Poésie et mélodie


Well before poet Paul Verlaine wrote the legendary first line “De la musique avant toute chose” in his poem L'art poétique (1874), the assumption of early song prior to literary verse – justifying the supposed connection between music and poetry – was already commonplace in ancient times. The dogmatic definition of “Poetry is music” therefore has existed since the beginning, which was argued by Eustache Deschamps – one of the first French authors on the art of poetry (Ars poetica) – in his L'Art de dictier (1392): “Et est à savoir que nous avons deux musiques, dont l'une est artificielle et l'autre naturelle.” (“And it is to know that we have two types of music, of which one is artificial and the other natural.”) In that sense, Deschamps suggests that poetry would be the music in question ('la vraie musique') while the other – vocal or instrumental music – represents accordingly an artificial imitation.[2]


Being both an oboist and a singer as well as a French language and literature graduate, I was eager to discover whether this formulation – that drew my immediate attention – resonates with me and how I would define the relation between poetry and music. Are compositions indeed an artificial imitation of natural music, like the music within poetry? It seemed most interesting to me in this context to take a look at vocal music in particular, combining the two elements of a musical and a literary text, both deserving and demanding the same care, accuracy and respect in their analysis and synthesis as well as in their performance and interpretation. The sonority and rhythm of a literary phrase, its inflections, its stresses, its colours and its own and proper music is an integral part of the music itself – even every word being a musical sound itself – and “the primary impulse to melodic inspiration” to most composers of songs and operas. As the singer Pierre Bernac clearly states in his Interpretation of French song (1970), “the reason is that the music of the poem is as important as the music set to the poem. The music of the words and the music itself are one and the same; they should not be dissociated.”[3]


Moreover, it was musicologist Gisèle Brelet who stated that “fundamental musical expression lies in what is rightly called the singing line, the 'cantabile', the melody that is born of the vocal gesture. Every instrument obeys the 'phrasing', this original rhythm of the voice; and for any instrument, the ideal of expressive playing is to imitate the sound, the melody, the life of the voice, the suppleness of its impulses, punctuated by breaths and silences. Expression is always an imitation of the singing voice.” Consequently, one could consider the finest quality of singing to be its legato, its phrasing and its human rhythm, which actually proves that it would be the musical line ('la ligne') above all that the singer ought to serve and respect while being constantly aware of the “verbal design and vocal curve”: the synthesis of the musical and the poetic idea.[4] What is meant, is that “a song, being a union of music and a poem, presents a synthesis of these two characteristic elements of the same genius, which emphasises, to an even greater extent, the particular qualities of this art form.” In a way that composers Schumann and Fauré are just as different from each other as poets Heine and Verlaine, French mélodie –  being a “musico-literary work in which the heart plays its part” – is in its poem and music “an art infinitely more concerned with sensitive perceptions and impressions, more intellectual and more objective, than a German Lied.”[5]


Regarding vocal music and art song in particular, it has been stated that “melody is the point at which speech and music most nearly coincide. Of all the elements that make up a song, melody is the one most influenced by the patterns of speaking” and also highly influenced by musical as well as poetic considerations, even for a composer “attentive to the proper accentuation and inflection of his chosen text.” For example, a composer could easily put different texts to the same musical melody, connecting two poetic ideas at the same time as accomplishing musical form. The young Debussy initially wrote songs that only had “a casual regard for the text” with repeated lines and multiple melisma's on “la” or “ah”, but soon he cultivated a thorough interest towards poetry for the rest of his life.[6] Actually, as Paul Dukas writes, Debussy already found himself in literary movements and among intellectuals in the beginning of his study at the conservatoire and from the start of his artistic career, to the extent that according to Dukas this literary company – and not that of musicians – had the strongest influence on Debussy: “La plus forte influence qu'ait subie Debussy est celle des littérateurs. Non pas celle des musiciens.” (“The biggest influence that Debussy experienced is that of literary men. Not that of musicians.”)[7]


Moreover, it was Debussy who made an observation revealing a certain French conception of music when he wrote that “music should humbly seek to give pleasure”, first of all by looking for “beauty of sonority, rare and subtle harmony, supple modulation, and the resulting interplay of colours, while at the same time seeking the beauty and the charm of the melodic line.” Supporting the general idea of the importance of “clarity of expression, precision and concentration of form” in French music, Debussy considers and stresses these elements as “qualities peculiar to the French genius”.[8]


About each of these French musical qualities, Pierre Bernac provides several defining descriptions, for instance concerning “expression” – preferably somehow moderated – he argues that “in instrumental music, when the composer indicates on his score: espressivo (with expression), he cannot specify the kind of expression he means. He therefore relies on the emotion that his music arouses in the interpreter; but in vocal music the expression is clarified by specific poetic texts.”[9] Shortly afterwards he explains that “only when this precision has been attained can the performer begin to consider sensuousness of sound, which has already been mentioned as one of the characteristics of French music.” This desired “beauty of sound” should be obtained by singing the vocal line extremely smooth and sustained. Even though the interpretation of the poem needs to be stressed, “the first consideration should be given to the music, as in any vocal work in any language” – without ever sacrificing the vocal line to the declamation of the poem, regardless of the composer, despite the subtlety of the rhythmic and expressive declamation of either a recitative by Rameau or a phrase from Debussy.[10]

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) visited the Louvre when an exposition of rococo painters of the 18th century took place, with works from Jean Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher and Jean-Antoine Watteau – whom Verlaine primarily drew inspiration from, and who inspired the title of his Fêtes galantes. In these 22 poems, Verlaine painted scenes that resembled the imagery from Watteau, as depicted in the painting Fête champêtre (another term for Fête galante) – showing a woman playing the hautbois (literally high wood, the predecessor of the oboe).


French poetry and melody in context 

Fête champêtreby the French rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), an inspiration for the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. [1]

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The English horn part of Debussy his only (finished) opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), composed on the libretto of the symbolist play (1893) from the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. The way Debussy has written down these melodic and rhythmic lines, in a declamation style, inspired me for the musical notation of the transcription.

Fêtes galantes – Watteau, Verlaine & Debussy


Demonstrating a need for simple, sincere and profound feelings, poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) visited the Louvre when an exposition of rococo painters from the 18th century took place, with works from Jean Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher and Jean-Antoine Watteau – whom Verlaine primarily drew inspiration from. Watteau's “tableaux” ('paintings'), titled Fêtes galantes, inspired Verlaine for the title of his poem collection. These Fêtes galantes, meaning 'courtship parties', cover a category specifically created by the Académie Française to describe the paintings of Watteau in particular, and show “charming figures of both sexes [that] are seen in delightful costumes of the period, extremely elegant, handsome, refined and sophisticated, trivial and poetic, even sometimes melancholy, (…) pictured in great, shady parks (…), sitting or wandering about two by two, or playing the mandolin or the lute, and… speaking of love”.[11]


At the end of the 19th century, Verlaine evoked all of these characters in his series Fêtes galantes in a typically French “extraordinary poetic atmosphere, full of elegance and of mystery, of wit and of melancholy, which inspired both Fauré and Debussy”[12] – Verlaine “musicable” being “alors le grand favori des musiciens: Fauré le découvre avec Clair de lune […], tout comme Debussy le fera à travers les recueils des Ariettes Oubliées et des Fêtes galantes”, “capable de lui [Debussy] inspirer des réponses musicales spécifiques.”[13] (“The 'musical' Verlaine, therefore the most popular amongst musicians: Fauré discovered him with Clair de lune [...], just like Debussy by the collections of Ariettes Oubliées and of Fêtes galantes, capable of inspiring him [Debussy] in specific musical responses.”) In these twenty-two poems, Verlaine painted scenes that resembled the imagery from Watteau, such as his painting Fête champêtre ('pastoral party', another term for “Fête galante”).


“Longtemps, la poésie française s'est imaginée musique grâce à l'emploi des vers syllabiques et de la rime”[14] (“For a long time, French poetry imagined itself to be music because of its use of syllabic verse and rhyme”) – Verlaine, after the manner of Watteau, in a sense 'composing' 22 pieces consisting of short and speedy stanzas, playing with the rhythm of verses and with several sounds, showing “a master of wordplay, playing – sometimes seriously, sometimes facetiously – with literary traditions”[15], multiplying “les jeux de prosodie” ('prosodic play') but also the sentiment of failure and the shallowness of “les jeux amoureux” ('love play') that gradually colour the collection, up until the final, famous poem Colloque sentimental (from “le recueil Nouvelles fêtes galantes”): a “sentimental colloquy”, like a lover's dialogue or liaison but with formal and delicate undertones.


Similar to the way that Verlaine composed his poetry of Fêtes galantes, inspired by and based on the paintings from Watteau, Debussy set to music eight of these poems from Verlaine's Fêtes galantes during his lifetime, from which six have been published into song cycles, three of them initially in 1892 (the first series Fêtes galantes I) and revised and included with another three art songs in 1904 (the second series Fêtes galantes II), two years after the premiere of Debussy's only opera Pelléas et Mélisande: “Une musique poétique qui ne ressemble à rien de ce qu'on a déjà entendu. C'est la musique du silence, c'est la fascination de Debussy pour l'insaisissable.” (“Poetical music that does not resemble any of what has been heard before. It is the music of silence, the fascination of Debussy for the imperceptible.”)  


Just as this opera, theatre profoundly marks Debussy as well, although mélodies obviously form an important part of his repertoire – integrating the melodic composition in more global research on harmony, rhythmic fluidity or poetic expression[16] and making rhythm and melody equal partners in his art songs: “one of his greatest legacies to the twentieth century and beyond.”[17] The composer had an enormous mastery in creating a perfect fusion of poetry and music so to speak, “not only in the prosody of the literary text and in the rhythm of speech, for which he had a prodigious instinct, but also because he attained the deepest concordance between the poetic idea and the musical idea”, making it possible to “serve the musician first, without betraying the poet.”[18]

Where the completion of Debussy's first Fêtes galantes (Sourdine, Fantoches & Clair de lune) inaugurates his symbolistic period (Période symboliste (1891-1904)), the last Fêtes galantes (Les Ingénus, Le Faune & Colloque sentimental) concludes in 1904 the symbolistic period with a “page de valeur emblématique” (“page of iconic value”), namely Colloque sentimental[19] (A minor, “Triste et lent”), breaking permanently with the romantic language: “La dernière mélodie, Colloque sentimental, représente, dans l'opposition presque scénique de deux personnages et de deux langages, la lutte du passé et du présent, ou comment l'un naît de l'autre.” (“The final melody, Colloque sentimental, represents, in the almost scenic contrast of two characters and two languages, the fight between past and present, or how one was born from the other.”)[20] In this poem we hear one language of the past, in this case the 19th century, characterised by “sa luxuriance harmonique et son lyrisme” (“its harmonic luxury and its lyricism”) and the other of the present, turned towards the future 20th century, restricted in tessitura, in time and in sound: “Le drame de l'incommunicabilité des êtres est présent, tout comme il l'était dans Pelléas et Mélisande”.[21] (“The drama of incommunicability of beings is present, just like it was in Pelléas et Mélisande.”)

Comparable to his earlier mélodies of Fêtes galantes, Debussy follows the music in the poetry of Verlaine (“De la musique avant toute chose”[22]), by playing not only with the colours and characters ('the narrator', 'the male ghost' and 'the female ghost' in Colloque sentimental) but also with the sounds of the language and the rhythm of Verlaine's verses. Through the use of triplets in the vocal (and piano) line, Debussy once more turns to “the triplet rhythms that occur perhaps most famously in Pelléas”, in order to follow the rhythm of the spoken French (a 'declamation style' which is in Pelléas also very sober, without losing any word; just like the infinitely discrete orchestration, full of exquisite and unusual sounds) and occasionally “give life to particular phrases.”[23]

Usually caring to “bury” the “rhyming syllables by placing them on different beats”, Debussy now for once applies 'rhythmic rhyming' and provides not so much a controlling as clarifying role to the voice[24]: “This notion of clarification is indeed the driving force behind the poem, as the first ghost tries desperately but unsuccessfully to wring reassurance and explanation from the second. It also underpins Debussy's flights of harmony. The song ends in A minor, but that key is not heard until the final chord.”[25] Because of this harmonic subtility, Pierre Bernac most probably advices never to transpose the original key of A minor in Colloque sentimental – according to him “one of the most beautiful of Debussy's mélodies, but one of the most difficult and subtle.”[26]