Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Sous le Rythme De la Chanson": Rhythm, Text, and Diegetic Performance in Nineteenth-Century French Opera

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Sous le Rythme De la Chanson": Rhythm, Text, and Diegetic Performance in Nineteenth-Century French Opera

Article excerpt

"Il y a chanter pour parler, et chanter pour chanter." --Grétry

[1] In July 1905, a frustrated Richard Strauss, who was working at the time on a French-language version of Salome, asked in a letter to Romain Rolland: "Why do the French sing differently [from] the way they speak?" (Strauss 1968, 36).(1) The issue of "bad declamation" in French opera drew significant critical attention from composers and scholars in the long nineteenth century, with writers such as Castil-Blaze, Saint-Saëns, and d'Indy noting down perceived faults in French text setting by composers such Grétry, Rossini, Auber, and Offenbach. This tradition has persisted to the present day; for example, Susan Youens writes in the Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music that "French opera and song are replete with examples of mistreated tonic accents" (2002, 489). In this article, I examine examples of "mistreated accents" in French operas from the long nineteenth century, spanning the hundred-odd years from Grétry's Le huron (1768) to Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann (1881). Building on the work of Carolyn Abbate and Andreas Giger, I argue that French composers from Grétry and Auber to Gounod and Bizet often used rhythm and text setting as a way to differentiate between two different kinds of operatic music: non-diegetic music (singing as speech) and diegetic music (singing as song). The diegetic style was also extended to situations where dance and military topics were used to depict characters performing to onstage audiences. In the final part of the article, I apply this framework to selected excerpts from Bizet's Carmen (1875) in order to examine the part played by contrasting text-setting styles in the construction of that work's musical drama.

Basic Principles of French Versification

[2] Virtually all librettos for French operas up to the end of the nineteenth century were written in verse.(2) Accordingly, a brief summary of the rules of French versification is in order before we proceed further. The following summary is based primarily on the versification treatise of Louis-Marie Quicherat (1850) and can be considered representative of similar summaries in other contemporary versification treatises.(3)

[3] Syllable counting. French verse has a syllabic system of meter, and lines are constituted in regular numbers of syllables. Each pure vowel sound (e.g., la, tout) or diphthong (e.g., rien, lui) is counted as one syllable. Adjacent vowels that are not pronounced as diphthongs are counted as two syllables (e.g., hier, cruel).

[4] A special rule in syllable counting in French verse concerns the mute or silent "e" (e muet), which is found at the end of many words. The e muet typically is not pronounced as a separate syllable in regular speech. In musical settings, however, the e muet generally is pronounced and set as a separate syllable, unless it is elided into a following vowel sound. For purposes of syllable counting, the e muet is treated differently depending on where it falls within a line of verse. An e muet at the end of a line is not counted as a separate syllable. If an e muet occurs in the middle of a line, however, it is counted as a separate syllable (unless it is elided into a following vowel sound).

[5] These principles can be illustrated by two eight-syllable lines from the familiar Habanera from Bizet's Carmen (vowel sounds reflected in the syllable count are underlined):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

L'un parle bien, l'autre se tait;

1 2 3 4 5 6 78

Rien n'y fait, menace ou prière.

In the first line, the e muets at the end of the words "parle" and "autre" are both counted as separate syllables because they occur in the middle of the line and are not followed by words that begin with other vowels. In the second line, by contrast, the e muet at the end of the word "menace" is not counted as a separate syllable because it is elided into the vowel sound of the following word, "ou. …

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