- Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Époque
In pursuit of the ethos of the mélodie in the Belle Époque, a period during which the French language held a prominent place in many French consciousnesses, Katherine Bergeron compels a rethinking of the mélodie’s power, meaning, and significance. She unveils connections between composers, poets, and phonologists, actors and educators, speakers and singers, as education reform, scientific pursuits, and artistic theory, creation, and performance all shared a focus on the details and ideals of sounded language. Here, boundary lines between speech, sense, sound, diction, timbre, and music dissolve to reveal a vast array of interwoven possibilities. In the works of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and others, the concept of melody itself is re-envisioned, leading to what Bergeron calls ‘the unsinging of the mélodie française’ (p. 181). In the realm of the mélodie, subtle details overflow with meaning. Bergeron explores concepts that are taken for granted even as they are difficult to define, such as accent and timbre. She unveils the power of diction itself, of restraint, of silence, of the elusive space in which precision and obliqueness meet, in which the nothingness of the e muet carries the power of everything. Truth, sincerity, naturalness, realism — Bergeron explores the ways these ideals are expressed, tracing composers’ changing views of this ambiguous relationship between truth and art. Bergeron has immersed herself in her subject in a [End Page 544] diversity of ways: she has performed, listened, read, thought, and felt; she has even composed an accompaniment for Sarah Bernhardt’s reading of a Coppée poem to reveal the ‘close kinship of poetry and song’ (p. 211). The early recordings she discusses are essential to her analysis, and their presence on Oxford’s website is invaluable. We can hear, for example, that very Bernhardt reading which a clearly moved Bergeron described as ‘trembling, pathetic, uncanny, [. . .] an impossible sound’ (p. 208). And we can hear Bergeron’s own performance of Fauré’s La Chanson d’Ève, informed by her extensive work. Bergeron’s writing is poetic and even luminous, perfect for drawing her readers into the delicate nuances of language, voice, music, and meaning that she pursues. She is a careful guide, continually reminding readers of earlier ideas and examples, asking us to go back and reconsider, deftly weaving us into the tangle that is her focus. As Bergeron states, there is much to consider relating to current performance practice of these works, but she also provides an opportunity for us to measure our own values against those of these artists; she asks us to imagine how people might have heard and conceived of these performances, these sounds, these musics. She asks us to imagine even as she points out that we may never, in fact, be able to experience these sounds, these feelings — ‘the particularly motivated flatness that defined the ideal voice of the French diseuse circa 1900’ (pp. 220–21), for example — as they once were. She calls this disconnection a ‘problem of music history’ (p. 220), and it is this ‘problem’ that entices most of all.