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The poem is a remarkable one from Hugo’s later years but it does not immediately suggest musical setting. The metre, a marvel of technical virtuosity from the poet’s point of view, is one which positively discourages long lines and sinuous melody. In his normal state of mind the imagery would have been too intellectual and obtuse for this or any other composer, the tone wry and formal at the same time as anguished and hopeless. The circumstances whereby Chabrier would make music out of these words would have to be special ones.
We are wrong-footed from the start by the explosive little arpeggio motifs which open the work – it is impossible to hear if they are on the first or last beat. These snatched ripples serve to illustrate mirthless laughter and the containment of huge emotion, the repeated left-hand chords indicative of the singer pacing up and down while ruminating on his fate. This impression is continued with the vocal line which is (very unusually for Chabrier) a three-bar phrase: ‘Rire étant si jolie / C’est mal.’ to which the composer attaches an exclamation – ‘ Ô trahison!’. This ignores Hugo’s full-stop after ‘mal’ but it is typical of Chabrier’s tendency to urge his singers to ever more dramatic performance. For the remainder of the verse the music repeats this formula. Verse 2 is the continuation of the tune and is made up of two sequential three-bar phrases. These unusual phrase-lengths seem breathless and incomplete; they serve to suggest lack of fulfilment. A confession of feeling seems squeezed out of the singer rather than being freely given. The fact that the accompaniment hugs the vocal line an octave lower contributes to a feeling of musical claustrophobia. These two verses taken together constitute the ‘A’ section of the song, or the main rondo theme – as grim and cheerless an invention as Chabrier ever devised, but not without a certain haunting quality. Verses 3 and 4 are a repeat of what has happened in verses 1 and 2. The composer allows himself a ghost of a playful staccato, which gives the vocal line at ‘fais ton nid’ a bird-like delicacy.
After a ritornello (those strange arpeggios again) verses 5 and 6 make a ‘B’ section where the music occasionally strays into the major keys for moments of tenderness (‘Quand on est si bien faite’ seems to incorporate both admiration and renunciation) and where the richness and flexibility of the harmony emphasise the singer’s role as courtly cavalier, a Cyrano hopelessly in love with Roxanne. Verse 7 has music of its own (‘C’); the phrase which ends this section is the only sport analogy of this kind known to me in the mélodie repertoire. It might have been amusing for Chabrier in another mood, but he does not find it so in this case. In any case the piano ritornello has something about it which suggests the lobbing of balls between different tessituras in the piano.
Verses 8 and 9 constitute another appearance of ‘A’; this time the piano writing is staccato and somewhat menacing. After the ritornello, verses 10 and 11 adopt the music of the ‘B’ section with slight adjustments for the word-setting. And then without any musical punctuation the song moves into a more intense phase: verse 12 (‘L’amour nous vise’) signals a passage of passionate outpouring rich in part-writing with an almost contrapuntal relationship between the vocal line and the accompaniment’s inner parts. Both verses 12 and 13 might be considered as section ‘D’.
At verses 14 and 15 the rondo refrain (‘A’) reappears. At moments this music suits the prosody and the sense of the words rather less well than it had at the beginning. After this the ritornello is altered for the first time and a modulation effected which cancels the three sharps of the key signature (in the original key) to naturals. The music is marked ‘Appassionato’ and the vocal line seems to be let off its leash with the accompaniment reduced to oscillating semiquavers in the left hand, the right crossing over to add tolling notes in the bass. This is a moment of denunciation: the cruel loved one will one day also know the pain which wracks the protagonist. Verses 16, 17 and 18 are set to some of the most frantic music in all Chabrier – reappearances of the convulsive little ritornello serving as link between disparate musical ideas which seem to have flown from the composer’s pen in the greatest agitation. Verses 16 and 17 are related to each other as musical ideas (‘E’), but verse 18 is a wild transitional passage leading to a cadenza (‘F’). The singer seems beside himself, and it is here the very boundaries of the mélodie seem insufficient for emotion which would seem more at home in grand opera. The explosion of ‘Vous riez!’ (verse 19) signals a passage of the greatest bitterness which is unaccompanied for five bars. All attempt at melodic writing is forgotten in the manner of intoned operatic recitative (G); the frisson of the piano’s semiquavers underneath ‘En vain l’air chante’ are an inventive surprise: these support, and add to, the mad heroism of this outburst, the baritone challenged at the extremes of his tessitura and emotional powers. This culminates in his highest note with the rhetorical ‘Eh bien!’ Once again the exclamation mark is the composer’s rather than the poet’s.
Verse 20 (‘Je ris aussi’) begins unaccompanied. What has started as a mélodie has inevitably turned into a scène. Just when we would expect this section (‘H’) to continue in a melodramatic way the tragic ‘tout passe’ summons slow and gentle chords from the piano. Softly syncopated quavers in the bass marked ‘poco meno mosso’ are the beginning of a long dominant pedal. One senses that this is a crucial strophe for Chabrier, and we come closer to realising why he must have found this long poem so touching. He addresses his muse with the utmost exhaustion as if seeming to ask for release from the metropolitan milieu where he has experienced such pain. It is the sight of the ‘humble grâce’ of the peasant’s cottage which has saved him, the consolation of his roots, and the source of all his joy, both musical and personal. The bass C sharps support another pedal of sorts, the voice’s repeated D naturals (‘J’aperçois l’humble grâce’), at the same time the accompanist’s right hand traces the contours of the rondo theme (‘A’) this time appearing as a type of ghostly countersubject signalling the rover’s return.
The form of this irregular rondo so far has been A A B C A B D A E F G H. We are thus long overdue for a reappearance of the main theme (‘A’) in a structure that has become increasingly wayward. When it returns we might have hoped for a change of mood, as if there were real consolation in the rejected lover’s return to the country. But what we get instead is joyless; indeed there is a suggestion of inconsolable derangement: the melody of ‘A’ is unchanged and the accompaniment wafts up and down the keyboard as if to depict someone with wandering senses, a victim of a nervous breakdown perhaps. It seems that the weight of his suffering has made him go over the edge. In the simplicity of this music and its dreamy sense of disorientation we are reminded of Der Leiermann in Winterreise. The sight of a young villager with earrings of ‘cerises des bois’ is the strange image with which Hugo leaves us; is this the mocking face of the god Pan or simply a merry peasant? The music seems to suggest that this is a pagan god mocking the protagonist – a summertime equivalent of that organ-grinder standing on the ice in Schubert’s cycle. The postlude is touched by the momentary consolation of the major key (at long last), but there is no solution implied in this haunting, other-worldly music with its throbbing staccato basses. The obsession remains and we hear the same old minor-key tune hidden in the inner voices of the remarkably rich accompaniment where sighs of pain are built into the chromatic harmony. Although Chabrier has written more perfect music by far, it is doubtful whether he ever wrote a more self-revealing piece than Sommation irrespectueuse.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002