Louis Vierne –


Louis Vierne and Maurice Ravel were close contemporaries, born five years apart and dying in the same year (1937). They had Gabriel Fauré as a common point of reference -- Fauré was the former’s spiritual mentor and the latter’s actual mentor at the Paris Conservatoire -- yet their composition styles had nothing in common. Ravel went in the direction of impressionism, while Vierne chose the path of expressionism.


That Vierne wrote pieces for voice and piano usually comes as a surprise to devotees of his organ music as well as to lovers of the mélodie genre. Vierne’s output was in fact sufficient to categorize him as a major mélodiste: he wrote about sixty songs, many of which he later orchestrated, as well as several works for voice and orchestra. Most of the songs were out of print at the time of this recording, which is probably the main reason for their neglect thus far, as their quality is not in doubt.


This album contains all the voce-and-piano songs from his mature years (excluded are for the four songs with harp accompaniment) for which scores exist in archives or national libraries. Also included are three earlier mélodies that are in print, two of which have never been recorded. Ravel’s Histoires naturelles cycle about birds and insects (also featured as flm shorts on YouTube) closes the second disc and complements Vierne’s setting of “Les Hiboux” (“The Owls”). [Track list with texts and translations]


In his biography of Louis Vierne, Bernard Gavoty said that “he stood halfway between Franck and Fauré, was less ecstatic than the former but less pure than the latter, was more profoundly lyrical than both, and generally allied himself to a more absolute romanticism.” One might add that whereas Fauré was always elegant and refined in his composition, and generally chose poems that would enable him to reflect those qualities in his music, Vierne was more elemental, more overtly passionate and, by some gothically tragic streak in his nature, was naturally drawn to poems that featured lightning storms and maelstroms, turmoil and tormented souls. Vierne recalled how Ravel once accused him, albeit in the nicest way, of having a perverse fondness for so-called romantic music -- “that music which one listens to with one’s fists in one’s eyes”. Vierne replied to Ravel that he would sooner have his fists in his eyes than be obliged to use them to block his ears, at which they both laughed.


Inspired by the verses of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Jean Richepin, the virtually blind Vierne gave flight to his imagination in vividly colourful depictions of every human condition from ecstasy to despair. The scenery in these songs ranges from the cold stillness of a winter’s day to the full ferocity of a storm at sea and includes all manner of creatures, from butterflies and birds to angels and witches.


Vierne’s piano parts can be dense and almost symphonic in scope but are often punctuated with the sort of crisp and tricky detail (e.g. “Sérénade”, with its rattling skeletons, or the horse’s hooves in “Le Galop”) that makes them much more than mere accompaniment. Voice and piano are truly equal partners in most of the settings. Indeed, in some of the sea-songs, it seems that the piano has the principal role as the voice struggles to make the poem heard above the whoosh of the spray, the roar of the wind, the crash of the waves and the crack of thunder.


Louis Vierne loved to accompany singers at fashionable soirées in Parisian salons, but two interpreters of his mélodies played prominent parts in his life. Jeanne Montjovet was a young and talented soprano with whom he shared his life for a time and for whom he wrote his first major cycle, the Stances d’amour et de rêve (poems by Sully Prudhomme) in 1912. His muse for the two great song cycles of the 1920s and during the rest of his life was Madeleine Richepin, a cousin of Jean Richepin who contributed the verses for the Poème de l’amour. This long cycle of fifteen songs was written in 1924, three years after the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire.


The Spleens et détresses cycle (1917) of Verlaine settings contains some of Vierne’s most dramatic writing but also some of his most hauntingly beautiful, notably “Promenade sentimentale” and “Le Son du cor” (“The Sound of the Hunting Horn”). Written before Vierne met Madeleine Richepin, the cycle was premièred by its dedicatee, the Comtesse du Boisrouvray.


Although Vierne’s songs can, for the most part, be appreciated as pieces of music for their own sake, without necessarily knowing what the individual words mean, especially in the case of such strophic songs as “Le Rouet” (“The Spinning-wheel”) or “À l’hirondelle” (“To the Swallow”), the same cannot be said for Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, where the tales are narrated in a quasi-parlando style and each word is given its own special musical treatment. To miss the punch-lines is to lose more than half the point of the music. Speech rhythms and inflexions are used throughout, and Ravel demanded that singers abandon the classical singing convention of voicing final “e”s that are normally silent in speech. Jules Renard’s prose poems recall the fables of La Fontaine or Aesop. On 12 January 1907, Renard wrote in his diary:


M. Ravel, the dark, rich and elegant musician of the Histoires naturelles, insists that I go to listen to his mélodies tonight. I told him of my ignorance in such matters and asked him what he could possibly add to the stories. “My aim was not to add to them but to interpret them,” he replied. “Why? What’s the point?” I asked. “To say with music what you say with words when you are, for instance, in front of a tree,” Ravel said. “I think and feel in musical terms. There is instinctive, sentimental music -- mine ... and there is intellectual music -- that of Indy. There will be only Indys in the audience tonight ... so this will be an important test. At least I have confidence in my interpreter: she is admirable.”


The interpreter in question was Jane Bathori, but the piece, premièred that night at the Salle Erard in Paris, was ill-received by audience and critics alike. Pierre Lalo, in Le Temps, described it as “café-concert music with ninths”. Had Monsieur Lalo ever sat on a riverbank and watched a kingfisher, or seen guinea-fowl chasing chickens in a farmyard, he would surely not have dismissed Ravel’s keenly observed transcriptions so readily.


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In line with our previous album of mélodies of Fauré and Debussy, the recordings on this album are not studio or concert-hall recordings. They were made in a private house with a drawing-room grand piano and a single pair of microphones. Perhaps this makes them more representative of what might have been heard at a salon performance. [Back to Album]


Notes by Corinne Orde