that helped me structure my observations and which you can see in the Step-by-step research plan on the right:

OBOETRY – French poetry played in melody 

A poetical & vocal approach to French mélodie on oboe


Research methods

The most important part, the research objective, is connecting language and music by means of poetry and song (transcription) – always with special emphasis on Verlaine and Debussy, the research including a strong practical and experimental side in which the effects of starting from text before singing/playing a melody and the other way around are being explored during study sessions and lessons. The methodology I used as a starting point, is comparative musico-literary analysis, drawing analogies between the “poésie et mélodie” of Colloque sentimental from Verlaine and Debussy in a vocal and instrumental version, comparing these to other works from the same artists like the rest of the Fêtes galantes and Pelléas et Mélisande. What makes mélodie from Debussy so ideal and interesting to transcribe instrumentally, is that his music is so connected with the poetry that the music itself is enough to tell the story, coming across probably even without the words. Would that indeed work when playing a poem on the oboe, English horn or on any other instrument?[1] The steps and research methods I took and used for this musico-literary research can be described in the following order, starting off with a literary, poetical, analysing and vocal phase and ending with a musical, instrumental and performance phase:


  1. Description of French “poésie et mélodie”, concentrating on Verlaine and Debussy, specifically their Fêtes galantes based on Watteau’s paintings, narrowing down to Colloque sentimental in particular.  
  2. Analysis and annotation of the poem & melody Colloque sentimental.
  3. Transcription of Colloque sentimental for English horn.
  4. Comparison of the vocal and English horn part.
  5. Alternative options of singing and playing the phrases, demonstrated by audio fragments and different notations of the same musical material.
  6. Reflections on various approaches and choices, explaining the final version. 




 → literary and musicological

Poetry and melody – Watteau, Verlaine & Debussy

Fêtes galantes – Colloque sentimental


 → poetic and vocal approach

Interpretation and annotation of the poem

Literary and musical analysis of Colloque sentimental


 → artistic: expanding repertoire

Display of the transcription for English horn

Comparison between vocal and English horn part


 → comparative and concluding

Alternative options in singing, playing and notating the phrases  audio and musical fragments

Explanation of the final choices in the transcription

The media below show, first of all, a recording of my recital (oboe exam) in May 2021 where I play a transcription of the Rapsodie pour saxophone et orchestre by Debussy – Kamelia Miladinova playing piano  and secondly, a video providing little snippets of the conversation and coaching with Elly Ameling on Trois chansons de Bilitis where I am singing and experimenting with these mélodies– Phyllis Ferwerda being behind the piano  while learning a lot from this well-known soprano. Furthermore, I also put the first half of a composition I made for alto voice and English horn on Verlaine his Chanson d'automne, the poem I fell in love with at high school that roused a desire to study French literature and poetry, and last but not least, a video of my bachelor exam Classical Oboe where I sang as a surprise (my first singing performance) Verlaine's poem Clair de lune, a 'mélodie' by Fauré, with Laura Balicov as a pianist. In the performances below I was especially focused on storytelling, on communicating the characters, on poetry and imagery (singing meanwhile seeing the painting of Watteau in front of me, playing while imagining speaking sentences or poetry) and, as a result, having a vocal and poetical approach on instrumental playing: exactly what I would like to research in this exposition.



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