Textual Irregularities and Structural Anomalies in Debussy's Early Songs

Will Waldroup, University of North Texas

Between 1880 and 1885 Claude Debussy composed songs almost exclusively, most of which are absent or greatly underrepresented in the analytical literature. Analysts who do examine the early songs are frequently only interested in revealing the origins of Debussy's compositional techniques or perhaps in demonstrating the evolution of his compositional style. Debussy's early songs can, however, be quite complex and intriguing when considered in their own right. In this presentation I examine the 1882 version of Debussy's "mélodie" Clair de lune to show how textual irregularities relate to a conspicuous anomaly in the fundamental structure of the song. Additionally, I show how Debussy used a similar approach in another song from the same period: La fille aux cheveux de lin.

In Clair de lune Debussy alters the original poem by repeating an especially significant line of text. Debussy sets the initial statement of the line within a turbulent harmonic environment and accompanies it with a chromatic inflection in the Urlinie. In the second statement the harmonic environment is much more stable, the chromatic inflection disappears, and the Urlinie is corrected to its fundamental diatonic form. Contrary to the opinions of some authors, Debussy's approach is not the result of insensitivity to the poetry; he repeated the text in order to expand and emphasize one of the most important lines of the poem. Furthermore, the direct association of the line with an important event in the Urlinie conveys Debussy's intellectual interpretation of the poetry in a musically meaningful way.