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  • Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Epoque
  • Stephen A. Willier
Bergeron, Katherine . Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Epoque. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 424. ISBN-10: 0195337050

Voice Lessons is an exhaustive study of one particular chapter in the history of setting text to music and in its performance. It examines la mélodie française and its rise to prominence around 1900; according to the jacket blurb it "narrates the development of a rare musical art and seeks to explain why this art emerged, why it mattered, and why it eventually disappeared." The book is a veritable series of boites chinoises in which a host of mélodies, composers, poets, linguists, politicians, and singers from the Belle Epoque are examined from top to bottom, to top again, producing striking and nuanced connections. Bergeron boosts the image of nestled boxes when she states on pp. 252-53: "If our previous chapters sought to unpack the cultural and literary meanings of this development, here I have probed its aesthetic implications."

Much of the detail in the book represents what an undergraduate music theory professor of mine called "MRM," or "microcosm reflecting macrocosm." Bergeron takes apart a number of songs and song cycles by Fauré, Debussy, and others, examining them in minute detail from multiple perspectives. She herself has planned the book as a cycle, very fitting for the subject. Fauré's Chanson d'Eve is a logical beginning point, and not only in its subject matter. The composer began it in 1905 just as he was taking over the directorship of the Paris Conservatoire and wanted to reform French singing and singing instruction, his main goals being simplicity and naturalness. The very word "Eve," with its mute e and palindromic structure provides a basic MRM for many of the book's topoi.

If this study examines its intended topic of French mélodie of the Belle Epoque from top-to-bottom in a masterly manner, it is in itself an MRM reflecting other instances of text-setting principles. Many examples and implications of Bergeron's observations spring to the reader's mind, surely a sign of an excellent book. In the area of French text and music alone, one thinks of the connection between Lully's opera singers [End Page 142] in the late seventeenth century and the actors of the Comedie-Française and how the latter ended up looking to the opera singers for instruction in French declamation, not to mention Lully's famous dictum: "Mon récitatif n'est fait que pour parler." Bergeron does mention Jean-Jacques Rousseau but she does not quote his startling statement from Lettre sur la musique française that "the French can have no music," which is predicated on the supposed "unsingability" of the French language with its nasal sounds, r grasseyé and the mute e, a point that she discusses, illustrates, and refutes several times as a kind of starting-point for her—and any other—examination of French text set to music. Bergeron does a particularly thorough job of exploring the mute e, emphasizing its peculiarity to the French language and how poets, composers, and singers have used it to characterize aspects of sound and meaning. Especially fascinating in this regard is her analysis of Claire Croiza's articulation in singing the Letter Scene from Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Croiza stated that "Singing must acquire muscle, and that is the role of articulation," a statement amplified by the bass Jacques Isnardon: "to pronounce the consonants is to give each syllable an instantaneous clarity, a force, a significance, a color, that are precious to it." The two most "vibrant" sounds of the French language are r and l and "Croiza's letter-perfect diction demonstrates exactly what happens whenever these letters are joined by another consonant," as in éc(e)rit. "The added melodic values—ornaments, really—are stifled sounds, imploded rather than exploded in Croiza's reading. Coming from somewhere deep inside the mouth, they are swallowed by the singer like a discreet sob, or a tear," words (sobs, tears) they are often applied to: "elle pleure tout à coup...