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  • Callum Rogers

Style Dépouillé: French Music in The Interwar Years

‘A poet always has too many words in his vocabulary, a painter too many colours on his palette, and a musician too many notes on his keyboard. One must sit down first; one can think afterwards’.[1]


What do economy, national identity and a one-line pencil drawing of a chicken have in common? If you answered something along the lines of “French interwar aesthetics”, congratulations! You’re spot on.


In the wake of the catastrophic First World War that claimed almost two million French lives, a fresh start was necessary—a new outlook and restoking of French national identity. In music, this typically embodied a rejection of Wagnerian and foreign influences that had cultivated quite the cultural currency in France towards the end of the 19th Century. The conservative French government heralded French Classicism as the vehicle to ‘symbolically reunite a defeated and injured France with its great past’.[2] Subsequently, composers sought to write music that was stripped of the superfluous, that was concise, melodic, and crucially, French.



The term style dépouillé (in the stripped-back style) is a genre label used to group and understand 20thCentury French music that practiced economy. This label has been used to group and understand music by composers such as Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Igor Stravinsky. Their music is often kindred through thin textures, pronounced and unobscured melodies, and simplicity. Out with passé virtuosity and in with digestible, economic, café-concert music.


This begs the question: where does the one-line pencil drawing of a chicken come in? In 1918, French creative Jean Cocteau proclaimed his admiration of Picasso’s Le Coq monogram (pictured below) in the infamous pamphlet Le Coq et l'Arlequin: ‘Long live the Cock! Down with the Harlequin!’ he hollers.



From Jean Cocteau, Le coq et l'arlequin: notes autour de la musique (Éditions de la Sirène, 1918), p. 25. Screen grab from <https://archive.org/details/lecoqetlarlequi00coctgoog/page/n32/mode/2up> [accessed 13/07/2022]


For Cocteau, the simplicity of Picasso’s one-line process and the clarity of the unobstructed curves were beautiful—no superfluous colours necessary, nor any thick textures in sight. Beauty through simplicity.


There is an etymological problem with the moniker style dépouillé though. If we parse the term for a moment, style is the operative noun that informs us that we are dealing with genre and type, and the verb dépouillé roughly translates to “stripped” and is used colloquially to represent (rather gruesomely) the remains of a skinned animal. Thankfully, this word takes on an entirely different guise in the arts and is generally understood as facilitating the stripping away of extraneous features in the pursuit of a less-cluttered texture. The lexical assemblance style dépouillé has been used to describe aspects of classicism such as simplicity, counterpoint, and most importantly melody towards which some French composers were drawn.[3]



Let us now hypothesise the following piece of music. Imagine a piece of piano music whose melodic writing is stripped of the superfluous and of ornament; a melody that moves in stepwise motion, within a narrow range and limited register of the keyboard. This appears to be the perfect embodiment of a stripped-back melodic style, no? The treatment of melody in this piece is, however, purely structural: phrases do not surpass their prescribed length, there is little or no development of themes, and the aggregation of phrases serve to inform the global structure of the work. Does this affect the previous statement?


It shouldn’t—economical considerations are observed throughout. Herein lies the semantical problem. The style dépouillé genre label has been used historically to understand music whose melodic impetus is elevated above most other compositional considerations. Melody and horizontal motion are the principal vehicles of expression and development, much in the same way that Picasso’s chicken is built upon single lines and contour. In our imaginary piano piece, though, melody is functional and not expressive. A means to an end. But it is still economical?



It appears the style dépouillé genre label has outgrown its moorings and has come to represent a multi-faceted aesthetic trend with far more considerations than just whether a piece of music has undergone the process of dépouillement. We must distinguish between the style dépouillé genre label—and what this has come to represent—and the process of stripping-back in musical composition. The former is a noun entrenched and dependent upon context, whilst the latter verb refers explicitly to the compositional process.


Callum Rogers is a musicologist and pianist studying for a PhD at the University of Lincoln. He specialises in 19th and 20th Century French piano music, with a keen interest in philosophy, music analysis, pedagogy, and genre studies. If anyone is interested in reaching out, please contact CaRogers@lincoln.ac.uk.



[1] Jean Cocteau, Le Coq et L’Arlequin (Éditions de la Sirène, 1918), p. 11.


[2] Samuel N. Dorf, ‘Erik Satie’s Socrate (1918), Myths of Marsyas, and un style dépouillé’, in Current Musicology, 98 (Columbia University Press: September, 2014), p. 96.


[3] See Barbara L. Kelly, ‘Ravel after Debussy: Leadership, Influences, Style’, in Berlioz and Debussy: Sources Contexts and Legacies: Essays in Honour of Francois Lesure, ed. by Barbara L. Kelly and Kerry Murphy (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), p. 173.

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