French melody comes into being a little later than the German Lied and responds to it. The Lied means Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf... Melody means Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy, Poulenc... and many others. Melody is handled with a piano accompaniment, but should one speak of ‘accompaniment’? Replacing the lute or the guitar as the harmonic underpinning of singing, the piano benefits from the importance that Romanticism granted it; very often, yet not always, it is a dialogue between piano and singing; the piano-signing thus adapts well to the counterpoint, it even solicits it. Song, from which melody inherits, has a simpler melodic development and will moreover progress independently. Song takes after the recitative; it colours the text. Melody on the other hand arises out of beloved poetry: it underlines and highlights its features and rhythm. Melody wants poetry to give voice to what it reveals; it can therefore have a very complex development. As melody arises from poetry, could one say that it ought first to be the composer’s internal song that emerges from reading? If the piano, with its inherent fluency, gets involved in the invention of melody, it runs the risk of killing it. Maurice Ravel said to his pupil Vaughan Williams: “How without a piano can you find new harmonies?” Similarly, many composers who wish to find new harmonies work at the piano. This practice seems to run counter to the very spirit of melody. Another observation: German is a naturally rhythmic language; French is much more fluid. One may therefore think that melody asks for a tonal or modal structure that includes support notes and a well defined tempo because rime, which gives verses their rhythm in French poetry when it is read, is less perceptible through singing. Another device therefore needs to be added. Along the same lines, melody must respect verse in its structure and number, all the while adhering to its own logic. The new melodies presented in this concert are juxtaposed to older ones that were composed by prominent figures of melody. In their chronological sequence, these figures signal a permanence rather than an evolution; to each their own particular and recognizable genius. They are melody’s witnesses and inspire new compositions.
Letter to Mr Didier Rochard, violonist and journalist
As I was recently passing through Paris and staying with my daughter Anne-Madeleine, I heard a recording of your last program which you kindly devoted to my melodies; and I thank you warmly for it.
You asked a question: how can one write music on a finished poem? Allow me to answer as if I did not have any stake in this:
In his correspondence or in various journal articles, Claude Debussy asks this very question several times. For example in Musica (March 2nd, 1911), Debussy replies as follows: “True verse has its own rhythm which is rather cumbersome for us. Listen, I don’t know why, I recently set to music three of Villon’s ballads... Oh, but I do know why, because I had wanted to for a long time. Well, it is very difficult to follow well, to set the rhythms while maintaining inspiration (...). Classical verses have a life of their own, an internal dynamism – to speak like the Germans – which is not at all our affair (...). Let us leave great poets alone. What is more, they would prefer it... They are generally very ill-tempered”. Thus a poem’s peculiar rhythm is a dissuasive constraint for the musician. Debussy said elsewhere (La revue blanche, May 15th, 1901): “Music has rhythm, the secret strength of which guides its development”. So according to this great musician, only with difficulty can music’s internal rhythm be superposed on the poem’s own rhythm.
Debussy’s conclusion is found in his correspondence and amounts to saying: let us find our inspiration in a beautiful poem, but without setting it to music. Thus, on October 10th, 1895, he writes to Willy: “The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is the general impression of the poem, because if one were to stick closer to it, the music would run out of steam...”
Likewise in a letter dated March 10th, 1901, Debussy writes to Paterne Berrichon, Arthur Rimbaud’s brother-in-law, who was apparently asking him to compose on one of Rimbaud’s poems: “I love Rimbaud too much ever to have considered the useless ornament of my music, or whatever of its context... Would I rather see anything getting its inspiration from it? Any respected text.”
However, in Pelleas, the characters sing.
To which Debussy answers: “It would be best to leave out of the debate the question of whether or not there is melody in Pelleas... One should really understand that melody – or Lied – is one thing and that lyric expression is another” (to Edwin Evans, April 18th, 1909). And in an interview to the Daily Mail dated May 28th, 1909, Debussy claims: “Pelleas is only melody. This melody however is not cut off, it is not divided into slices, according to opera’s ancient – and absurd – rules; it aims to reproduce life itself.” Classical melody has jumped into the orchestra pit where it is no longer hampered by the text but inspired by the characters’ nature.
What to answer to this great composer?
This first: on the contrary, a bard never recites an epic, he sings it accompanying himself on a zither, or sometimes on a lyre. Thus, in the 8th Book of the Odyssey, Ulysses praises Demodokos as follows: “You are, among all mortals, the one I admire most”. In response, Demodokos sings his own story to Ulysses, the fall of Troy with the help of the famous wooden horse. The trouveres proceed in a similar fashion, and this has continued to the present day in the Gregorian office. Can one conceive of a ‘Credo’ that is not sung? Forms even closer to melody are found in the Victimae pascali laudes and Veni creator sequences, and many others... Louis XIV loved music; his welcoming of the pair Lulli-Quinault in 1673 eclipses Racine. This situation lasts until 1686 (Lulli dies in 1687) and Racine comes back with Esther, a tragedy with choirs.
Let us observe that in a lively conversation, people ‘raise their voices’, as we say, they slow down, they become grave, they rush (especially women): one could write down the musical intervals, and at times I find myself doing just that. When a poem is recited, its own rhythm is broken down to favour meaning, and tone is added to increase interest. This puts Debussy’s comment on a poem’s rhythm into perspective. When I recite a poem to myself, I emphasize the movements, the highs and lows, the silences, sometimes repeating a distinctive verse, building a melody just as a couturier designs a dress on a woman. Then the need for an instrumental counterpoint and for additional sounds that strengthen harmony appears, just like a cathedral’s buttresses. When everything is in place, I arrange, I write an introduction and interludes for instruments only; but at that point I work on an object that is already constructed, just like the couturier when the model has left to get dressed. This is, deep down, the method that the bard follows. Debussy’s remarks make me think that he composes a phrase finding his inspiration in the poem; he is then at a loss to adapt it to the poem. He remains the wonderful musician of The Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, a complete and admirable success, his first and no doubt his best-loved masterpiece.
This way of speaking, prolonged by melody, is a very ancient technique; in the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, the lute and the singer amplify speech, which causes poor Khalifa to go into ecstasies. This means that one should add an array of rhythms and sounds to the meaning of speech; one should add beauty. Can one conceive of speech without beauty? Does music, with the help of speech, elevate or does it bring people together? Both, without doubt: in the One Thousand and One Nights, the poet and his lute are constantly called to the rescue. Music sings of love, it strengthens the heart’s impulse. Singing penetrates our soul more deeply than mere speech. A difficulty arises however: a poem has its own rhythm, a rhythm already marked in ancient Chinese poetry with a verse’s number and with rhyme; with repeats in the rondeau. The fact that a poem’s rhythm most often could not be transposed, that it did not necessarily correspond to the musician’s rhythm bothered Debussy. Which should win? It seems to me that thoughts are born of words and are granted rhythm by the poet who takes advantage of the wisdom inherent in these words. Words come from the dawn of time and, transforming themselves, get richer or poorer. In The Saint Petersbourg Dialogues, Joseph de Maistre has some beautiful thoughts on this topic; more recently, Alain addressed this question as the great philosopher that he was. Can one think without dictionaries? (in the plural) Can one be a poet without appreciating what is distant and what is current in the language? Wasn’t it Gauthier who, when he visited young Baudelaire for the first time, asked him: “Do you like dictionaries?” Thus, words carry thoughts, and Gauthier relished these words. Beautiful poetry, written, read and re-read, is outside time, and this is why Ms Brigitte Fossey can make one out of two texts distant in time, as are Barbey d’Aurevilly and Louise Labe or La Fontaine and Henri de Regnier, without the joint being clearly visible. What does the musician do? He does not pin music onto a poem; he reads the poem and, if the poem inspires him, he hears it singing inside himself. He must therefore first have built at great length his own “inspiration capturing tool”, his “telescope”, so that he can hear the poet’s thoughts, in the full meaning of the verb ‘hear’. Chronological order seems to be as follows: words, which carry wisdom; the poet, who discovers meaning; the musician, who amplifies, dramatizes, and gives to understand. I have long believed with Mallarme that a perfect poem did not require any other music apart from the one that the poet put into it, and this is true. However, Mallarme does not reject the music of Debussy inspired by L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun): Sylvain d’haleine première Si ta flûte a réussi Ouïs toute la lumière Qu’y soufflera Debussy But one might object that this is a prelude and not a melody built on the poem? If the musician, without precisely looking for it, imposes his own inspired rhythm, if he remains close to the text, then I believe that it is even better. This is why it is as easy (or as difficult) to write on L’arbre, a prose poem by Pierre Louÿs, as it is on the learned Maurice Scève, so filled with his own meters.