Temps rythmés: Rhythmic and Metrical Design in Debussy’s Songs




Koerbler, Aleksandra [Sasha]

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The music of Claude Debussy moves in mysterious ways. As we unwind while listening to his compositions, we often find ourselves floating through time, not quite able to tap our feet to the music. Although Debussy specifies meter in his compositions, the synchronization between the notated time signature and the musical content is frequently either modified or altogether abandoned, leaving our feet in the air. Debussy’s mélodies brim with rhythmic, metrical and hypermetrical effects. Although Debussy scholars have noted these effects and have discussed them as isolated occurrences, the specific compositional techniques involved in their making have not yet been fully explored. Moreover, there have been very few attempts to examine the use, impact, and text-expressive role of Debussy’s metrical devices within the context of the overall rhythmic and metrical design of his songs. By investigating the development of Debussy’s metrical devices throughout his song oeuvre, this study not only confirms a trajectory from lyrical to declamatory style (already noted by many scholars), but also establishes that with respect to rhythmic and metrical patterning, the transition is characterized by a progression from periodicity to aperiodicity. Accordingly, the study introduces a theory of aperiodicity in music, investigates the phenomena of periodicity and aperiodicity in Debussy’s songs, while describing and illustrating various metrical devices based on these two basic states. Numerous samples drawn from his 101 songs showcase Debussy’s distinctive declamation, his use of metrical dissonance and irregularity, his sophisticated arrangement of lyrical and declamatory passages, as well as his associations of poetic content with specific metrical choices. These devices infuse his mélodies with an abundance of metrical idiosyncrasies that destabilise the ongoing metrical flow, with profound expressive impact.



songs, mélodies, Claude Debussy, meter, rhythm, hypermeter, metrical dissonance, periodicity, aperiodicity, prosody