Colloque sentimental – from Verlaine and Debussy


Colloque sentimental, following a literary approach: unpacking the poetic narrative

By Colloque sentimental, Paul Verlaine completes, concludes and closes his collection Fêtes galantes in 1869. Whereas the majority of the poems show the lightness and enjoyment of courtship, despite its shallowness and perishableness, this final poem lays a bleak and melancholy outlook on romantic relationships: a dissonance. Colloque sentimental puts in scene two ghostlike figures that evoke the past in a fruitless and sorrowful dialogue – a “colloque”, that indicates a quite formal conversation, hinting at the irony of the poet and his disillusioned reflection on feelings of love. Because of this direct dialogue (full of immediate questions and responses in present tense, indicated by hyphens) and its spatial-temporal description of the scenery (“Dans le vieux parc”“In the old parc”) and setting (“Tout à l'heure”/ “Just”), the poem reminds of the dramatic, theatrical genre, which takes the lecteur-spectateur (“reader/viewer”) in the scene as if the two characters just entered the stage, suddenly audible and noticeable until the moment they walk off again (“Tels ils marchaient”/ “Thus they walked”).

This topos of a romantic encounter in nature, a recurrent theme especially in poetry, similarly to themes such as the passage of time ("la fuite du temps"), sentiments and sentimentality, are all part of the poem. However, the symbolist poet Verlaine – contrary to the romantic spirit and heritage – uses these themes to emphasise their ageing (“vieux”), abandonment (“solitaire”) and even deadness (“morts”), with the metaphorical phantom-personages that wander cyclically, undetermined and monotonously – the verses even resuming: “Et l'on entend à peine leurs paroles” and “Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles” (“And one could hardly hear their words” and “And the night only heard their words”). 

From the beginning, a discrepancy takes place in the dialogue, with the first person using the “tutoiement” (“tu”/”te”) in long, lyrical lines and exclamations ("Ah!") and the second briefly responding by “vouvoiement” (“vous”), resulting in a brutal caesura in the tenth phrase by separating the nine syllables from the tenth syllable (see Colloque sentimental, annotating and analysing the poem about the 'décasyllabe'), the last and very short one: “Non.” (“No.”). The disillusionment of love has been made clear by the incommunicability (or the reluctance to communicate) of the two characters that once shared a love story and a sentimental past, now behind and even cruelly denied by one. The first interlocutor excitedly accumulates platitudes about loving passion by repeating enthusiastically “toujours” (“always”), using hyperboles like a “bonheur indicible” (“inexpressible happiness”) and recalling sentimental (“mon âme en rêve”) and physical (“Où nous joignions nos bouches !”) love from the idealised, romanticised past (nostalgia). This longing for the past and focus on the inexplicable could be seen as typically symbolistic, Verlaine being one of the most influential symbolists of his time; the 'fin de siècle' (the end of the 19th century).

The counterpart answers prosaically, disillusioned and embittered: “C'est possible.” The blue sky has symbolically turned black and the hope is gone according to the second speaker, demonstrating the futility of idyllic memories and clichés recalled by the first speaker (Ton cœur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom ?), revealing gloominess and pessimism, having become no more than phantoms. The poet plays ironically with the impossibility of communication and that of deep, profound and lasting love, ending the Fêtes galantes on a sad and pessimistic note. 


Colloque sentimental, following a vocal and musical approach

Two figures, probably the ghosts of two lovers, have just gone by in the old, deserted and ice-covered park now the Fêtes galantes are over, their characters being described as “formes” ('shapes') and “spectres” ('ghosts') to emphasise their anonymity, their eyes dead ('morts') and lips weak ('molles') to suggest their lifelessness – Verlaine immediately showing “a background of poetic melancholy”.[27] The poem Colloque sentimental, as well as the mélodie, can be divided into three parts: 1. The introduction of the narrator, 2. The dialogue between the two ghosts and 3. The conclusion of the narrator – all three having a unique tone and, if sung, three different colours (the narrator and the two ghosts) to the voice.[28] “Debussy's setting of Colloque sentimental goes beyond most of his songs in exploring the use of musical texture”, “varying from a single vocal or piano line to a ten-note piano chord accompanying the voice”, his “attention to texture [appearing] not only as decoration but as an element of structure.”[29]

The structure of the poem, the only one in the collection Fêtes galantes that Verlaine wrote in rhymed couplets ('distiques'), “represents the colloquy”. The repetition of rhymes at the beginning (1. Introduction) and end of the poem (3. Conclusion) – 'spoken' by the narrator – “sets off the dialogue: A B A (2. Dialogue) B”, which sentences “are rather elevated in tone” and relatively formal, the second ghost even using the more respectful but meanwhile more distant “vous”.[30] The introduction, on the other hand, in the mélodie beginning with a piano prelude evoking the ambiance of a frosty night and deserted park, the voice (of the poet) entering “piano and without any nuance (no crescendo when the voice goes up), legato, stretching the vowel sounds (no parlando), and with perfect evenness of the quavers or triplets”, remains objective and mysterious in atmosphere since “nothing should be dramatic in the expression”, with “a ritenuto only in the last two bars of the introduction”.[31] The vocal melody might initially remind us of Après un rêve from Fauré (the first five tones, also starting on the word 'dans': Dans un sommeil que...). Was Debussy hinting ironically  just like Verlaine to the romantic period and heritage, quickly twisting the musical material in the same way as Verlaine did with the romantic themes?

Two spectres have just come to recall the past (hence using the French word 'passé' as a homonym: they passed by ('ont passé'), talking about the past: 'le passé') and the narrator (and the night) happens to overhear their conversation – their words appearing without any commentary, introduced by an “expressive, melancholy and distant” ('Très expressive, mélancolique et lointain' as written in the) piano part: the song of the nightingale, “le motif du rossignol” from En sourdine, that “returns as if to link Colloque sentimental with this first song of Fêtes galantes I[32], functioning like a remote remembrance. Just as the spectres evoke their past, Debussy recalls his own musical past— the more traditional, lush, Romantic style of the earlier song [En sourdine (including the famous 'Tristan' chord at pitch, setting the stage for the lovers' twilight rendezvous, reused in Colloque sentimental in bar 33)] as opposed to the chromatic and extended tonal language of Colloque sentimental.”[33] Who are these so-called lovers? Regarding the poetical text, the 'forms' or 'specters' could be anyone: a man and a woman, two men (Verlaine himself was in a relationship with Arthur Rimbaud), two women (Verlaine wrote just before the publication of Fêtes galantes the booklet Les amies about 'scènes d'amour saphiques', in other words: lesbian love scenes) or two people of any gender. As professor Marie Rolf (2013) suggests, “given Verlaine's own well-documented attitude toward sexuality as reflected in his personal life, it is even more dubious to assume explicit genders in this manner. [...] Verlaine's own complete suppression of any gender reference should be an indication of its unimportance in this context.[34] 


Unlike Bernac, whose vision I will outline below, French mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori also “makes no explicit reference to the spectres' gender, and she directs performers to distinguish their characters primarily by means of dynamics and tempo [(compare for example the faster “Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?” with sixteenth notes and the stretched out “Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu'il m'en souvienne?” in eight notes)] , achieved by following Debussy's markings meticulously, and secondarily through timbre”, the second spectre sounding in every aspect lower then the first.[35] In terms of interpretation, we could, for example, imagine the first voice to speak coming from a man who adresses informally a woman who stems from a lower social class or wishes to be more distant to the man in question by responding formally and indifferently. 

Even if, as stated, their genders stay unspecified and unmentioned, both Bernac and Wenk, nonetheless, seem to agree that the first ghost is female and the second male because of the way Debussy interprets (or maybe even alters!) Verlaine's poem and poetic intent – leaving “open the question whether or not Debussy's setting is similarly gender-neutral [as that of Verlaine]. In adressing this question, [philospher and gender theorist] Judith Butler proposes [in her gender studies work] that gender, as distinct from sex, is something performed as opposed to biologically given. If we transfer the notion of performing gender, in the case of “Colloque”, to diverging vocal performances of music-poetic characters, then Bathori and Bernac represent points on a spectrum of interpretive possibilities. For a music analyst, then, a logical question to follow is: whether and how might a performer's decision to explicitly gender the characters in “Colloque”—or not—influence one's apprehension and interpretation of musical structure?”[36] French singer and interpreter Pierre Bernac indeed genders the characters as he writes: “From the tessitura and the writing of the music, it seems obvious that the first one to speak is a woman”, using familiar speech (“tu”/”te”/”ton”)[37] and affectionate words (“Ton cœur” (“Your heart”)/”Notre extase ancienne” (“Our past ecstasy”)/“Où nous joignions nos bouches!” (“When our lips met!”)). “With a clear voice, very simple and quite confident” she calls on him to remember their former life, but he answers slowly “with a cold and indifferent expression” that he wonders why she wants him to remember it.

More persistently and exactly in tempo, she asks him if his heart still beats to the sound of her name only and if he still sees her soul in his dreams, to which he abruptly answers: “Non.” – dropped down “with all the weight of indifference and fate. Then, in a desperate climax, the poor woman-ghost tries to evoke the rapture of their past love”[38], where “the vocal melody reaches its highest point on the word “indicibible”, as if to suggest that the voice is incapable of expressing the magnitude of that one-time (or imagined) joy”[39] while “animez et augmentez peu à peu” in the music till the sudden piano and a gradual ritardando on “Où nous joignions nos bouches!” till the end of the second bar, followed by “the flat, ruthless: “C'est possible”, almost parlando, stress on the syllable 'si'.”[40]

In total despair the first voice expresses how blue the sky was, and how great the hope (“l'espoir” – the future which had once been anticipated), to which the second voice declares that hope has fled, defeated and that the sky has turned “noir” ('dark' or 'black') – at which the lowest point of the vocal melody has been reached, in a statement “far beyond all human passion”, without ever resolving the chords, vanishing and leaving only the pedal tone. Evidently, not only does the final “noir” rhyme with the first “espoir”, Debussy using a rhythmic rhyme much darker in tone, but also the rising melody on (F-flat “bleu”, B-flat “ciel” and E-flat “es(poir)” of the first ghost is negated by the falling (G-flat “espoir”, D-flat “ciel” and A-flat “NOIR”) of the second, the man-ghost.[41] In a way “these qualities of austerity and shadow [that] suffuse the narrative and tone of Verlaine's poem, [also clearly come through in] the texture, rhythm, pacing, pitch space, and tonal direction of Debussy's song” – casting a shadow over his music that expresses a new austerity. Colloque sentimentale, being considered one of his greatest songs, seems to “signal a change in Debussy's musical language and approach to mélodie” that could be connected to the choice of text: with the new century “his songs became less easily accessible, like the man himself.”[42]

As a conclusion, the narrator's last two lines in Colloque sentimental, “two of the most heartrending lines in all French poetry”, are according to Bernac to be spoken in exactly the same voice and tempo as in the introduction, musically achieved through the same corresponding rhythm (“Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles” compared to the slower (Plus lent) “Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles”) as indicated in the image on the right. This specific rhythm refers back simultaneously, without overloading the texture, to the introduction as to the dialogue by the repeated nightingale's song, as the night swallows up the words that die away, the nightingale sings three times its descending line before it vanishes forever, plus rien. “Les dernières convulsions du romantisme s'éteindront comme les spectres de Verlaine, en allant se perdant jusqu'à la fin.”[43] (“The last convulsions of romanticism will vanish like the ghosts of Verlaine, on their way while getting lost until the end.”) “This is the kind of song one can work on for a lifetime”, as Bernac puts it.[44]

Colloque sentimental, performing the poem 

In the audio fragment below I am reciting the poem Colloque sentimental, having in mind the poetic narrative, the three different characters, the atmosphere, the expression, the music (prosody, diction and inflection) and legato of the language (including the phonetics and 'liaisons'), the phrasing and the rhythm, the verse, the rhyme and the poetic stylistic devices. 

Analysis and annotation

Mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori sings and plays Colloque sentimental from Claude Debussy, 1929.

Bernac, Pierre. The interpretation of French Song. Norton: The Norton Library (1970). Translated by Winifred Radford (1976). Chapter 10: “Claude Debussy”, pages 184 and 185.

Colloque sentimental by Claude Debussy, mesures 42-48. A fragment of the dialogue between the two specters, showing not only the difference in tessitura and note value but also the two phrases that form a chiasmus (described in the stylistic devices below), literally mirroring eachother just like in the mélodie: the first phrase going up and the second one falling down.

Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings and Daniel Blumenthal plays Colloque sentimental by Claude Debussy, 2005.

Tresize, Simon. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003). Part II – Musical explorations.

Nichols, Roger. Chapter 5: The prosaic Debussy, page 100.

Pierre Bernac sings and Francis Poulenc plays Colloque sentimental by Claude Debussy, 1947.

Colloque sentimental, following a poetic and phonetic approach:  literary stylistic devices 

Having discussed the overall structure (a threefold division) and the alternation between the two ghosts in the section “Colloque sentimental – from Verlaine and Debussy”, I would now like to look at smaller subdivisions, on sentence, word or even phoneme level; namely at prosodic and semantic elements of the poem. “Le vers français est syllabique” (“French verse is syllabic”), which means that it is the counting of syllables that determines the metre, the verse being measured by the number of syllables it consists of. In terms of versification and scansion, Paul Verlaine wrote this entire poem “en décasyllabe” (“in deca syllables” or “in decasyllabic verse”) with ten syllables per verse which can be counted – a form of even verse (“isométrique”), for instance:


                   Deux / for / mes / ont / tout / à / l'heu / re / pa / ssé         (10)

                       1          2          3           4           5         6         7          8        9       10


The verses, as shown above, have been structured two by two in pairs called “rimes plates” (“flat rhyme”), emphasising the heavy monotony of the two-phrased, rhyming couplets (called 'distiques', meaning two lines of verse): AA BB AA CC and so on, repeated in a bigger structure of “A B A (Dialogue) B” according to Arthur Wenk.[45] These flat rhymes can be divided into masculine and feminine rhyme, the first one ending on an accented vowel, like in “passé” [pa se] and the latter ending after an accented vowel on a 'schwa' [ə], as in “souvienne [su vjɛ nə] : in other words, the poem consists of three feminine and three masculine rhymes alternated (f and m).


Furthermore, the poem is mostly made up of “rime riche” (“rich rhyme”), rhyme being “l'identité du son” (“the identicalness of sound” or homophony) and rich rhyme consisting of three or more phonemes of identical sonority – one accentuated vowel (V) and two or more others (vowels or consonants: C), besides some sufficient rhyme (“rime suffisante”). To clarify, I have put the rhyme scheme below, including phonetic symbols:



 Rhyme (“rime”)

 IPA (phonemes)

Glacé – passé

Riche; masculine; A

 [a se]

Molles (folles)– paroles

Suffisante; féminine; B

 [ɔ lə]

Ancienne – souvienne

Riche; féminine; C

 [jɛ nə]


Suffisante; masculine; D


Indicible – possible

Léonine (the richest rhyme); féminine; E

 [i si blə]

Espoir – noir

Riche; masculine; F



Besides versification and rhyme, Verlaine also uses many poetic stylistic devices such as “alliteration”, “assonance”, “coupes” and “chiasmus”, in this way playing not only with rhythm but also with sounds. Below, I am pointing out a couple of these stylistic devices in the poem:


 Stylistic devices





The repetition of the same consonantal sound

 [l]; [p]; [t]; [m];  

 [v]; [b]

parc–peine paroles–passé



The repetition of the same vocalic sound

 [u]; [ɔ̃]; [œ];

 [ɛ]; [wa]; [ɑ̃]

voulez-vous souvienne-toujours


Pauses/cuts/breaks essential for diction and esthetic effects

       | ;

vaincu | vers


Reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses; a mirrored two-part sentence or phrase, (usually) without repetition of words; although exact repetition does occur in both examples given


Ton coeur (A) bat-il toujours (B)

Toujours (B) vois-tu mon âme (A)

A double chiasmus:

Bleu (A) le ciel (B)

le ciel (B) noir (A);

the whole sentence being mirrored: 

Qu'il était bleu, le ciel,

(A) et grand l'espoir! (B) L'espoir a fui, vaincu, (B) 

vers le ciel noir. (A)



Kaminsky, Peter. Listening to Performers’ Writings and Recordings: An Analysis of Debussy’s “Colloque sentimental”, example 4. Society for Music Theory (2016). Volume 22, number 3. Retrieved the 16th of February 2022: [online].

In his research musicologist and professor Kaminsky compares the interpretation and performance of Jane Bathori and Pierre Bernac of Colloque sentimental, which he also analyzes.

Le motif du rossignol from En sourdine (a) that Claude Debussy reused in his Colloque sentimental (b).

Personal poem performance of Colloque sentimental by Paul Verlaine (see Colloque sentimental, performing the poem).