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Écoutez la chanson bien douce
Listen to the very gentle song
Paul Verlaine’s lines perfectly evoke the aesthetic pleasures and expressive boundaries of the French mélodie—the piano-accompanied art song where poem and music combine to create more than the sum of their parts. The word mélodie was first used in this way when Hector Berlioz composed songs to texts from Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies; the name soon came to be used to distinguish the more serious form from the lighter and populist chanson. The mélodie thus came into being in about 1830; after the death of Francis Poulenc in 1963 it ceased to be a significant form for it was of little interest to the young composers influenced either by Boulez or Messiaen.
Within this span of 130 years of glorious song-writing there are a number of high-water marks and one of these was undoubtedly the period at the end of the last century when Verlaine’s subtle and understated lyrics were set to music by various composers—most notably by Gabriel Fauré. The songs from this fin de siècle period seem to encapsulate the idealized felicities of French culture. The English visitor (or armchair traveller) to France was enraptured by the lighthearted insouciant charm which seems to play so small a part in his own country’s music which was dominated by portentous Wagnerian echoes, the mirthless rusticity of folksong or the vulgarity of the music hall. He responded naturally to the celebrated understatement and restraint of French music, where profundity of feeling is never allowed to plumb the inelegant and murky depths. Veiled intimations of forbidden delights and promises of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ were on offer but remained deliciously unspecific in their invitations.
The more the threat of Napoleon receded into memory, and the more powerful Germany became under Bismarck (and thus more of a rival to Britain’s Empire), the easier it was for many people to wean themselves from Britain’s early Victorian dependence on German culture (engendered in no small measure by Prince Albert and a German Royal Family) in favour of closer ties with France. There had long been a love affair with that nation’s food and wine, but the craze for French music suited even the somewhat puritanical English listener who could allow a subtle hint of the sybaritic life to enter his ears without necessarily allowing it to touch his liver. The attraction of the mélodie is less palpable than that of pâté de foie gras; it is something to do with the subtle art of suggestion. The quality of the music seems powerfully evocative of France, even if each and every word of the text is not understood by non-French listeners. Away from its home country, a mélodie is a potent distillation of the Parisian spirit, a type of exportable musical stock-cube which dissolves in the heat of performance and releases the quintessential flavours of salon and boulevard. English music-lovers of our grandfathers’ generation, stuck between the two stools of unsophisticated nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon balladry and the self-conscious profundities of Teutonic introspection, fell in love with an alternative culture as typified by its vocal music. It might be said that a good number of their descendants have remained similarly enchanted, with successive generations of French composers strengthening the affections of their British audiences.
Of course there is much more to French song than the muted and exquisite shades of a cultivated decadence, but it is perhaps this aspect of the art which has always seemed so alluring to those who dream of a more bohemian life across the Channel. We in present-day Britain are the inheritors of a long tradition of admiration of, and support for, the mélodie. We played host to Gounod for two and a half years in the 1870s (a fact that is fully illustrated on the second disc in this set); in Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte we provided Debussy with his first two Mélisandes and two of his most distinguished song interpreters. In Winifred Radford and Betty Bannerman those great French singers Pierre Bernac and Claire Croiza found their most devoted teaching disciples. Bernac and Poulenc thought their best audiences were in this country, and Bernac’s books on French song appeared in English translation long before they were taken up by French publishers. These are but a few examples of a link between England and French song that is almost as hallowed as that between an Englishman and his claret. The connections between French song and North America are also manifold and account for the fact that many of the most avid and skilled performers of the mélodie are to be found in the United States and Canada, and that many American song composers have looked directly to France for inspiration.
These time-honoured links go some way to answering the question of what justification there could possibly be for an English record company to embark on a series devoted to French song. For the sceptic who prefers French artists for French music, and German for German, the idea may seem just as ridiculous as a Schubert Lieder series from a British-based company. Is the art of mélodie outside the capabilities of all but the French? Debussy and a number of other French composers did not think so, but we may begin answering this by looking eastwards across France’s borders.
The Germans may still find it difficult to believe that the Lied is no longer their province alone, but there have been too may distinguished singers in the last few years from Holland, Sweden and Eastern Europe who have become celebrated practitioners of the art (some of these now heard on German record labels as regularly as the home-grown article) for this insularity to persist. There are discerning audiences for German song recitals everywhere, and distinction of voice and intelligence seems to melt national boundaries in this field; languages are taught to a wider range of people, and travel seems generally available in a way unheard of even a few decades ago. European unity in matters musical seems ever more to be a practical possibility. The increasingly important role played by American singers of the younger generation is also an important sign that the venerable art of German Lieder is now an international art form. The British scene continues to provide artists in the distinguished line of Peter Pears, Janet Baker and their successors who have mastered the medium (including Margaret Price who has made her home in Germany for some years) and the worldwide fame of Gerald Moore has meant that British accompanists have long staked their claim to be taken as seriously as their European counterparts.
When dealing with Latin peoples and Romantic languages, the Englishman is denied the Nordic link of race and temperament which he shares with the German, but the fascination of opposites felt for the neighbouring French represents something perhaps even more potent. France after all is the only country near enough for a British swimmer to reach. French song is a realm where the Anglo-Saxon or Celtic artist or listener is not overshadowed by his German counterpart who is usually uninterested in serious French song—although even this ancient prejudice is changing fast. In musical terms the Englishman’s versatility is shown by his ability to embrace the Lied and the mélodie with equal fervour. Thus it is that most British singers at our conservatoires are brought up to revere German and French song in equal measure. It is a reflection of this acknowledged versatility of both British artists and audiences, and because of the great interest in French song in the English-speaking American and Antipodean worlds, that we launch The Hyperion French Song Edition. We begin with a centenary celebration of the mélodies of Charles Gounod; in true international spirit, this survey also includes a selection of the little-known English songs, and the cycle Biondina written in London to Italian texts.
Hyperion has long been in the forefront of promoting the mélodie (Duparc, Fauré, Hahn, Koechlin, Poulenc and the anthology La Procession are already in the catalogue) and the French Song Edition will continue this tradition. It is obvious that the comprehensive Gesamtausgabe tradition of the Hyperion Schubert Edition is neither practical nor desirable here. Instead we aim to offer carefully chosen representative selections of songs by French composers both celebrated and neglected. On occasion, a significant composer will merit a double album (as in the case of this centenary Gounod set), but a single album devoted to a composer will be the more usual format. On occasion, composers from the same epoch will share a disc; the mélodie is a form which responds well to the art of the anthologist, and there are great songs by minor composers which deserve inclusion in a survey such as this. When appropriate, and in Songmakers’ Almanac fashion, more than one singer will take part in the tribute to the major masters of the medium.
There have already been distinguished recordings on other labels of the complete songs of a handful of the greatest French composers. We do not aim to duplicate this achievement, and neither will we issue and number our releases in a way which attempts to take the listener through a chronological sequence of composers. Although each disc will have translations, annotations and commentaries, the garden of delights which is the mélodie is not the place for a structured history lesson. In any case, the right singer, the right song composer and the successful marriage between them in the recording studio could never be engineered in such a regimented way. There is no deadline for the completion of this recording project, but it is Hyperion’s undertaking that after some years the collector of the series will have a substantial overview of the vast terrain of French song where masterpieces and favourite songs are heard side-by-side with little known treasures. In that respect at least our aims are not dissimilar from those of The Hyperion Schubert Edition. The commentaries will be cross-referenced between volumes where certain important lyrics by such poets as Gautier and Verlaine have been set by more than one composer. And the singers? Hyperion is a British-based company with a commitment to British artists (some of whom are already much admired in French song by the French themselves) but in a similar fashion to the Schubert project we aim to welcome artists to this series from anywhere in the world—including France, of course. The French mélodie began to develop as a result of early performances of Schubert in the Paris of the 1830s and 1840s—it might be said that it owes its more sophisticated existence to the example of the Austrian master. It is perhaps appropriate, therefore, that we should embark on this project at the same time as our Schubert Edition passes its halfway mark.
Charles Gounod and the French mélodie
Gounod himself was born to cultivated parents; his father was a painter and his mother a pianist, and he inherited gifts from both sides. The easy and brilliant progress of his student years and his effortless winning of the Prix de Rome in 1839 show early warning signs of the suave facility which was to undermine a great deal of his output. He was a talented enough painter for Ingres (then director of the Villa Medici in Rome) to offer him an artist’s scholarship. There was the soft-grained streak of the dilettante in Gounod’s character, and a willingness to please which at its best produced work which delighted audiences and performers alike (the similarly uxorious Richard Strauss was in this way related to Gounod) but at its worst encouraged indecisiveness and weakness. In his youth he was human blotting paper for the artistic impressions of Italy: the music of Palestrina inspired a lifelong vocation for religious music. Like Liszt he was also tempted to enter the priesthood; he lacked the Hungarian’s fiery temperament, but both composers were prone to outbursts of piety which inspired their followers and were dismissed as humbug by their detractors. The people Gounod met in Rome were to influence him for the rest of his life. One of these was Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, who introduced him to Lieder (her brother’s above all) and the masterpieces of German literature, including Goethe. This was to result some years later in the composition of the celebrated opera Faust. After leaving Rome, Gounod travelled to Vienna and to Leipzig, where he met Mendelssohn. During this period, before he had established his operatic reputation and at the same time that Schumann was producing his greatest songs, Gounod wrote some of the mélodies still considered to be among his very best, some of which feature on the first of these discs—Où voulez-vous aller? (1839), Venise (1842), and large songs which demonstrate an affinity with the poetry of Lamartine—one of which is Le soir (1840–42).
Most of the songs by Gounod were published in six volumes of twenty songs each: four recueils by Choudens and two by Lemoine. In the broadest terms Choudens Volume 1 (perhaps the most useful for the singer of today) contains songs from the 1840s and early 1850s; Volume 2 has songs from the middle 1860s; Volume 3, published after Gounod’s three-year-long visit to England, contains the songs from the early 1870s (an exception to this is Où voulez-vous aller?, the earliest of the Gounod mélodies). This recueil also includes a number of songs composed outside France, and originally in English. Volume 4 of the Choudens collection is almost entirely given over to extracts from the operas. The two Lemoine volumes contain music written between 1871 and 1887 and could safely be said to contain most of the composer’s late songs. The list of the poets on the title pages makes fascinating reading, with the earlier volumes showing a higher class of poetic collaborator than the later. In Choudens Volume 1 for example we see a lineup of Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Théodore de Banville and La Fontaine; Gounod’s settings of Lamartine actually pre-date that poet’s alliance with the composer Niedermeyer in Le lac, a song which was said to have inspired Gounod, whereas the boot was on the other foot; Béranger is a survivor from the days of the romance and chanson, also set by Schumann, no less, in Die Kartenlegerin; Baïf and Passerat show the composer’s interest in sixteenth-century poetry and in the use of pastiche ‘madrigal’ style (represented by Le temps des roses and the Sir Philip Sidney setting on the second disc in this set) which was to remain an expressive device for Bizet, Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn—as well as for Debussy and Ravel on a somewhat more exalted level, and even for Poulenc in playful mode. On the other hand the later Choudens volumes, apart from a single item of Gautier, show a falling-off of literary merit with the increasing appearance of names of men of the theatre such as Émile Augier and Gounod’s faithful librettist Jules Barbier, who became a type of poet and jack-of-all-trades translator-in-residence for the composer.
As one turns the pages of later volumes, increasingly filled with extracts from opera and oratorio, it is clear that Gounod’s multifarious efforts in the theatre, concert hall and church increased his sense of artistic mission and self-importance. So much worse for the mélodie. He had begun his career in the early days of romanticism as a song-writer in the reign of Louis-Philippe, but he achieved his greatest operatic successes during the Second Empire, a heavily ornate and artificial era geared to the success of ambitious enterprises instantly grateful to ear and eye. In this period when the operettas of Offenbach and the musical spectacles of Meyerbeer were the touchstones of achievement, the uncomplicated sunlight we can feel in the younger man’s first songs was blocked all too soon by the velvet curtains and plush of imperial decadence. This is gradually evident if one sits down to play through the Gounod songs at a sitting. At first the project is unalloyed pleasure. One is utterly delighted by Gounod’s melodic genius, his talent for creating long flowing lines (only surpassed by Fauré) and his instinct for the harmonie juste. There is no one else gifted in precisely the same way in the whole genre of French song, and it is here (as well as a shared tendency to compose ‘songs without words’ for piano) that a comparison to his friend Mendelssohn comes to mind, whose matchless earlier songs also seem more lively and inspired than those of the final years. The more one looks into their later works, the more one feels that the two composers were not improved by the demands of fame, and that in both their cases the idolization of the English public was a mixed blessing; both seemed to have adopted a style suitable for the taste of their British audiences and the pomposities of gigantic music festivals.
Gounod’s innate religiosity, which always chimed well with the atmosphere in mid-Victorian England, further encouraged him to see himself as the musical mouthpiece of the age. The seraphic complacency, sentimentality and overblown emotional tone of some of Gounod’s later songs seem to have nothing to do with the flexible and ingenious creations of his twenties and thirties. The freshness of his earlier song-writing years was lost as his music aimed to be significant and sublime, qualities which it could rarely achieve, and never when the composer set out to make a ‘pronouncement’. The delicate balance between form and content which is always faultless in the best mélodies was increasingly undermined by the same sort of ‘grand old man’ utterances which rendered the later work of Victor Hugo lugubrious compared to the earlier writings. It is usually the choice of words which sets the seal on a work’s fate. I found the experience of encountering Gounod en masse similar to that of playing through the twelve volumes of Parry’s English Lyrics, where wonderful songs stand shoulder to shoulder with lost causes—good musical ideas wasted on impossibly portentous poems of an exaltedly religious bent. A song is almost always tied to its poem, and words and music sink together, hopelessly dated by the facile fervour of another epoch.
This having been said, some of the later songs of Gounod admirably illustrate the Zeitgeist of the age, and songs like Oh happy home! Oh happy flower! and The Worker from the composer’s English period (the latter much admired by Queen Victoria herself) show his mastery of the Victorian ballad style. This music is part of Gounod’s make-up and his time, and it no doubt moved thousands of people in a way perhaps incomprehensible to us now. If it is true that the composer fell into a trap of platitudinous pomposity which marginalizes his place in French song history at the end of his life, it is also incontrovertibly certain that, in his earlier music, we encounter for the first time in the mélodie those qualities of charm, ingenuity, sensibilité and a concern for literature which together constitute the classic qualities of French song. Gounod’s debt to the Germans was a subtle one, and unlike later composers such as Duparc and Chausson there was no Wagner in his pantheon; he was a French artist to the roots of his being, although there is no doubt that his broad knowledge of music from other countries and epochs deepened his expressive scope. Ravel, no admirer of Berlioz, named Gounod as ‘the true founder of the mélodie in France’. His influence is to be heard in the songs of Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Massenet and countless others. Satie paid him tribute when he set the dialogue of Le médecin malgré lui at Diaghilev’s behest in 1923, and he quoted him in affectionate parody in his song Le chapelier. Even the composers of Les Six admired Gounod (albeit ‘self-consciously and as an amusing paradox’ as Martin Cooper put it) for his melodic gift and charm of utterance.
Gounod in England
Mrs Weldon was convinced that she had found the secret of how to sing (‘teeth clenched, without a grimace or effort of any kind’) and she had a theory that girls trained in this technique from birth would turn into great vocalists. In the same zealous spirit of ‘good works’ that characterized the Victorian age and Dickens’s work with fallen women, she ran a girl’s orphanage in Tavistock Square (in Dickens’s former house, as it happened) in which all the inmates were to be trained to sing. She was comfortably married to the long-suffering Harry Weldon but lacked the funds for her grandiose schemes. Having met Gounod (who at the time was going through a phase of being unhappy with his wife) Mrs Weldon determined to have him as composer-in-residence for her troupe. He was to sit in a study at the top of the house and, in return for his keep and a bit of pocket money, was to write music, the profits from which would go to the orphanage. It is possible that at first Gounod was attracted to Mrs Weldon on a romantic basis but his amatory tastes make it rather more likely that he was fascinated by her young charges. In any case his biddable behaviour caused him to be managed by this immensely persuasive lady who regarded the composer as ‘my old man’ although Gounod was in fact only in his middle fifties. Any suggestion of romance was laughed out of court and the composer found himself trapped in a noisy and chaotic household where he was expected to work very hard indeed.
And work he did. Uxorious by nature, there is no doubt that a tough regime with a strict timetable and a surrogate wife and children suited the composer in many ways; to be hen-pecked was to be secure. Spared any decisions in business matters (these were handled firmly, if ultimately disastrously, by Mrs Weldon) he was free to devote his time entirely to composition. One of his main tasks was the opera Polyeucte (which he threatened to burn at any time he had an altercation with Mrs Weldon) but the significance of this extraordinary episode in the history of song is that Gounod not only continued his writing of French mélodies in England, but branched out into English song: no doubt advised by Mrs Weldon he quickly became expert in matters of English prosody and wrote over sixty songs to English texts (a good many of them by notable poets) which have become virtually a lost part of his legacy. He also wrote Italian songs including the cycle Biondina in which he seems to have returned with amazing facility to the Italianate musical world of his Prix de Rome days. All the songs on the second disc of this set were composed in London under Mrs Weldon’s benevolent but exacting aegis.
The arrangement may have worked more or less permanently were it not for the impossible Mrs Weldon who so relished a fight (she was continually involved in court proceedings) that she finally destroyed any possibility of the composer staying in London. Mrs Weldon sued the publishing house of Novello on the composer’s behalf. This was very unwise, for he was sentenced to prison when the case was lost and he was unable to pay the costs. The Lord Chief Justice deferred the committal order, but the composer had clearly had enough. Let his last letter to Mrs Weldon and her reply (as printed in one of her several books on Gounod—‘that splendid dissembler, that admirable Tartuffe, that Man of Sand’ as she called him) speak for themselves:
My dear Mimi,
Mrs Weldon’s autobiography chronicles her vituperative response to this:
So I was to make out my bill.
Mrs Weldon’s case against Gounod dragged on in the English courts for years. In the meantime, ever resourceful and popular with the press, she raised money by various means including the modern touch of having her face put on the back of London omnibuses: I AM 50, BUT MY COMPLEXION IS 17, THANKS TO PEARS SOAP. In 1885 an English jury awarded Mrs Weldon £10,000 damages against Gounod. He never paid a penny of course, but it did mean that he could never return to England.
The singer and accompanist of today can still find much in the mélodies of Gounod to captivate their audiences, although performers must be warned that there is no such thing as an easy Gounod song. It is true that the works are very largely strophic and that the melodies are memorable and not spiked with enormous learning difficulties, but the singer has to have an impeccable legato with marvellous breath control, and the deft piano writing requires a lightness of touch and a variety of colour—always a necessity in the performing of strophic songs. Like the songs of Schubert, Gounod’s mélodies stand halfway between the world of classicism and romanticism. The use of rubato is tempered by a certain chasteté and respect for classical shape; the most melting moments in the music are reserved for certain magical modulations and harmonic changes—another affinity with Schubert whose self-effacing pudeur in gentle serenades and lullabies as well as songs about children is instinctively emulated by Gounod. It is in this mood of gently contained inward rapture that Gounod can achieve incomparable things. Much of the music is impeccably ‘stylish’, but on the other hand there are moments where a self-consciously emotive posture is struck as the music shifts its gaze in the direction of the opera house and in the interests of unashamed emotional manipulation. These extremes represent the struggle between two strong sides of the composer’s nature, and between two different types of romantic expression, one of which we believe, and the other which we largely mistrust. The skill and taste of the performers can help the composer enormously here and make all the difference between a moving rendition and a send-up. The worst of the Gounod songs are as bombastic or sanctimonious as the age in which they were written, but the best have an inimitable quality of ingenuity and unforced delight. There is a musical and emotional transparency of texture about them, an air of innocence which was to delight Poulenc’s generation and which continues to delight us.
Even if we feel that he was a composer that lost his way at times there is no denying that there are a healthy number of songs by Gounod without which the French song repertoire would be infinitely the poorer. It is also true to say that his contributions to the English and Italian repertoires are far from negligible and deserve to be judged, and applauded, by the standards of those countries’ own music of the time. In both cases the composer achieved results that went far beyond pastiche; he really thought himself into a different style and language with superior results to a thousand native practitioners of the art. Gounod’s taste and skill deserve acknowledgement in this sphere. He was one of the first composers to build a multinational career and to take the trouble to cater for the difficult tastes of his audiences on both sides of the channel.
The songs in English
Graham Johnson © 1993
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