French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was well-acquainted with the human voice from his years as choirmaster at the Madeleine church in Paris, where his fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns held the post of organist. Fauré bridges two worlds of French music – that of the mid-19th century and that of the early 20th century. Some of his greatest works (the Requiem, his opera Pénélope, and the present song cycle) could be compared to the paintings of Renoir or Monet for their fastidiousness, taste, and refinement. Such impressionist works of art occupy a similar interstitial space between the overt Romanticism of painters like Delacroix and the modernism of a Picasso or a Braque.
Fauré composed La bonne chanson between 1892 and 1894. The cycle uses nine poems by Paul Verlaine that the poet dedicated to his future wife Mathilde. (The name came from medieval France; thus the reference to “her Carolingian name” at the end of the first song.) At the time he composed the cycle, Fauré was himself embroiled in a love affair with Emma Bardac, who would later marry Claude Debussy, and dedicated the cycle to her. The work was originally composed for tenor and piano; tonight’s performance offers a rare opportunity to hear the cycle in Fauré’s later reworking for tenor, piano, and string quintet.
The composer’s refined style is shown to great advantage in several of the songs. The accompaniments are generally subdued; for example, in the second song, Fauré creates a harp-like effect with an undulating figure, and in the sixth song, the accompaniment is delicate and glittering, underlining the impressionistic quality of the text with its references to the “pale star of the morning” and the dawn “drowning in its azure hue.”
This is not to say that the songs are simplistic or devoid of passion by any means. Witness the ringing cry of joy at the end of the fourth song, borne aloft on the ascending line of the keyboard part, or the complex narrative structure of the fifth song, whose syncopated opening underlines the doubt of the text and whose closing moments witness a serene declaration of love.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA and has annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
La bonne chanson
The Good Song
A Saint in Her Halo
A Saint in her halo,
A Mistress of a chateau in her tower,
Everything that human speech contains
Of grace and love;
The golden note sounded by
A horn far off in the woods,
United with the tender pride
Of noble Ladies of yesteryear!
Together with the remarkable charm
Of a fresh triumphant smile
That has opened within the whiteness of a swan
And the blushing of a child bride;
Pearly hues, white and pink,
A gentle patrician harmony:
I see, I hear all these things
In her Carolingian name.
Since Dawn is Growing
Since dawn is growing, since here is the break of day,
Since, after long fleeing from me, hope agrees
To fly back toward me who call and implore it,
Since all this happiness agrees to be mine,
I want, guided by you, lovely eyes with gentle flame,
Led by you, o hand in which my hand will tremble,
To walk straight, whether it be through paths of moss
Or whether rocks and pebbles encumber the way;
And as, to beguile the slowness of the journey,
I shall sing simple tunes, I tell myself
That she will probably listen to me without annoyance;
And truly I wish for no other Paradise.
The White Moon
The white moon
Shines in the woods;
From every branch
There comes a voice
Under the foliage...
The pool reflects,
Of the dark willow
Where the wind weeps...
Let us dream, it is the hour.
A vast and tender
Seems to descend
From the firmament
That the star makes irridescent...
It is the exquisite hour.
I Was Going Along Treacherous Roads
I was going along treacherous roads,
Your dear hands were my guides.
So pale in the distant horizon
A feeble hope of dawn was shining;
Your glance was the morning.
No sound, other than her loud footstep,
Was encouraging the traveler.
Your voice said to me, “Keep walking!”
My fearful heart, my gloomy heart
Was weeping, alone, on the sad path;
Love, that delightful conqueror,
Has reunited us in joy.
In Truth I Am Almost Afraid
In truth I am almost afraid,
So much do I feel my life intertwined
With the radiant thought
That captured my soul last summer,
So much does your image, forever dear,
Live in this heart that totally belongs to you,
This heart anxious solely
To love you and to please you;
And I tremb1e, forgive me
For telling you so frankly,
When I think that one word, one smile
From you is henceforth my law,
And that all it would take from you
Would be a gesture, a word or a wink,
To put my whole being into mourning
For the loss of its celestial illusion.
But rather I do not want to see you,
Even if the future were to be gloomy for me
And fertile in countless woes,
Except through an immense hope,
Plunged into this supreme happiness
Of telling myself still and always,
In spite of bleak reversals,
That I love you, I love you, dear!
Before You Go Away
Before you go away,
Pale star of the morning, –
“A thousand quails
Are singing, singing in the thyme.”
Turn toward the poet,
Whose eyes are full of love, –
Is rising into the sky with the daylight.”
Turn your gaze that
The dawn is drowning in its azure hue; –
“What joy there is
Among the fields of ripe wheat!”
And make my thought shine
Over there, – very far, oh! very far!
Is gaily glistening upon the hay.”
In the gentle dream in which
My beloved, still asleep, is agitated…
For here is the golden sun.”
So It Will Be on a Clear Summer Day
So it will be on a clear summer day:
The big sun, taking part in my joy,
Will make, amidst the satin and the silk,
Your dear beauty even more beautiful.
The clear blue sky, like a tall tent,
Sumptuous with long folds, will quiver
Over our two foreheads that will have turned pale
From the excitement of happiness and from waiting;
And when evening comes, the air will be sweet
Which plays caressingly with your veils,
And the peaceful gaze of the stars
Will smile kindly on the married couple.
Is It Not So?
Is it not so? We will go, gaily and slowly, on the
Modest path that Hope shows us as it smiles,
Caring little whether people ignore us or see us.
Isolated in love as in a dark forest,
Our two hearts, breathing out their peaceful tenderness,
Will be two nightingales singing in the evening.
Without concern about what Fate destines for us,
We will walk with an even pace,
And hand in hand, with the childlike soul
Of those who love one another unreservedly, is it not so?
Winter Has Ended
Winter has ended: the mild light
Is dancing, from the ground to the clear firmament.
The saddest heart must yield
To the immense joy scattered through the air.
For a year I have had spring in my soul,
And the green return of the sweet spring season,
Just as a flame surrounds a flame,
Puts more ideal on my ideal.
The blue sky prolongs, raises and crowns
The unchangeable azure where my love laughs.
The season is beautiful and my portion is good
And all my hopes finally get their turn.
Let summer come! Let come also
Autumn and winter! And each season
Will be charming to me, o You who are adorned
By this fantasy and this reason!