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Riddled constructs : a study of musical humour in Emmanuel Chabrier's comic operas Paulson, Jennifer Ellen


The music of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) has received high praise from prominent twentieth-century French composers, including Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy, and Satie. These composers indicate Chabrier as a venerable figure and a significant influence on early notions of French musical modernism; particularly celebrated is his musical humour, which has long been recognized as a defining and rewarding characteristic of his works. Remarkably, Chabrier’s music disappeared from the performing repertory almost immediately and is hardly known today. My dissertation begins to redress this imbalance by offering analyses of humour-producing musical processes in Chabrier’s comic operas. These works are among the composer’s most celebrated and also offer the most variegated and nuanced expression of his aesthetics of musical humour. Chapter 1 introduces central concepts and methodological concerns, in particular those pertaining to the interdisciplinary field of humour studies. A detailed consideration of generic antecedents prefaces my analyses of Chabrier’s works in the popular genres of opérette and opéra bouffe. Works by Offenbach, Hervé, and Lecocq are discussed in Chapter 2 in order to determine comic and humorous gestures that are characteristic of these genres. In Chapter 3, humour-producing incongruities and disjunctions in Chabrier’s popular operas—the three opérettes, Vaucochard et fils 1er (incomplete, c. 1864), Fisch-ton-kan (incomplete, c. 1864), and Une Éducation manquée (1879), and the opéra bouffe L’Étoile (1877)—are considered with respect to generic expectations. These works are shown to combine characteristic humour techniques with varying degrees of emphasis, demonstrating different facets of Chabrier’s practice as a musical humorist. Chapter 4 offers an investigation of humorous musical discourse in Chabrier’s mature opéra comique Le Roi malgré lui (1887) that is more comprehensive. Adapting concepts developed for the linguistic study of verbal humour, the analyses that I present reveal humour mechanisms in virtually every musical parameter and active on multiple structural and intertextual levels. The sophistication and variety of humour techniques identified recommends the study of Chabrier’s style and aesthetic not only as a conceivable model for the modernist ideals of later generations, but for its own sake, as music with a highly developed language that challenges traditional processes through humour.

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