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This is Chabrier in serious mood – by the last strophe it is clear that Jeanne, whoever she is, has died – but the song reflects gentle melancholy rather than tragedy. There is little here of the restless unhappiness of Sommation irrespectueuse. This tender and loving music is suffused with nostalgia – it is little wonder that Poulenc adored Chabrier and that he regarded this song as one of the composer’s best. We are aware from time to time of a musing smile as if veiled in tears – a truly Schubertian combination. Outbursts of passion scurry across the music like unexpected storm clouds, then give way to the gentle mood of mourning which pervades the song as a whole.
The introduction for Chanson pour Jeanne is built on falling sequences, and what sequences these are! At the very beginning an arpeggio in the tonic key ascends the stave and then turns around on itself and droops deliciously on dominant-seventh harmony, the sforzato acciaccatura on the first beat of the second bar a typical Chabrier touch. This falling right-hand figure with a dotted rhythm is then echoed a tone lower with a sweeping left-hand chord introducing subdominant harmony (A major in the original key of E major). And then another sequential repetition a fifth lower yet – the supporting chord here is the subdominant of the subdominant – or the flattened seventh of the home key (D major in the context of the original tonality). The effect of all this downwardly-spiralling harmony is that of a long and yielding sigh. The right-hand scale continues downward and ingeniously resolves into the dominant-seventh chord preparing us for a return to the tonic – although in this case it will only be at the beginning of the second verse that we will again encounter E major in its root position.
The accompaniment to the singer’s opening nine bars are anchored on the pedal note of B. The beautiful and heartfelt vocal line is built on this pedal and is doubled by the pianist’s left hand for the first two lines of the poem. Just before ‘Tout fleurit dans ce monde-ci’ the piano writing flowers into a languid melody ornamented with tendrils of triplets and sextuplets which trace the sensuous contours of bel canto. Against this obligato the voice is reduced to a monodic murmur, the repetitions on a single note unexpectedly eloquent. It is impossible to explain why this passage should seem so voluptuous but it is little wonder that the composer of the Bolero found it haunting.
After coming to something of a cadence (the home key of E major is still only to be heard in second inversion) the music suddenly shifts into the relative minor at ‘c’est la pire des folies’. There is a complete change of mood here: throbbing triplets in the piano mesh with vocal duplets, there is a slight quickening of tempo and the emotional heat of the song is suddenly raised to a quasi-operatic level. The surge of passion does not last long. A return to the dominant leads to a restatement of the more gentle opening vocal material. These two lines of the poem (the sixth and seventh) are a repeat of the first two in both Mendès and Chabrier. The musical shape of the strophe is made up of four sections – thus ABCA.
The second strophe is essentially a repeat of the first. Those haunting falling sequences in the piano’s prelude/interlude are the same, as is the accompaniment to the entire verse. The vocal line has slightly different inflections, particularly with the scansion and melody of ‘Puisque vous gazouillez’. Chabrier reserves his surprises for the third strophe which he casts as a minore variation of the main material. The piano interlude is rendered heartbroken by flattening the harmonies into the minor and the voice is told to begin its words (‘Puisque la belle fleur’) in a slower tempo (‘Più lento’). Once again the piano shadows the voice but this time in heavier octaves and in the bass. The atmosphere of foreboding established by these simple means is astonishing. Then those bel canto tendrils of the ‘B’ section are also flattened, but this is no straightforward transposition of major into minor. This passage is a miracle of differing harmonic tints with glints of the major key highlighting (and deepening) an almost unbearable sense of nostalgia.
And then the final surprise: for ‘Et j’attends qu’un souffle’ the appassionato outburst (the ‘C’ section of the strophe) falls into the unexpected key of C major (with the addition of a modal Lydian F sharp) rather than the C sharp minor of the previous verses (these tonal descriptions assume the song’s original key). This is a wrench which makes us feel that the bottom has fallen out of the singer’s universe. Chabrier mirrors the poem’s emotional loss with a good deal more spontaneous and heartfelt anger than the words themselves either imply or deserve. This quickly yields to a quieter expression of grief. Schubert had established his mastery of the modified strophic song with subtle and telling modifications of this kind and Chabrier achieves his diversity – many tiny changes of detail within the discipline of the strophic structure – in a similar way. The composer usually allows himself new material in the coda; in this case Jeanne is laid to rest with suitable solemnity, the last words of the song like a whispered benediction which return us to the major key without breaking the melancholy mood. This special one-off material is followed by a six-bar postlude where the by now familiar patterns of rising arpeggio and falling dotted rhythm sequences are given heightened pathos with new and original touches of modal harmony. This haunting succession of cadences sets the seal on one of the unsung, or little sung, masterpieces of French song.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002