Length: 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 4, 1953, with soprano Georgia Laster, John Barnett conducting ("Absence" only); January 7, 1971, with mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, Zubin Mehta conducting (complete)
For somebody who wrote so much about his own and others' music, Berlioz had surprisingly little to say about Les nuits d'été. There is no mention of it, for example, in his Memoirs, nor does his correspondence refer to the songs. Only one of the songs is dated - "Villanelle," March 23, 1840. Two of them, "Absence" and "Le spectre de la rose," were part of a concert program advertised for November 1840, but the performance never took place. The six songs were published in their original version, for high voice and piano, during the summer of 1841. Berlioz orchestrated "Absence" in 1843, planning to include it on his concert programs in Germany, and did the same with "Le spectre de la rose" for a concert in Gotha in February 1856. A Swiss music publisher who happened to be at that concert asked Berlioz, through an intermediary (Peter Cornelius, the composer of the opera The Barber of Baghdad and one of Berlioz' most ardent champions in Germany), to orchestrate the remaining songs; the composer agreed and the songs were published, in a version for soloists and orchestra, before the end of the year.
So that's what we know about Les nuits d'été. The fact that the songs emerged from their composer at a moment when so many conflicting trajectories in both his personal and professional life collided makes his silence about them all the more frustrating. By 1840, it had become apparent to both Berlioz and his wife, the actress Harriet Smithson, that their marriage had come, in David Cairns' words, to a "symbolic end." Smithson's physical and emotional state had been sinking ever-downward since her marriage to Berlioz in 1833 - she was often ill, hardly ever went out, had few friends, and could not speak French well enough to fully participate in her husband's social world of composers, writers, and artists. The assuredness and self-reliance of the woman who had conquered Paris with her Shakespeare performances more than a decade earlier had been replaced by the depression and isolation of a wife frustrated by the sacrifices that she had made for her marriage. Berlioz continued to love her, but not with the love of a man inflamed with passion for his muse. As his letters, especially those to his sisters, make clear, he had come to feel sorry for her more than anything else.
It was at this nadir of marital bliss that Berlioz probably met his future wife, Marie Recio. A soprano herself, Recio appeared frequently with Berlioz at his concerts, and one of her favorites was "Absence," which she sang for the first time during his tour of Germany in 1843, first in its version for piano and voice, and then in Berlioz' orchestration. She became his regular companion, and, as a result of this affair with Marie, Berlioz separated from Harriet in 1844; their marriage ended with Harriet's death in 1854, which left the composer free to marry Marie.
The final bit of context that helps illuminate Les nuits d'été comes not from Berlioz's personal, but from his professional, life. His critics continually lambasted him for the extravagance of his performing forces; the critic Paul Scudo wrote, for example, "M. Berlioz hardly ever writes for anything less than huge vocal or instrumental forces; he aims at the grand effect; he unleashes every piercing sound at the same time because he doesn't know how to prepare or control an idea, or how to bring it to a conclusion…. The orchestra that Beethoven used is not enough for him; to display itself in all its power, his genius not only requires all known musical instruments - the ones that have been invented for 50 years - but also has to get its hands on all these ill-formed experiments which the music industry turns out every day, and with which they try to revive our blunted senses."
This explains, to some extent, why Berlioz might have been enthusiastic about preparing an orchestral version of Les nuits d'été. With their gentle, intimate musical language, the songs lend themselves to the nuanced sort of large-scale chamber music Berlioz produced in the orchestral version, itself the perfect rejoinder to detractors such as Scudo. In addition, Berlioz had little knowledge of the piano (he played the guitar), and the piano part for the songs in their original version is not among the most natural ever composed.
In Les nuits d'été, Berlioz selected six poems from the volume La comédie de la mort (The comedy of death) by his close friend Théophile Gautier (1811-72). The poems consider love from different angles, but loss of love permeates them all. When performed as a cycle, the songs convey this loss all the more strongly, not just as individual compositions touched by melancholy, but as a coherent conception, one where the longed-for "always" of the first song, "Villanelle," becomes unattainable in the last one, "L'île inconnue." Berlioz' rapturous, idealistic love for Harriet had faded - the breeze had blown his ship on a course far from one leading to the "always" of his youthful dreams.
-- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.