The poet and critic Théophile Gautier (1811–72) was a friend and colleague of Berlioz; it was he who dubbed the author Victor Hugo, the painter Eugène Delacroix, and Berlioz, a ‘Trinity of French Romanticism’. Gautier’s prolific output of lyrical poetry was not as widely adopted by composers as one might expect, although some of the poems, including three of those set by Berlioz, attracted settings from Bizet, Fauré, and Duparc. Berlioz selected them from lyrics published in 1838 with a longer poem, La comédie de la mort. Berlioz altered some of Gautier’s titles and called the whole set ‘Summer Nights’, although the most seasonally specific, No. 1 (‘Villanelle’), is clearly a spring song. Poet and composer shared an interest in death and sexual longing, but also a gently ironic sense of humour, most in evidence in the first and last songs of Les nuits d’été; the central four are slow, and three of them are dark in tone, with two entitled by Gautier ‘Lamento’. But Berlioz’s music achieves more than sufficient variation in character and form for this not to be a problem, at least for the listener.
Les nuits d’été was published in 1841, ‘for mezzo-soprano or tenor’, and at this stage with piano accompaniment. In 1843 Berlioz orchestrated ‘Absence’ for the mezzo-soprano Marie Recio, with whom he had become entangled; she later became his second wife. Although she had taken solo roles at the Paris Opéra, it seems likely that her vocal abilities soon declined, for Berlioz complained when she insisted on singing in his concerts.
He might have preferred to hear these songs from Rosine Stoltz, the mezzo-soprano who played the trouser-role of Ascanio in his 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini. But there are few records of any performances of the remaining five songs, which were not orchestrated until 1855–6; for this reason Berlioz’s virtual inauguration of the genre of orchestral song is not always recognized. The orchestral version was published in Germany with separate dedications to singers he met touring there, or in Weimar where Liszt organized Berlioz festivals in the early 1850s. For the orchestral version, Berlioz transposed the second and third songs to lower keys, but this makes little difference to the integrity of Les nuits d’été as a cycle. Although the poetic voices are evidently male, Berlioz clearly allowed for performance by women, even though the fifth song is designated for tenor. Occasionally three or four singers are used, but performance by a single voice is fully compatible with the composer’s probable intentions and lends unity to the cycle.
from notes by James Rushton © 2013