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Ibert developed his interest in songs and dramatic music quite early. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and as a young man Ibert began supporting himself by accompanying singers and playing piano for silent movies, among other activities. Military service during World War I interrupted his nascent career, but in 1919 he won the Prix de Rome on his first try, and in the 1920s his career blossomed with successes in opera, ballet, songs, and orchestral music. In 1931 he began scoring films, writing 11 scores that decade alone. His best-known scores from the post-World War II years were for Orson Welles’ Macbeth in 1948, and the “Circus” ballet for Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance in 1952.
In 1933 director Georg Wilhelm Pabst filmed three separate versions of Don Quixote, in English, French, and German, with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, in the title role in all three languages. (Chaliapin had also created the title role in Jules Massenet’s opera Don Quichotte in 1910.) In 1932 Pabst had asked several composers to contribute songs to the project, including Maurice Ravel, who was unable to meet Pabst’s deadline but nonetheless wrote the three songs of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, the last work he was to complete. Ibert provided four songs for Quixote (and another for Sancho Panza), which Chaliapin sings in the film and on a recording with Ibert conducting. The original scoring was for various forces, from small ensemble to full orchestra, but Ibert also arranged them for voice and piano.
The song texts are not by Cervantes. The “Chanson du départ” is by Pierre de Ronsard, and the other three are by Alexandre Arnoux. The Ronsard poem presents a new castle as symbol of knightly virtues, and Ibert responded with a deliberately antique-sounding, sparsely accompanied ode, with vocal melismas suggesting Spanish flourishes. The expansive serenade to Dulcinea also touches Spanish bases, and the “Chanson du Duc,” a troubadour’s tribute to the lady of his dreams, has a bold swagger. The final song is Quixote’s dying farewell to Sancho Panza, noble in sentiment and sound.