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  Bonne Chanson, Belle


THE BELLE EPOQUE
is considered by some to have begun in 1880, and by others - perhaps those who think of it as the Fin de Siècle - in 1890. All are agreed, however, that it ended with the beginning of the First World War. The songs of Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy on these recordings span the whole of this “beautiful period”, from Debussy’s nostalgic mid-1880s settings of Les cloches (“The Bells”), Romance and Les angélus (“The Angelus”) to Fauré’s 1914 cycle Le jardin clos (“The Enclosed Garden”).

 

Most of the songs on this album received their first performances in the salons of Paris. There, in the homes of rich and aristocratic patrons of the arts, there were regular gatherings of musicians, painters, poets and writers who would exchange ideas and present their latest creations. Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, was one of these hostesses. She offered Fauré a large sum of money to write a short opera for which Paul Verlaine was to provide the words. By the late 1880s, however, Verlaine was an alcoholic, spending much of his time in hospital, and well past his prime. Fauré’s several attempts to get Verlaine to focus on the project proved fruitless and he had to give up. (Fauré was the organist at Verlaine’s funeral in 1896.)

 

Perhaps as a consolation prize for the princesse, Fauré offered her new settings of five poems that Verlaine published in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Two of these Chansons de Venise (written during and after a holiday in Venice in 1891) - Green and C’est l’extase - are included here, together with another Verlaine setting, Spleen, composed in 1888. Debussy too was attracted to Verlaine’s symbolism and had already set these three poems in 1887; they were republished in 1903, with certain modifications, as the Ariettes oubliées (“Forgotten Arias”). Confusingly, Fauré’s Spleen is the same poem as Debussy’s Il pleure dans mon cœur (“There is weeping in my heart”) but Debussy’s Spleen is another poem by Verlaine (not set by Fauré). Although the “Il pleure...” settings bear certain resemblances - a simple lyrical melody above the pitter-patter of raindrops; the similar vocalisations of “Quoi! Nulle trahison?” - the two treatments of C’est l’extase could not be more different [Debussy's C’est l’extase; Fauré's C’est l’extase].

 

In 1892, one year after writing the Chansons de Venise, Fauré began work on La bonne chanson (“The Good Song”). Verlaine’s series of poems to his fiançée Mathilde were the perfect vehicle for Fauré’s feelings at this time, enabling him to pour out pages full of passionate energy, joyful birdsong and exuberant arpeggios. He had just met and fallen in love with Emma Bardac, the wife of a wealthy banker. She held a salon not far from the Champs-Elysées and was a talented soprano. She reciprocated his love, and their relationship lasted for several years. Fauré showed Emma the sheets of manuscript as work progressed, and she is said to have given him advice and made suggestions.

 

Perhaps that is why La bonne chanson is by far the most singable of Fauré’s song cycles. The fairly limited compass of the vocal line, with its small intervals and lyrical melodies, where the voice is allowed to soar freely at its natural volume, and the beautifully paced phrases, all of just the right length, combine to show the voice in its best light. One has the feeling that Emma Bardac was perhaps not so much a virtuosic singer as a wise one.

 

Yet this ecstatic and vigorous cycle, where the piano does most of the hard work, did not go down well at its première in 1894. Proust loved it and considered it Fauré’s finest song cycle, but others found it too complicated. Perhaps they thought Fauré had gone a few twists too far down the harmonic road in J’allais par des chemins perfides (“I went along treacherous paths”), where he delights in wrong-footing his performers and listeners all the way. Perhaps, in an age when salon singing was supposed to be decorously restrained and self-controlled, they couldn’t stand the heat in the exhilarating closing song when Fauré, throwing caution to the wind, gave himself a starring role in the piano part, dashing at a mad gallop towards the finishing line, there to halt with a triumphant flourish before the final cooling down of the coda.

 

Fauré disliked unduly sentimental interpretations of his work, preferring to let the music speak for itself without overindulgent rubato and exaggerated musical expression. He was known as a human metronome, pressing on with his accompaniments and leaving in his wake any singers inclined to wallow. It is this forward momentum that makes his Bonne chanson cycle so exciting, leaving listener and performers alike quite breathless at the end of it. [see commentary on Fauré's tempi]

 

Debussy, according to Proust, was one of those who disliked the Bonne chanson cycle. Certainly nothing could be further removed from this style of writing than his own Chansons de Bilitis [Bilitis songs], written only three years later in 1897. Set to the poems of his friend Pierre Louÿs, they contain heat of a different sort: the most overtly erotic writing in the whole of the French song repertoire - as much in the piano part as in the vocal writing, where melody has almost given way to sung speech. Yet even at the climaxes, the voice is not allowed full rein. Debussy usually seems to require a vocal sound that is ethereal, otherworldly, disembodied. There is a feeling of restraint, of impression and suggestion, dictated by the colours he conjures in the piano part. (Chevaux de bois - “Wooden Horses” - in the Ariettes is a rare exception.)

 

A large or heavy voice would probably not marry well with the underlying liquid and delicate piano textures. Debussy constantly strove for subtlety and intimacy of sound and often played in public with the piano lid closed. Many of the singers who performed his songs had small voices with little vibrato. Whether he wrote the music to suit the voices or chose the singers to suit the music, the result is the same: Debussy seldom requires more than half voice, even in the so-called Wagnerian songs of the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (“Five Baudelaire Poems”) cycle.

 

The Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire were composed between 1887 and 1889. Le balcon (“The Balcony”), which opens the cycle, is the longest of Debussy’s songs. The dense chromatic harmonies may be Wagnerian in style, but the songs retain a lightness of touch that is unmistakably French. Le jet d’eau (“The Fountain”), with its gently cascading piano figurations, contrasts with the darker, more velvety atmosphere of the other songs [no. 2, no. 4, no. 5] in the cycle.

 

By the time Fauré began work on the Chanson d’Eve (“Song of Eve”) in 1906, Emma Bardac was living with Debussy, whom she married in 1908. Not only did the two men share the same woman (though Fauré’s relationship with Emma ended well before she met Debussy) but they both composed music for Pelléas et Mélisande, a play by the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy’s opera lives on, but Fauré’s incidental music survives only as an orchestral suite of four extracts, plus the Chanson de Mélisande. Fauré re-used the theme of Mélisande’s song in the Chanson d’Eve, notably in the piano introduction to Paradis and as a recurring motif throughout Crépuscule (“Dusk”).

 

The Chanson d’Eve was completed in 1910. Quite different in character from La bonne chanson, it reflects the vague and abstract poetry of another Belgian symbolist, Charles Van Lerberghe. The flamboyant piano writing of La bonne chanson has given way to something simpler and altogether more introspective. The first song Paradis, evoking the creation of the world with its single-note opening, is perhaps the most strikingly original (in every sense) song in the cycle and is a world away from anything that Fauré wrote before it. He must have been attracted to Van Lerberghe’s writing because it suited the increasingly reflective and abstract nature of his own compositions at this stage in his life, when hearing problems were beginning to confine his sound-world to his mind’s ear.

 

Le jardin clos, with its pre-raphaelite imagery, is of the same mould as the Eve cycle but even more mystical and obscure. Written in 1914, its final song Inscription sur le sable (“Writing in the Sand”) reflects the sense of loss that Fauré must have felt as his son, his students and his staff at the Conservatoire went off to war. The long period of peace and prosperity enjoyed in the Belle Epoque was over. Superficially, Le jardin clos has some parallels with the Chanson d’Eve: each cycle ends with a “death” song consisting of a calm and unadorned vocal line intoning above softly tolling piano chords [Compare Eve and Jardin clos], and each cycle contains another similarly structured song (the second song in Eve and the fifth in Le jardin clos). Busy, shimmering accompaniments characterise the fifth and seventh songs of Eve and the third and seventh songs of Le jardin clos. But what marks all of Fauré’s output more than anything else, in the extroverted and introverted songs alike, is an infinite tenderness.

 

Fauré’s southern accent, with its distinctly articulated feminine endings, bears evidence in the way he set words to music. Many final “e”s that would be unstressed and often unsounded in standard French are not only vocalised as separate syllables in his songs but elongated, sometimes for several beats or even whole bars. This is particularly evident in the Jardin clos cycle, indicating that, even after a lifetime in Paris, Fauré never lost sight of his Mediterranean origins. The weighting of final syllables, especially when placed on strong musical beats, must have sounded strange to the northern ears of Van Lerberghe and contrasts oddly with the delicacy of Fauré’s music.

 

The recordings on this album are not studio or concert-hall recordings. Instead they attempt to represent a salon performance. They were made in a private house with a domestic-sized piano and a single pair of microphones. [Back to Album]

 

Notes by Corinne Orde

CORINNE ORDE AND JONATHAN COHEN: Bonne Chanson, Belle Époque

Corinne Orde & Jonathan Cohen - Fauré & Debussy: Bonne Chanson, Belle Époque - La bonne chanson: J'allais par des Chemins Perfides

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