The Song Triptych: Reflections on a Debussyan Genre

David Code


Debussy composed eight sets of three songs between 1891 and 1913. Containing almost all the mélodies of these years, the series tracks his development from post-Wagnerian maturity to ‘late’ style.While we have several fine readings of individual songs, the distinctive ‘triptych’ form of the Debussyan ‘song cycle’ has received little focused analytical attention. One reason might be glimpsed in Susan Youens’s assertion that these little cycles are not as ‘musically unified as [those] of Schubert, Schumann or Mahler’. Indeed the few existing studies of these tripartite sets generally emphasize textual links over musical ones, often in service of a narrowly ‘narrative’ sense of unity.In this paper, I take a fresh look at the various kinds of textual and musical unity on view in this distinctly Debussyan genre. I begin with a contextual glance into visual culture of the time, which saw a striking revival of interest in painted or printed triptychs. Then, in testing how such ‘painterly’ orientation can qualify our sense of multi-part literary and musical form,I outline an allegorical reading of Debussy’s successive triptychs as an evolving response to the pressures of modernist music historiography.

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ISSN 1755-4934