Dreaming up a Main Character: Persona and Vocal Agency in Debussy’s “De rêve”




Hayes, Alana Ruth

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This thesis stems from a performance I gave of Claude Debussy’s song cycle Proses lyriques in March 2020, and from the particular difficulties I encountered during the preparation process. In most art song, it is not problematic to assume that the text drives the musical narrative. However, “De rêve,” the first song of the cycle, challenges this assumption. The musical setting undercuts the agency of the vocal part and creates a situation in which the narrative of the song is driven by the thematic development of the piano part, rather than by the text. This thesis suggests that Debussy deliberately plays with multiple “voices” within the music to heighten the ambiguity prized within the Symbolist movement to which he was attached at the time of composition. I begin by introducing the piece and its context. In the second chapter, I build upon the work on voice and musical narrativity of Edward T. Cone and Matt BaileyShea to formulate definitions of the voices present within “De rêve” over which the singer has direct agency. I then discuss the appeal the Symbolist aesthetic held for Debussy at the time of composition. In chapter three, I develop a reading of the text that will assist singers preparing the entire cycle for performance to establish the figure of the narrator-protagonist. In the fourth chapter, I analyse in the way in which the musical setting resists the accession of the narrator, and therefore the singer, to the role of protagonist. Through my analysis, I offer the close study of the voices and personae within a work as particularly useful tools to help singer-scholars who tackle Proses lyriques or other ambiguous repertoire tease out hidden voices within the music.



voice, musical narrativity, symbolism, Proses lyriques, mélodie, french art song, Claude Debussy