Fauré here writes his first cycle (given as Op 17 on the autograph). It has nothing of the architecture of the densely organized La bonne chanson
with its network of cyclic borrowings and self-quotation. Rather is the Poème d’un jour
a cycle in the manner of Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben
where each song is an individual entity that depends for its cyclic effect on an implied narrative chronology. The Schumann cycle about a woman’s life and love unfolds over at least a year, possibly longer. Fauré sets tighter parameters: Poème d’un jour
means what it says – this love affair, from meeting to parting, takes place in a single day. This fact alone limits the emotional range of the music; passion is illusory and impermanent, the rueful farewell marks the end of an affair so short that it cannot be taken any more seriously by the listener than it has been by the lovers themselves. A further factor in rendering the cycle lightweight is the versification of Grandmougin which matches the sentimentality found in the women’s magazines of the time. Is this a deliberate parody of Massenet’s highly successful series of ‘Poème’ cycles (four of which had been published by 1878) where the texts are equally saccharine? At the same time as despising Massenet’s populist touch, Fauré would not have turned his nose up at the commercial success of mélodies by the composer of Manon.
One is very tempted to see an autobiographical side to this little cycle which is perhaps nearer to Schumann’s Heine triptych Tragödie than to Frauenliebe und -leben. The manner of conducting an affair as outlined in this cycle seems curiously prophetic of the composer’s many liaisons. Fauré was caught in an unsatisfactory marriage (from 1883), but divorce was never contemplated (probably for the sake of the children). Nevertheless, his affairs were legendary – this examiner of the provincial conservatoires had a woman in every port. He was noted for his laconic charm, and he must have broken many hearts – particularly those of ladies who allowed themselves to imagine that he would leave his difficult wife having found ‘true love’. There were mistresses of protracted influence (Emma Bardac, Marguerite Hasselmans), but Fauré’s affairs were, on the whole, ‘poèmes d’un jour’ (or a few weeks) with a deft exit strategy. He must have been adept at charm (the first song), showing just enough glints of passion (the second), followed by something like the elegant retreat of the third. These extrications probably saved Fauré’s marriage and reputation (compare Debussy’s domestic linen washed in public), and increased his reputation for inscrutability.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005