This entrancing pair of CDs is going to give much joy. They contain all of the songs of Emmanuel Chabrier (43 of them) including his 16 settings of Les plus jolis chansons du pays de France, never before recorded. Also included is the hilarious Duet of the usherette from the Opera-Comique and the salesman from Le Bon Marché, and the wonderful Ode to Music for soprano and female choir, the opening words of which provide the title of this set.
As to singers, there are five of them, all obviously enjoying themselves, and a bassoon in Chabrier's setting of L'Invitation au voyage (which would be much better known if his friend Duparc hadn't written his masterpiece just beforehand).
Graham Johnson writes of this music: "There is no one like him, this adorable man, and nothing in French song, indeed in all music, which is quite like his music.” 'Musique adorable' indeed!
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There is no one like him, this adorable man, and nothing in French song, indeed in all music, which is quite like his music. It must be said that those who are at all sympathetic to the French muse and who do not love Chabrier as a composer have not yet taken the trouble to get to know him. True, Cosima Wagner hated his visit to Wahnfried: wearing his inimitable cotton bonnet Chabrier damaged Wagner’s piano in an exuberant performance of España. The visit was not altogether a success on either side. However fond he was of the music performed at Bayreuth, he declined the heavy German sticky bun offered him at tea, and stuffed it into a drawer containing the dead master’s scrupulously preserved shirts. This was also the man (at times, as if engineering a surprising modulation, he liked to appear a country bumpkin straight from the Auvergne) who warned the Princesse de Polignac in a loud voice at dinner of the urinary consequences of eating asparagus. The same individual was the friend of the most cultivated and talented men of the age, welcomed everywhere with joy. Verlaine wrote a poem in his honour; although none of the Chabrier songs has a Verlaine text, there were the beginnings of operatic collaboration. And then there were his beloved painters where the admiration was entirely mutual. No French song-composer has been painted by as many great masters: there are two portraits by Manet, and appearances in the works of Degas (L’orchestre) and Fantin-Latour (L’atelier de Manet and Autour du piano). His personal collection of art ranged from Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergères (hung above his piano) to Renoir’s Femme nue and Cézanne’s Les Moissonneurs, at a time when few art-lovers had the eye to appreciate the greatness of this painter. Even if he failed to collaborate with the greatest poets in his mélodies, his work was touched by the visual arts to a new and unprecedented degree.
A man of contrasts, then. Amidst all the sunlit energy and overflowing exuberance of his music we hear an undertone of melancholy, and everywhere, whether the music is fast or slow, a tenderness to make you smile as it breaks your heart. No one has put it better than the musicologist and poet Jean-Aubry:
He had all the French virtues: good humour, vivid sensibility, the sense of charm without affectation, and an inclination to tenderness that is interrupted by wit … There is thus nothing that he fails to elevate, even when at first vulgarity appeared in prospect. He is often on the borderline of vulgarity. But he never crosses it. If he approaches the vulgar it is only in order to raise it.
The man with everything had everything but luck in his career. Many of his works (which later numbered Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc among their greatest admirers – a fondness for Chabrier has a way of uniting opposing factions) were ignored in his lifetime. Too late to be an Offenbach, and far too early to be a Poulenc, the Zeitgeist had something to do with his failures, for Chabrier’s sophistication was ahead of its time: people were used to composers of serious operas and songs, or to writers of operettas and popular ditties. Chabrier’s genius lay between the two camps, and received the acclaim of neither, for he wanted to have his cake (no German sticky bun, this) and invite us to eat it with relish. Why could one not be both uproariously funny and sad, and why not play on the transition between the two moods with an element of surprise, as one world of feeling dissolves deliciously into its opposite? In this playing between Lachen und Weinen where much of his work appears simultaneously merry and sad, Chabrier was Schubertian; he was no less loved by his friends than the Viennese composer had been supported by his. As it happened, Chabrier was also Schubert’s match in physical stature and embonpoint.
Another perennial problem for opera composers, and one also suffered by Schubert, was deeply flawed librettos. Chabrier had it in him to write a work for the stage which would have been to Paris what Le Nozze di Figaro is to Vienna, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia to Milan. But it was not to be. If Le Roi malgré lui had had a decently worked-out plot, it would stand next to the divine L’Étoile in the standard repertoire, and if the same perhaps may not be said for Gwendoline (the nearest Chabrier came to German stickiness), it is nevertheless true that there are passages of enormous beauty in that work. These are undermined by the ridiculous scenario of Catulle Mendès: in this opera, for example, a Danish chieftain is persuaded to sit at a Saxon maid’s spinning-wheel and sing a sort of Harald am Spinnrade to the dismay of his fellow warriors who burst into the room. Of course Chabrier had certain successes in his lifetime, but few realised the full and unique nature of his musical qualities until it was too late for him to benefit personally. Now there exists for him throughout the world much affection and gratitude. Although chabriéristes are still a relatively select band, a gathering where mutual enthusiasms for this composer are discovered and amplified over a bottle of wine is always a heart-warming one. That Francis Poulenc, self-confessedly lazy, took the trouble to write a book in homage to Chabrier, illustrates his debt of gratitude to a portly ghost who showed him how to cajole, tease and seduce the French mélodie into the twentieth century. (The three paragraphs printed above are taken from A French Song Companion by Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes, published by the Oxford University Press, 2000.)
The life and works of Chabrier: a chronology
1841-1855 (age to 14): Chabrier born on the 18th of January 1841 at Ambert in the Puy-de-Dôme département of the Auvergne. His father was the attorney Jean Chabrier. It was in this year that Anne Delayre entered the family’s service as the baby’s nurse. Chabrier called her ‘Nanine’ and was devoted to her (she is the recipient of some of his most descriptive letters) for the rest of her life. He received his first music lessons at the age of six; both of his piano teachers were Spanish refugees, which may account for the composer’s later affinities with that country’s music. He began writing piano pieces at the age of eight. At the age of eleven he attended the Lycée in Clermont Ferrand and also took cello lessons. In 1855 one of his piano pieces was published locally.
1856-1861 (aged 15 to 20): In 1856 the Chabrier family moved to Paris, mainly for the sake of their son’s education; Emmanuel was sent to boarding school. He began piano lessons with Edouard Wolf and wrote a piece entitled Le Scalp!!!. (Extravagant use of exclamation marks is an exaggeration typical of Chabrier; all his song texts contain many more of these than were ever sanctioned by the poets.) The grande valse Julia was written in 1857. In 1858 he became a Bachelor of Letters, and in 1859 attended law school which led to his induction into the Civil Service in 1861 (he worked in the Ministry of the Interior – the French Home Office). During this period he was studying harmony with Théodore Semet.
1862-1866 (aged 21 to 25): The first nine mélodies (some of them might still be termed romances) were written during a surge of song-writing 1862. These occupy the first nine tracks of CD1: L’Enfant; Lied; Sérénade; Adieux à Suzon; Chants d’oiseaux; Le sentier sombre; Ronde gauloise; Couplets de Mariette and Ah! petit démon. The suite of piano waltzes known as Souvenirs de Brunehaut was also published this year. Chabrier’s active admiration of Wagner led him to copy out the orchestral score of Tannhäuser. From this period dates his friendship with Paul Verlaine and Catulle Mendès. The former later wrote in a sonnet that Chabrier was ‘as merry as a lark and as melodious as a nightingale’. His first operetta, to a libretto of Verlaine, Fisch-Ton-Kan, was composed in 1863. Another such work, Vaucochard et Fils Ier, was written in 1864, the year in which the young composer (who was also dabbling as a music critic) first travelled to Belgium and Holland. In 1866 Chabrier began taking lessons with Aristide Hignard. From this year dates his first Hugo setting, Le pas d’armes du roi Jean (CD1/10).
1867-1873 (aged 26 to 32): In 1867 Chabrier began work on the first of his serious operas, Jean Hunyade, but it was never completed. He frequented the celebrated salon of Nina Callias (or Villard) where many of his most influential friendships were made. In 1869, at the very time when he was beginning to be recognised as a musical force, Chabrier lost both of his parents within a fortnight. He went to live with ‘Nanine’ who had also moved to Paris. This was certainly a year for drowning his sorrows. The eccentric waltz song Ivresses! (CD1/11) dates from this period. In 1870, one of the first musicians to recognise Baudelaire’s genius, he composed L’Invitation au voyage (CD1/12), setting the text at the same time as his colleague Henri Duparc. During the period of the Franco-Prussian war and the subsequent insurrection of the Commune he moved with the government to Tours, Bordeaux and Versailles. The year 1873 marked the establishment of his close friendship with the painter Edouard Manet and his wife. He dedicated his Impromptu in C major to Madame Manet. Another C major work is the Sérénade from Ruy Blas (CD1/13) which marks the beginning of a new phase in Chabrier’s song-composing career. This maturity is mirrored by events. At the end of the year he settled down permanently in marrying Alice Dejean.
1874-1877 (aged 33 to 36): These were slow years for Chabrier’s career. The composer’s first child, Marcel, was born in November 1874. A Larghetto for French horn and orchestra was performed in 1875. The firm of Enoch et Costallat became his publishers. He began a comic opera with Armand Silvestre as librettist (this work, Le Sabbat, from the text of Sacher-Masoch, was never finished). On 28 November 1877 the première of the comic opera L’Étoile at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens opened a new chapter in his life, and that of comic opera in France. It was arranged that the composer should receive royalties only after fifty performances; the work was withdrawn after forty-eight. But at least Chabrier had proved that one of his works could hold the stage.
1878-1880 (aged 37 to 39): The search for an opera text to follow the success of L’Étoile continued unabated. This time Chabrier wanted to write a more serious lyric piece. A project for La Girondine with Jules Claretie was set aside in 1878. Another project for an opera after Molière entitled Le Sicilien ou l’Amour peintre was also abandoned. In the meantime the delicious little operetta Une éducation manquée received a single performance with piano in 1879. Chabrier began to work with Catulle Mendès on the opera Gwendoline, a rather unlikely story set in eighth-century Britain. The composer was already a serious collector of pictures, almost always by his friends; he acquired great art at reasonable prices as a result of an unusually good eye, well ahead of fashion. For the fourth exhibition of the Impressionists in 1879 he lent two of his Monets. At the same time he posed for a pastel by Manet. In March 1880 he visited Munich in the company of Duparc to hear Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The story goes that he wept noisily in the stalls on hearing the opening notes of the orchestral prelude, having waited to hear them for so long. The song Sommation irrespectueuse (CD1/14) dates from 1880, as do the first symptoms of tertiary syphilis (a disease contracted in Paris during his bachelor years in the 1860s) which was slowly to kill the composer. This may account for the dark mood of that song. But there was good news as well: Chabrier felt secure enough about his musical prospects to resign as a civil servant. He also produced one of his most important works – the Pièces pittoresques for piano. This was the composer’s first considerable success.
1881-1883 (aged 40 to 42): In 1881 Manet painted Chabrier again, this time in oils. Lamoureux, in creating his ‘Nouveaux Concerts’, named the composer as his assistant, which meant that Chabrier was responsible for the preparation of Parisian performances of Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin – still controversial works in the 1880s. It was at one of the Nouveaux Concerts that Chabrier, then aged forty, heard one of his songs performed in public for the first time – this was Sommation irrespectueuse. In 1882 Chabrier went to London to hear ‘The Ring’, and he also visited Brussels to hear the same work at the beginning of 1883. Between July and December 1882 he travelled around Spain with his family – this extended holiday is the genesis of the symphonic rhapsody España. In the spring of 1883, and each year thereafter, Chabrier began to spend more and more time at ‘La Membrolle’ near Tours, the country house where he composed most happily. The song Credo d’amour (CD1/15) was composed in 1883, and the Trois valses romantiques for two pianos were performed by the composer and André Messager at the end of that year. The most important première of that year was España (CD1/16) conducted by Lamoureux, which was a wild success and made the composer’s name known to an ever-wider public.
1884-1885 (aged 43 to 44): The beginning of 1884 saw the first work on the opera Le Roi malgré lui. The first version of La Sulamite, an orchestrally-accompanied cantata to a text of Jean Richepin, was completed in 1884 and given its first performance in 1885. A fragment from the opera Gwendoline, long in incubation, was performed at the end of 1884 – another excerpt was performed in 1885. The Rollinat setting Tes yeux bleus (CD2/1) was written and published in the same year. Autour du piano by Fantin-Latour, a work in which Chabrier figures prominently, was exhibited at the salon in 1885.
1886-1887 (aged 45 to 46): In April 1886 Gwendoline was given its première at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The work was a great success but, in the first of several strokes of bad luck which blighted Chabrier’s stage works, the Monnaie, long in financial difficulties, went bankrupt and closed its doors after only two performances. The opera’s librettist Catulle Mendès also wrote the poems for two of Chabrier’s finest songs composed in this year – Lied (CD2/2) and Chanson pour Jeanne (CD2/3). In May 1887 Le Roi malgré lui was given its première at the Opéra-Comique. Unbelievably, the theatre burned down a week later so that the work had no chance to establish itself in the repertoire. (Ravel later claimed that Le Roi malgré lui had changed the direction of French harmony.) Despite these setbacks, the creative fervour of the composer knew no bounds, and he searched in vain for further operatic projects: plans for works based on Sardou, Pushkin and Shakespeare came to nothing. Instead he composed the incidental music for another Mendès piece – La femme de Tabarin. It was in this year that Verlaine published his sonnet À Emmanuel Chabrier which looks back with nostalgic tenderness on the time of their youthful collaboration (sadly in operetta rather than song).
1888 (aged 47): Chabrier visited Germany in early 1888: Karlsruhe, Vienna, Berlin, Cologne. An idea of collaborating with Jean Richepin on a musical version of the poet’s famous La Glu came to nothing. Instead he embarked on another collaboration with the overrated Catulle Mendès – the opera Briséïs based on Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth. The composer was awarded the Légion d’honneur, and he became more in demand as a conductor of his own works. First performances of the Prélude et marche française, the Suite Pastorale and the Habanera date from 1888 as does the Duo de l’ouvreuse de l’Opéra-Comique et de l’employé du Bon-Marché (CD2/4) written as a result of the fire at the Opéra-Comique in 1887. In 1888, together with the composer Armand Gouzien, Chabrier contributed to Les plus jolies chansons du pays de France, a beautifully printed anthology of folksongs for voice and piano. His sixteen arrangements for this collection are to be heard on CD2 tracks 5 to 20.
1889 (aged 48): In March Chabrier went to Bordeaux to conduct his own works, including the first outing of the famous Marche joyeuse. The first performance of Gwendoline at Karlsruhe marked a new phase in the composer’s career. He became a close friend of Felix Mottl who did much to promote Chabrier’s work outside France. The composer’s visit to Bayreuth in July was interrupted by news that Nanine had suffered a stroke. He returned immediately to France. He also attended the funeral of the poet Villiers de l’Isle Adam whom mélodie enthusiasts know through two Fauré songs. Chabrier was closely friendly with many writers, including many whom he never set to music. By these he seems to have been regarded with universal affection.
For the French song enthusiast this is a golden period. A new cycle of Chabrier mélodies was planned in the middle of 1889 and produced by the beginning of the following year. For his so-called ‘poultry farm’ Chabrier set the farmyard poems of the young Edmond Rostand and his even younger wife Rosemonde Gérard. These were Ballade des gros dindons (CD2/21), Villanelle des petits canards (CD2/22), Pastorale des cochons roses (CD2/23) and Les Cigales (CD2/24) – the first set of what was planned to be an ongoing series of ‘zoological’ romances. Two further songs date from the same period. The first of these, L’île heureuse (CD2/26), a setting of Ephraïm Mikhaël, had originally been set to Rosemonde Gérard’s words. Toutes les fleurs (CD2/25) is to another poem by Edmond Rostand.
1890 (aged 49): This year saw performances of Gwendoline in Leipzig, Dresden and Munich (the last conducted by Hermann Lévi), and Le Roi malgré lui in Karlsruhe and Dresden. Mottl was an effective advocate of Chabrier’s music but the composer was increasingly worried about money. He undertook a great deal of work as an adjudicator at music festivals in the French provinces and he even advertised for composition students. In November he gave a memorable address at the funeral of César Franck. One is reminded that Chabrier’s personal popularity with a wide range of painters and writers extended to his musical colleagues – espousing different tastes and styles – who also adored him. The beautiful Ode à la Musique (CD2/27) for women’s voices and soprano solo was given its performance at the house-warming of a friend in the piano-accompanied version heard on this disc.
1891-1894 (aged 50 to 53): The death of Nanine in January 1891 broke the composer’s heart. His appetite for new projects faded away; his increasingly debilitating illness and financial worries (particularly concerning the future of his children) wore him down. 1891 was the year of the first appearance of the Bourrée fantasque and a performance of Le Roi malgré lui in Cologne. 1892 saw the same opera performed in France at last – but only in Toulouse. In January 1893 Gwendoline was performed in Düsseldorf and in Lyon the following April. Chabrier received an honour from the King of Bavaria. In December of the same year Gwendoline, Chabrier’s most serious and most ill-fated dramatic work reached the Paris Opéra at last. But Briséïs was still unfinished and the ailing composer wrote to Vincent d’Indy asking him to complete it. (It was D’Indy who gave Chabrier the sobriquet ‘L’ange du cocasse’ – ‘The angel of comedy’.) Chabrier died on September 13 1894 of the general paralysis brought on by syphilis contracted some thirty years earlier. Briséïs was eventually produced in Berlin in early 1899 (conducted by Richard Strauss) and in Paris later in the same year. There is a recording of this remarkable work on Hyperion CDA66803.
In March 1896 the composer’s paintings were auctioned. Poulenc’s biography of Chabrier lists them: a magnificent Cézanne (Les Moissonneurs), seven Manets, six Monets, three Renoirs, two Sisleys and a wonderful collection of pastels, watercolours and drawings. It is extraordinary now to think of the owner of these splendours as someone with financial worries. It was of course not yet the time to make money out of art. And in any case this was a composer who regarded his collection as a spiritual necessity rather than a financial asset.
Chabrier and his poets
Chabrier’s literary sources are sometimes surprising; even more so are the poets he chose not to set, such as his friends Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and Mallarmé. And how on earth could he have avoided writing a song to a poem by Paul Verlaine? This great writer was under his nose from early in his career and he celebrated the composer in an affectionate sonnet. Chabrier collaborated with Verlaine on two comic operettas, but he ignored the appearance of the Fêtes galantes when this seminal work appeared in 1869. Was it his slightly rough-and-ready Auvergnat background that made Chabrier feel that Verlaine’s poetry was too fey for his robust musical personality? The composer always felt out of place in the elegant milieu of the salon; the murmured conversation of an exquis Proust novel would not have been to his taste, and neither were the typical salon singers – often gifted amateurs with ‘taste’ and ‘understanding’, but with little voice and none of the relish required in Chabrier’s music. Writing at a time when he hoped his animal songs would establish a new type of mélodie, he found the genre as practised by Bordes, Chausson, Bréville, Huë and Debussy absolutely ‘lamentable’; this was ‘musiques recherchées, ingénieuses, mais un peu tourmentées, souvent triste’ – as if ‘giving the last rites in the auditorium’. He also noted that women were more interested in the medium than men. As he wrote in a letter of June 1889, ‘Moi je voudrais faire gai, mais du gai pour les 2 sexes; du robuste, du bon enfant; des fables; des contes, enfin autre chose que Fauré et Holmès et tous les autres en accolade’ (‘For my part I should like to create gay things, but gay for both sexes; robust, good-natured; fables, fairy stories, in fact something other than Fauré and Holmès and all that crowd’).
This is of course not fair to the composers named above, and not fair to the many great lyrics by Chabrier’s contemporaries which he studiously ignored. His library (a catalogue of which he made in 1889) shows that he possessed early editions of many of these poems, and he often knew the poets personally. Why then the unwillingness to engage with the best modern literature? His refusal to rein-in his natural exuberance explains this diffidence only partially. As an opera composer he was protected by his collaborators and the cloak of theatricality provided by the mise en scène. As a mélodie composer he felt more personally exposed, and he was loth to be compared with the smarter set of intellectuals. He remained a countryman at heart, only at ease in the metropolis if he could make everybody laugh. In his court-jester apparel he felt safer and less competitive ‘with Fauré, Holmès and all that crowd’; but he could still reserve the right, like all great comics, to make us cry when we least expect to be moved.
If Chabrier needed to masquerade as a buffoon (he was the opposite of that of course) it became part of his buffoonery to lavish praise on commonplace verse by the very act of setting it to music. One senses a certain defiance, even nonchalance, in his attachment to certain inferior poems, and also opera texts: one can imagine his more avant-garde contemporaries turning up their noses at the work of Catulle Mendès for example. This would simply have reinforced Chabrier’s determination to set it anyway – both out of loyalty to a friend, and sheer bloody-mindedness. The fact is that the selection of the best poetry is somewhat elitist, and this is the one thing that he refused to be, even when it was to the detriment of his own work. Chabrier’s picture collection shows that he had a genius for spotting talent in painters; as they were not yet famous (Cézanne was still a struggling young artist at the very beginning of his career) no one could have accused the composer of snobbery in this equally discerning field.
Apart from the folksongs with anonymous texts, three mélodies on this disc have texts by poets whose names are unknown to us: these are the gushingly sentimental Le sentier sombre (CD1/6), the quirky, folksong-like Ronde gauloise (CD1/7) and Couplets de Mariette
Pierre Marin Victor Richard de Laprade (1813-1883) is the poet of two songs from 1862: L’Enfant (CD1/1) and Chants d’oiseaux (CD1/5). Both texts are from the third book of his Idylles héroïques (1855). Laprade was a serious writer and classicist and a significant forerunner to the Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle. He was an ardent royalist and academic conservative despite the rather cloying sweetness of the two poems we hear in Chabrier’s settings. Laprade was already unfashionable in Chabrier’s time, and has remained so; but he was a far from negligible artist.
The single 1862 setting of Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) is Lied (CD1/2), not to be confused with the Mendès setting with the same title (CD2/2). This choice of poet unites Chabrier with the fascination felt for Banville much later by the young Claude Debussy who is this poet’s special composer (alongside Reynaldo Hahn whose twelve beautiful Banville Rondels are recorded on Hyperion CDA67141/2). Banville was admired by Baudelaire and encouraged by Hugo and Gautier. Although he is not counted one of the greatest of French poets he is a vital link between the Romantics and the Parnassians. Chabrier’s library contained most of Banville’s collections. The composer no doubt met the poet at the famous Wagnerian soirées held at the home of Catulle Mendès. The poem of this Lied is titled ‘Inviolata’ and occurs in Améthystes (1862). Chabrier used the first six of ten strophes; he cannily abandons the poem before it becomes impossibly pompous.
There are two songs on this disc to poems of Auguste de Châtillon (1810-1881). These are both from 1862: Sérénade (CD1/3) and Ah! petit démon (CD1/9). They both appear in the poet’s collection titled À la Grande Pinte (1860) to which Gautier wrote a preface. Gautier felt that Châtillon was especially gifted as a cabaret poet and this popular streak was no doubt what appealed to Chabrier. The poet was a gifted dilettante; he was a sculptor, painter and musician, and almost certainly one of Chabrier’s friends. Benjamin Godard also set some of his poems. In 1878 La Grande Pinte became the name of an art-gallery/restaurant/cabaret in Montmartre, the forerunner of the celebrated ‘Le Chat Noir’, haunt of Erik Satie.
Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) was probably the most important of the poets that Chabrier set in his early songs; he was certainly the most musically aware as was shown by Musset’s celebrated Stances à la Malibran (a homage to the great singer), his devotion to the music of Rossini, and his personal acquaintance with Bellini and Chopin. Adieux à Suzon (CD1/4) was published as poem in the Revue de Paris in 1852; it was also set by Bizet some years later (Hyperion CDA66976). Delibes’s setting of the ‘sister’ poem Bonjour, Suzon is one of the most famous of the Musset mélodies; apart from his popularity as an inspiration for opera libretti, the poet was also set by Franck, Lalo, the young Debussy and Lili Boulanger.
That Chabrier was far from impervious to the greatest French poetry is shown by his three settings of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) spread out over a relatively long period of his career: Le pas d’armes du roi Jean of 1866 (CD1/10) Sérénade de Ruy Blas of 1873 (CD1/13); and Sommation irrespectueuse of 1880 (CD1/14). It is perhaps Saint-Saëns who takes the palm as the most consistent of Hugo composers (Fauré’s early devotion to this poet notwithstanding) but all three of Chabrier’s songs are marvellous in their own way. It is likely that Chabrier looked to Saint-Saëns for inspiration for the first two songs: both exist in fine earlier settings by that composer (Hyperion CDA66856) and Chabrier even made his own handwritten copy of Saint-Saëns’s Sérénade. But the vigour of Le pas d’armes du roi Jean, the ineffable charm of Chabrier’s own Sérénade (surely his first unarguably perfect song) and the weird obsessive intensity of Sommation irrespectueuse mark out Chabrier as an unexpectedly significant Hugo composer in his own right. The sources of the three songs are Ode et Ballades (1826), the play Ruy Blas (1838) Act II Scene 1 (when a group of peasants is heard in the distance keeping their spirits up with a joyful song) and that late flowering of Hugo’s poetic genius, Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois (1865).
Léon Labarre (1835-1913) the poet of Ivresses! (1869) (CD1/11) was surely the least distinguished poetaster that Chabrier ever set. His memoirs, Quelques vers d’un parolier (1911), are disarming in their modesty. He admitted that his verses were made to be sung rather than to be read. How right he was – although they remain difficult enough to sing convincingly.
It was Chabrier’s bad luck that when he discovered a truly immortal contemporary poem, and set it to music most beautifully, he should have been trounced by another composer of genius. This is what happened with L’Invitation au voyage (track CD1/12) to the poem by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The year was 1870 and Henri Duparc composed his L’Invitation au voyage, one of those great songs which defines the French mélodie, at exactly the same time. The poem from Les Fleurs du Mal was published in 1857. What made both composers alight on it simultaneously remains a mystery. They were of course friends and may have decided to compete with each other on a friendly basis in setting it. If so, Duparc was the clear winner, but it has been a mistake to relegate Chabrier’s fascinating song to oblivion.
Armand Silvestre (1837-1901) is among the most widely set of all French poets. Although he has little literary reputation today he was one of those figures, like René Chalupt in a later generation, whose work has survived, and with surprising resilience, because it is so well made for singing. Gabriel Fauré and Jules Massenet are Silvestre’s chief composers. Chabrier attempted a collaboration with Silvestre in the theatre which came to nothing. The one song by this poet is Credo d’amour (CD1/15), found in the collection La chanson des heures (1878) where its title is simply Credo. In the same part of the book (Vers pour être chantés) Fauré found Le plus doux chemin, and Chausson Le charme. This song is more typical of Silvestre’s work (known for his effusive style in praise of le corps féminin) than it is of Chabrier.
Maurice Rollinat (1846-1903) is probably the strangest of all Chabrier’s poets. A self-confessed disciple of the more outré aspects of Baudelaire he was an important part of the literary cult which made of that poet an icon for fin de siècle writers who embraced the strange and grotesque. He was also among the earliest of Baudelaire composers: his Six Poésies de Baudelaire were published by Heugel in the late 1860s. Rollinat’s Les nevroses appeared in 1883 and was briefly a runaway success. That this dark and morbidly erotic collection appealed to Chabrier is shown by the fact that Tes yeux bleus (CD2/1) was set hot off the press in the same year. It is actually one of the milder songs in a book (it comes from the first section, titled Les Âmes) which was considered scandalous and obscene at the time. Les nevroses sold very well but for Rollinat fame was short-lived. He ended his life in misery, looking like one of the neurasthenic victims of his own poetic fantasies. No other significant composer set his verses; one has the impression that this would not have displeased Chabrier.
It is difficult for the music-lover of today to appreciate the scale of the fame of Catulle Mendès (1841-1909) in the Paris of Chabrier’s time. He was married to Judith, Théophile Gautier’s daughter, and from his youth was protected by the literary aristocracy as much as he became its spokesperson in later life. His poems were set by Bruneau, Fauré, Hahn, Massenet, Messager, Pierné, Saint-Saëns and even Satie. His Wagnerian credentials must have made him attractive to Chabrier – also a larger-than-life grandeur which the composer mistook for real literary stature. Mendès was simply one of the best-connected men in Paris and he enjoyed the opulence of success during his lifetime. Sadly, his work now seems laboured and unoriginal and his operatic libretti for Chabrier (especially Gwendoline) are disastrous. Fortunately the two Mendès mélodies are both musical masterpieces. Lied (CD2/2) is taken from the poet’s first collection Philoméla (1863). Chanson pour Jeanne (CD2/3), the first of a projected sequence of three Mendès mélodies (and the only one to be completed), is taken from a later collection titled Intermède (1885).
Chabrier’s last opera was the beautiful Briséïs (Hyperion CDA66803). Mendès was also the librettist for this work based on Goethe’s Die Braut von Corinth. But he had a helper in a young poet from Toulouse, Ephraïm Mikhaël (1866-1890) who had already worked on his own stage version of La Fiancée de Corinthe. This precociously talented young man died in 1890 from tuberculosis, aged only 24. It seems that Chabrier had already written a flower-song entitled Le Printemps with a text from Les Pipeaux (see below). Possibly as a tribute to a dying colleague he adapted this music to new words: from Mikhaël’s many poems he selected L’île heureuse (CD 2/26). This was an inspired choice as well as a piece of metrical good luck. With its undertones of Watteau complemented by Chabrier’s courtly extravagance, this is a song which seems to have sprung directly from its text – even if it did not in fact do so. It is also possible that the poet tailored the words to Chabrier’s existing tune.
The collection titled Les Pipeaux was published in 1889. The author was the eighteen-year-old Rosemonde Gérard (1871-1953). Her fiancé was Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) who published his first (and only) volume of verse Les Musardises later in the same year. (The couple married in April 1890 with Massenet as their witness.) Chabrier died before Rostand had become world-famous in 1897 with his play Cyrano de Bergerac (what a great opera text this would have made for the composer!) but it is clear that Chabrier took the young couple under his wing before either of them was well-known. For a while they became his writers-in-residence, and their shared project was a cycle of farmyard songs which the composer named his ‘volailleries’ or ‘poultry farm’. For these four songs the literary sources are impossible to trace completely. This is because Chabrier had personal access to the two poets who must have handed him their texts (or required alterations and additions to their poems) in manuscript. Chabrier’s versions do not agree with the ones in the published books of poems. In the case of the Ballade des gros dindons (CD 2/21) one would search in vain for a printed version in Rostand’s works; Villanelle des petits canards (CD2/22) is four strophes longer than the poem to be found in Gérard’s Les Pipeaux; the Pastorale des cochons roses (CD2/23) appears only in the later edition of Rostand’s Les Musardises which appeared in 1911; Chabrier made slight changes to Gérard’s Les Cigales (CD 2/24) as he probably felt free to alter passages that did not suit him. Rostand’s text for Toutes les fleurs (CD 2/25) was written, it seems, on demand; no literary source has ever been traced. The same is true for Ode à la Musique (CD 2/27) which was composed for a friend’s house-warming. During this period Chabrier seems to have been able to conjure up texts from his young friends for his use only. Here perhaps was his ideal: poets whose collaboration was more along the fluid and flexible line of opera librettists.
Rosemonde Gérard’s poems were also taken up by Cécile Chaminade who composed a Villanelle des petits canards of her own. Chaminade’s most famous song L’anneau d’argent (a John McCormack hit on early records) is also a setting of Gérard. The Rostands were soon to become a famous couple; Enoch published an Album-Rostand which printed the various Chabrier settings side-by-side with selections of Chaminade and contributions from Lucien Poujade and Charles Cuvillier.
Graham Johnson © 2002
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