Colloque Sentimental Explication Essay

[1] This essay is based on a simple premise: performers' written commentaries on music, in conjunction with their recorded interpretations, have much to contribute to an analysis of significant elements of musical structure. My analysis focuses on the song "Colloque sentimental" by Claude Debussy, published in 1904 as the third and final song of his second series of Fêtes galantes, set to the poetry of Paul Verlaine. The choice of "Colloque sentimental" and the interpretations selected for analysis are motivated largely by the existence of a corpus of French art songs for which performers have written about interpretation as well as documented through recordings. I contend that it is the rich potential of cross-comparison between written commentary and recorded interpretation that speaks to the analysis of musical structure.

[2] Within the field of performance studies, there has been little investigation of what performers of art song say and do. This is somewhat surprising given the vast and continually expanding body of scholarship analyzing recorded performance, including historic interpretations of Debussy's mélodies.

[3] Nonetheless, a small but important body of research has dealt with performers' verbal and/or written discourse in relation to their recordings with some degree of music analysis. (1) For example, Mine Dogantan-Dack 2008 and Nicholas Cook 2013 have argued that performers' discourse is a crucial feature of their process of interpretation, with the potential to express their own conceptual understanding of a particular work, or to inform a prospective (non-performing) analyst. Dogantan-Dack's stated goal is to expand the whole notion of analysis to include how performers think, what they say, and how they say it, i.e., to validate a performer's analysis as analysis:

To challenge the disciplinary status quo, which is deeply rooted in this tradition giving priority to discursive knowledge [produced by theorists and musicologists], and to...


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To continue – obliquely – the current Wicksteed Park season, here is the poem by Paul Verlaine  that I alluded to the other day.

I think the reason I had it in my head all those years ago was that it played a part in a late night film I’d seen on the TV.  I’ve never been able to find out what that film was, though I’ve an idea that it was pre-war and American rather than French.

Colloque sentimental

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,
Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

–Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne ?
–Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne ?

–Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom ?
Toujours vois tu mon âme en rêve? –Non.

–Ah! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible
Où nous joignions nos bouches! –C’est possible.

Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand l’espoir !
–L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,
Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.

A rough literal translation might be –

In the old and frozen, lonely park / Two forms had just passed by.

Their eyes were dead, their lips were soft/ Their words could hardly be heard.

In the old and frozen, lonely park / Two spectres had recalled the past.

Do you remember our old ecstasy? / Why would you want me to remember it?

 Your heart stills beats at my name only? / Still see my soul in dreams? No.

Ah! Those fine days of unspeakable joy/ When we two joined our lips! Perhaps.

How blue the sky, how high our hopes! / Defeated, hope fled to the black sky.

So they walked on through the wild oats / The night alone could hear their words. 

The worlds of Paul Verlaine and Wicksteed Park aren’t quite as distant as you might think.  The later paintings of Thomas Cooper Gotch, the brother of the Gotch whose firm was responsible for the Park’s buildings, have been described as Symbolist (as was Verlaine’s poetry) and Verlaine lived for some time in Lincolnshire, in Boston and Stickney.

We have no evidence that he ever visited Kettering, but I like to think that he might have passed through on his way to Boston, and might have dropped into the George for a quick pint or two of absinthe.

Two Pints Of Absinthe And A Packet Of Crisps Please

This frozen park is not, in fact, Wicksteed’s itself, but the Waterworks Field, home to Desborough Town Football Club, where I happened to be yesterday afternoon to catch their unexpected 5-1 trouncing of Deeping Rangers.  I’m sure Verlaine would have found the scene inspiring.

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Arts, Football, Poetry, Sport

Desborough Town Football Club, Northamptonshire, Paul Verlaine, Poetry, Wicksteed Park, Winter

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