Mélodie

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Mélodie is the French word for “melody”. The word is used in music to mean songs written by French composers of classical music from the mid-19th century to the present. The mélodie in French music is similar to the Lied in German music. "Mélodie" is not the same as chanson (the French word for “song”). The word "chanson" is used for folksongs or popular songs.

History[change | change source]

In Germany composers of classical music had been writing great songs from about 1800, but in France the mélodie became important about 50 years later. While some German Lieder were based on folksong, the texts of the mélodies were usually poems by serious poets.

Hector Berlioz was the first composer to call some of his compositions mélodies. His Les Nuits d'Été (1841) is one of the greatest of all song cycles. Charles Gounod wrote about 200 mélodies. He used texts by famous poets such as Hugo.

Gabriel Fauré wrote more than 100 mélodies, many based on poems by Verlaine.

Henri Duparc wrote seventeen mélodies. These are what he is known for.

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were very famous composers who wrote a lot of music, including mélodies that are often sung today. Ravel’s melodies are unusual because they are often based on folksong. Other composers of mélodie at the time include Albert Roussel, Reynaldo Hahn and André Caplet.

Mélodies continue to be composed today, though perhaps the last really popular composer of them was Francis Poulenc, who died in 1963.

Performing mélodies[change | change source]

In the French mélodie the poet’s feelings are often suggested or hinted at rather than stated in an obvious way. There is a very close relationship between the text (words) and the melody. To sing mélodie really well a singer must know the French language very well and understand a lot about French poetry. The rules about singing in the French language can be quite complicated. It is important to know when to let the last sound of a word run into the next word (elision). Several books have been written about this.

Although many famous singers are well known for singing French mélodie, the most famous singer from the past was Pierre Bernac. He gave many song recitals with the composer Francis Poulenc who accompanied him on the piano. He wrote a book on how to sing mélodies.