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Assigning and asserting national characteristics to any art may seem like perniciously incorrect stereotyping these days, but the foremost creators and interpreters of French song, for one pertinent example, had little doubt about the distinctive and essential “Frenchness” of what they were doing. For Debussy, “clarity of expression, precision, and concentration of form are qualities peculiar to the French genius.” For the great French baritone Pierre Bernac, a French mélodie “is a musico-literary work in which the heart plays its part, but which, in its poem and its music, is an art infinitely more concerned with sensitive perceptions and impressions, more intellectual and objective, than a German Lied, which is almost always subjective, both musically and poetically.”
In addition to about 50 solo mélodies, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote seven duos, the first of which was probably his blithe, almost neo-Baroque 1855 “Pastorale” setting of verses by Phillippe Néricault Destouches. Saint-Saëns’ favorite poet was Victor Hugo, and his lilting, equally pastoral setting of Hugo’s “Viens! Une flûte invisible” (Come, an unseen flute) is from about the same time. (Saint-Saëns later set it again as a duo for voice and flute.) The fiery bolero “El desdichado” (The Unfortunate One, an anonymous Spanish poem), which originally had orchestral accompaniment, is from 1871, revealing the contemporary French obsession with Spanish arts and fashions that would blossom a few years later in Bizet’s Carmen.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) wrote more than 100 mélodies across his entire compositional life, but only a handful of duos. The two contrasting pieces of his Op. 10, “Puisqu’ici bas tout âme” (As each soul here below, Hugo) and Tarentelle (Marc Monnier), were originally composed about ten years apart, but published together in 1879. The swooning “Pleurs d’or (Tears of Gold, Albert Samain), with its intimations of serene waters and convent bells, comes from 1896. Fauré’s coolly haunting, famous Pavane, now known in countless arrangements, was originally a slight piano piece; “elegant, but not otherwise important,” the composer said. But he orchestrated it for summer concerts in 1887, and then when he dedicated it to the Countess Greffulhe, he added dancers and an invisible chorus (at her suggestion), with lyrics by her cousin, Robert de Montesquiou.
Few composers of any nationality merged music and poetry as naturally as Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy did set Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de lune” as a mélodie (as did Fauré), but his most famous interpretation of it is the gloriously moonstruck solo piano piece from the Suite bergamasque (1890, where it was originally titled “Promenade sentimentale”; rev. 1905). Debussy was about 20 when he wrote the lively serenade “Mandoline” (Verlaine again), with its laughing la-la-la close. He was probably even younger when he composed the floating reverie “Beau Soir” (Beautiful Evening, Paul Bourget).
Léo Delibes (1836-1891) wrote over 30 mélodies, but only one has retained its popularity, the bolero “Les filles de Cadix” (The Daughters of Cádiz, Alfred de Musset, before 1874). It is in two verses, each ending with flirty coloratura flair. It shares the same ardent Spanish attitude as Saint-Saëns’ “El desdichado,” and it readily evokes specific bits of Carmen.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) took French citizenship in 1909 and was the archetype of the Belle Époque mélodie composer. (His family moved to Paris when he was three, and he wrote his first songs when he was eight.) He composed the lyrically reflective “Le rossignol des lilas” (The Nightingale of the Lilacs, L.éopold Dauphin) in 1913. He set only the first two verses of “Infidélité” (1891, Théophile Gautier), plus the last two lines as a sardonic little tag. “Fêtes galantes” (1892, Verlaine – the same poem as Debussy’s “Mandoline”) has the expected surface of salon party music, subverted by a wry descending chromatic sequence on the third verse. Spring blooms rapturously in “Le printemps” (1899, Théodore de Banville), particularly in the swirling piano part.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote about 50 mélodies, and “La mort d’Ophélie” – a dramatic ballad by Ernest Legouvé based on the description of Ophelia’s drowning in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – was originally a solo song (1842). In 1848 Berlioz arranged it for sweeping two-part treble chorus and orchestra as the middle part of his Tristia trilogy.
As an operetta composer, André Messager (1853-1929) was an heir to Offenbach. Messager’s Les p’tites Michu, with its frothy tale of the mixed up babies “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche,” was a huge success in 1897.
The exquisite Barcarolle that opens Act III of Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881) is surely the most famous number of an opera lavishly endowed with hit tunes, but it was not originally written for that work. Composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) died before it was finalized and Ernest Giraud completed the scoring, added recitatives, and picked up the music for the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s 1864 Viennese operetta Die Rheinnixen. (Offenbach himself often reused his own music in this manner.)
Few of Léo Delibes’ mélodies may have survived in popular performance, but the “Flower” duet “Sous le dôme épais” (Under the thick canopy) from Lakmé (1883) may be the most famous duo for sopranos in the opera repertory. In this gracefully caressing number, Lakmé and her servant Mallika gather flowers by the river.