Textual Analysis of Debussy's Beau Soir

Beau Soir

(Beautiful Evening)

When the rivers are rosy in the setting sun,
and a mild tremor runs over the [fields of wheat],
an exhortation to be happy seems to emanate from things
and rises towards the troubled heart.

An exhortation to enjoy the charm of being alive
while one is young and the evening is beautiful,
for we go away, as this stream goes:
the stream to the sea, we to the tomb.1

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was fifteen or sixteen when he set this poem by Paul Bourget to music.2 Although this was only the second of his published songs, "it is already the work of a master"3 and is "indicative of the later development of the composer's genius."4 Debussy had developed a strong passion and fascination for literature and involved himself in a number of literary circles.5 This inspired him to write over fifty melodies6 as well as cantatas, choruses and dramatic works.7 He was not satisfied with the manner in which musical composition was being taught at the Paris Conservatory and therefor "preferred the company of literary men to that of [his fellow] musicians."8 Letters written by Debussy speak of his struggle to write music that could exceed the traditional compositional procedures which served only to complement the mood of a text.9 Within his vocal music he found it necessary to break away from the conventions of traditional Western Classical music and develop his own style which could express and reflect a more personal "human emotion."10

My analysis of Debussy's Mélodie, Beau Soir, will focus on how the music expresses the poetic ideas found within the text. I will show how Debussy captures the essence of the poetry by replacing Classical Western compositional procedures with his own personal use and manipulation of tonality. Although my analysis comes partly as a result of using Schenker's theory and set theory, much of my findings come from my own personal approach to the music and text. My exploration of rhythm , step-wise motion, balance, diatonic regions, voice leading, phrasing, dynamics, word painting, etc., and Debussy's use of the pentatonic scale also reveal a great deal about the music and its relation to the text. "The ultimately unresolvable question of the relationship between poetry and music with which Debussy struggled throughout his career challenges us to study his music from a new perspective."11

The first four bars of Beau Soir function as an introduction by establishing the E Major tonality of the piece and setting its triplet pattern, harmonic rhythm and mysterious mood. Each measure arpeggiates a different chord within a rhythmic "wave-like" motive introduced in the first bar. The establishment of this rhythmic motive aids in setting up formal divisions within the piece and ultimately helps to express the sentiments within the poetry.

The poet in Beau Soir, as she12 observes the nature around her: "the river," "this stream," and "the fields of wheat," realizes that life is only a brief moment in time which is unexpectantly interrupted by death. The poet uncovers a deep metaphor which serves to be "an exhortation to be happy." The stream's journey to the sea is symbolic of our journey to the tomb. The rhythmic wave-like motive of the first measure is repeated throughout the first phrase to measure 12 and is descriptive of the scene around the poet. The "wave-like" motion of this motive is not unlike the waves within "the rivers" or the wave-like motion of "the fields of wheat" as "a mild tremor runs over" them. The motive continues for the whole length of the first phrase which contains the first two lines of the poem describing the river and fields in the evening.

What is interesting about this "wave-like" motive is that it ends "with an unexpected chord on the last triplet eighth note. The placement of this chord, recurring throughout the piece, conveys a feeling of interruption in the flow of the triplets, which matches the desolate message of the poem - life interrupted by death"13 (see Example 1). This interruption is heard by the listener as well as felt by the performers. The piano accompanist does his/her best to conceal this interruption and present a smooth flowing of the triplet motion. However, an entirely smooth arpeggiated line is technically very difficult if not impossible. The vocalist too is aware of the rhythmic unsteadiness and tries to compensate by singing a smooth, connected line over top. The two parts are tricky to co-ordinate for this reason and also because the singer must sing duple eighth notes over triplet eighth notes in the piano. One senses from the music that the singer (poet) and the piano (nature) are both in accordance with and separated from each other simultaneously. This tricky co-ordination problem (separation) felt by the performers disappears at the end of the song where the poem speaks of our arrival "to the tomb" and the poet is one with nature as predicted.

Another important interruption occurs at the climax of the piece at measures 26-27 on the word "beau" ("beautiful"). Here the F sharp that is held by the singer for five beats over a crescendo suddenly drops the interval of a minor seventh to G sharp (see Example 2). The singer here also has a difficult time making the transition smooth and unnoticeable. The interruption suggests that the beauty experienced "while one is young" is also abruptly interrupted by death. However, these examples of interruption only foreshadow and are symbolic of the "real" interruption which occurs some bars later. I will speak more of this interruption in my Schenkerian analysis.

Although the key signature indicates that the piece is in E major, Debussy uses harmonies that traditionally do not belong to this key. The first measure, which is an arpeggiation of the tonic chord, is followed by what traditionally might be the dominant. However, Debussy lowers the F sharp to create a rich diminished minor chord in first inversion. This creates a mysterious and profoundly deep atmosphere that matches the emotion and sentiments of the poetry. Out of its E major context these two chords can be understood as V and ii7 (in first inversion) of the key A minor and accounts for their comprehendible relationship (see Example 3). Debussy reworks the elements which make up traditional tonality and uses a rich palate of major, minor, augmented and seventh chord sonorities as well as ninths through out the piece. It is here that set theory may be useful in quickly locating the sonorities which make up this palate. However, in all practicality it is much easier for most people to discuss music using traditional names of these chords rather than their numbers. This is only because these names (for example, "diminished seventh") are more familiar to us and easier to remember than the set of numbers which represent them ("0369").

The first phrase (mm 5-12) balances the diminished-minor and minor sonorities (which alternate with E major) with two measures of an augmented C chord that resolves nicely back into E major at the end of the phrase in measure 12. This first phrase begins on the third scale degree of E major (G sharp) over the tonic chord and ends on the first degree (E) over the tonic as well. Here we see how Debussy's substitution of seventh and the augmented chords abandon Classical Western tonality. The second degree scale which appears over top of the augmented C chord in measure 10 is not supported as, traditionally, it should be. However, the dissonance created by this augmented chord is mysteriously disturbing and delicious. Debussy continues its dissonance for an extra measure in relation to the harmonic rhythm set up in the previous nine measures. In fact, the harmonic resolution feels as if it is lagging behind the melodic resolution above it by one measure because the melody line does resolve to the first scale degree E in accordance with the harmonic rhythm pattern. The repetition of the augmented sonority creates extra tension and therefor a more satisfying resolution (see Example 4). Traces of Schenker seem to lurk about but the listener is not yet "tonally" satisfied. The piece must therefor continue in pursuit of the real Schenkerian tonal resolution - from V to I.

Balance within the bass line of the introduction and first phrase also create a "wave-like" pattern that establishes a substitute for the bass line of a traditional tonal piece. The bass line is composed of the notes C, D, E, G, and A. These notes are emphasized on the score by there stems which point downward, stress marks, and their elongation throughout each measure. They make up the five notes of a pentatonic scale. Therefor, Debussy replaces the traditional Classical Western bass line with a step-wise, balanced motion of the pentatonic scale. The balance occurs when the tonic note E steps down to D in the second measure, back up to E in measure three, step-wise up to G and back down again to E in measure five. The pattern continues creating a balanced, wave-like pattern with E at its centre. The pattern breaks only at measure ten in order to create a real phrase and its cadence (see Example 5 ).

The singer's melody within the first phrase also abandons traditional tonality. It is based on a cross between the E major scale and E aeolian mode. The employment of both of these tonalities makes for an interesting and expressive vocal line. The shape of this line is also wave-like and balanced. It begins on the third scale degree, G sharp, and climbs upwards to the tonic E before dipping below the E an octave lower and stabilizing at this E within the cadence (see Example 6).

Balance occurs also in Debussy's use of the note B in much the same way. The note B which acts as a pedal through most of the introduction and first phrase (and also through most of the piece!) is flatted once at measure 4 and sharpened once to the note C at measure 10 (see Example 7 ). The balance and wave-like shape found within this line, the vocal line, the bass line and the rhythmic "wave-like" motives are all expressive of the imagery of the text which it sets, and is responsible for creating new sonorities which depart from traditional Classical Western tonal procedures. It is this departure that is responsible for the mysterious and profound mood so essential for the musical setting of this text.

Debussy adds new sonorities to his palate for the second phrase (mm 13-19) such as minor-minor and Major-minor arpeggios. He does this in order to create a new perspective within the piece which can express the new sentiments within the text. Where as the first phrase ended with the chords CEG# and EG#B, the second phrase continues this rotational pattern but from above instead of below the E major chord. Therefor the next chord to appear in the sequence is G#BD# (see Example 8).

The change of textual perspective is also established musically by the development of the "wave-like" motive from the first phrase. A variation of this motive continues in the treble clef, this time without interruption, over quarter notes and duple eighth notes which are still written in the bass clef despite their highly placed pitches which function more as a counter melody than a supporting bass. This melody represents the voices of the "exhortation" that "emanate from things." The new polyphonic texture created here in F sharp major gives the piece a lighter, happier feel as suggested by the poem. Beginning at measure 15 the singer is in rhythmic synchronicity with the piano accompaniment and the counter melody which reflects the "exhortation" that "rises towards the troubled heart." The arpeggiated bass notes in measure 14 are the only other low, supportive bass notes in the second phrase besides the bass notes in measure 19 at the cadence in F sharp major. These arpeggiated bass notes in measure 14 outline the Dominant seventh chord of F sharp which then rises towards "the troubled heart" at the cadence in measure 19. This ‘rising' in measure 14 continues through its middle and upper registers much like the "wave-like" motive in the first phrase and in contrast to all the other measures within this second phrase (see Example 9).

There is word painting at "monter" which means "rises." The notes sung on this word rise and the counter melody at this point also "rises" to the top of the piano accompaniment and adds complementary harmonies on top. The B pedal from the introduction and first phrase continue to act as a pedal within the second phrase. The vocal line seems to linger around the B in "wave-like" fashion in hopes of resolution. The B is really the ninth of the dominant seventh chord at measure 14 and resolves to A sharp at the cadence in measure 19 (see Example 10). This resolution from V7 to major I in F sharp major is symbolic of the resolution of "the troubled heart."

However, the resolution to A sharp descends a semitone further to A natural in the next measure creating an F sharp minor tonality. This reflects "the ‘happiness-turned-to sorrow' theme of the words."14 Debussy carries the idea of the counter melody further in the third phrase. Here the counter melody is doubled within octaves of the treble clef and represents the text that again speaks of "an exhortation," this time, "to enjoy the charm of being alive while one is young and the evening is beautiful." This melody works in a polyphonic relationship to the singer's melody and helps to create the basic shape of the third phrase - a shape which is symbolic of life and death as represented in the poem. This basic shape finds its way throughout the entire piece. Measure 20 begins a tremendous and dramatic rise to the climax six measures later. The base line is composed of smoothly rising arpeggios underneath the wave-like melody lines of the singer and the counter melody which also progress upwards. At measure 24, half way up the dramatic climb to the climax, the music begins to crescendo and the score has written on it the marking "animato" which means, appropriately to the text and its musical setting, "lively."

The climax on the word "beau" ("beautiful") swells for five beats to a glorious forte creating "a feeling of excitement and exhilaration"15 before crashing down. Indeed the singer expresses here how all things seem to make the most out of life when they realize that the end is near. It is because the poet makes the very most of the time she has left (while she is young and alive) that the singer's melody crashes so hard and so fast at measure 27 to the G sharp (see Example 11).

Soon after the climax the wave-like melodies of the singer and counter melody drop downward and the once rising arpeggios from the first half of the third phrase now become thinly textured and sink lower. The music dims ever more increasingly and the voice, now at a piano, repeats the note D. This monotone repetition contrasts significantly with the rising and falling of the climax and therefor "produces the effect of numbing despair."16 However, the repeated note D on the words "as this stream goes:" also depicts a certain anticipation for what is ahead. What follows next, in measure 32, is the dominant seventh chord of E major we have been waiting for throughout the whole piece. Because Debussy finally succumbs to traditional tonality after denying us of it for so long, the effect is breath taking. Debussy's use of the "wave-like" motive of the introduction and first phrase equally sends shivers up and down one's spine. However, the last chord of the motive, which once served to interrupt the triplet pattern, is now held and tied over into measure 34. Over top of this, the singer's voice enters on the second degree scale (F sharp) of E major (see Example 12). Now it is easy to realize that everything up to this point, in Schenkerian language, was a rich, colourful expression of I.

The singer can take her time at this point since there is no movement coming from the piano accompaniment and the score is marked with "plus lent" ("more slowly"). Indeed the singer, if she takes the advice from the poem will enjoy this, her last tiny melodic fragment, while she is still alive. The "real" interruption I spoke of earlier takes place at measure 34 when both the singer and piano accompaniment momentarily come to a complete stop. The singer never does get to finish the 3-2-1 progression of the Schenkerian Urline. Thus is the tragedy the poem warns us about - the unexpected interruption of life through death. The piano accompaniment must finish the progression to 1 over the I chord alone (see Example 13).

The coda beginning at measure 35 once again recalls the opening measures of the introduction with its "wave-like" motive. The poet is dead but nature continues on endlessly. The singer's faint coda-like utterance "we to the tomb" floats upwards and the singers last note, the B heard throughout the entire piece, on the french syllable "-beau" is held for five beats and is reminiscent of the climax. It is as though the poet speaks to us from the "tomb." A long rising gesture begins on the note low G in the bass of measure 38, extends upwards to high G and then resolves to G sharp in measure 40. Debussy marks the score with the word "morendo" which means to die away. The texture significantly thins out here. This last upward motion is symbolic of the poet's ascent into "heaven" or her renewed oneness with nature. The last chord of the piece, ending with the third degree of the E major scale (G sharp) on top, is angelic and its simplicity resolute (see example 14).

In conclusion, there are numerous ways in which to analyse a single piece of music. My analysis of Debussy's Beau Soir, which focuses on the relationship between music and text (what I call textual analysis), is just one way in which to approach a piece of vocal music. However, it allowed me to explore various musical (and non-musical) elements, such as rhythm, balance, phrasing, dynamics, voice leading, word painting, step-wise motion, diatonic regions etc., and to examine Debussy's "tonal" departure from traditional Western Classical music. As well, the inclusion of other theoretical approaches to music, such as Schenkerian analysis, offered me additional insight into the various layers of meaning within the piece. With each new theoretical approach comes a new perspective by which to understand the piece. Each new perspective has the capacity to uncover various new levels of meaning both within the poetry and the music.


1. Paul Bourget, "Beautiful Evening," The Interpretation of French Song, trans. Winifred Radford, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 156.

2. Pierre Bernac, The Interpretation of French Song, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 156.

3. Barbara Meister, Nineteenth Century French Song (London: Indiana University Press, 1980), 276.

4. Bernac, 156.

5. Arthur B. Wenk, Claude Debussy and the Poets (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 3.

6. Bernac, 154-156.

7. Wenk, 4.

8. Ibid., 1.

9. Ibid., 6.

10. Jennifer Lea Brown, Debussy and Symbolist Poets With an Analysis of Debussy's Symbolist Techniques in "Pelleas et Melisande" (Ann Arbor, Michigan: U.M.I. Dissertation Services, 1993), 10-12.

11. Wenk, 6.

12. I refer to the poet and singer as "she," however, this song is also suitable for a male voice.

13. Meister, 276.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., 277.

16. Ibid.

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