Of Chabrier’s four animal songs this is the least heard on the concert platform. This may have something to do with the fact that it is much longer (and harder to memorise) for the singer, and that the piano part is tricky, with few rewarding chances to shine. It is also less funny than the others. Turkeys are stupid, ducks are cute, the song of the cicadas has a wild energy, but pigs inhabit more ambivalent emotional territory. It is clear from the music that Chabrier adores them; he was rather short and overweight himself and he seems to find a degree of fellow-feeling in their waddling rotundity. A singer who looks to find a portrait of mud-wallowing laziness in this music will be disappointed; leave that to ditties about the cool-blooded hippopotamus. Chabrier’s music, in terms of harmonic invention and charm of utterance, is amiable, affectionate rather than hilarious. The composer’s delighted smile is somehow built into the music, beaming over the rural scenes described in Rostand’s self-consciously ornate poetry.
The poet published this only in a later version of his Les Musardises, more than twenty years after the song was written. It is a technical tour de force and it is definitely part of the joke that such extravagant verbal homage should be paid to pigs in high-flown language – if only pigs could fly. The eight-line verse is rhymed thus: AAABCCCB. Chabrier takes two of Rostand’s strophes to make one verse of music; this means a musical paragraph encompassing sixteen lines of poetry and the result is one of the composer’s longest unfolding melodic constructions. The four opening bars are in F sharp major but after this sauntering introduction (which contains much of the musical material to be developed later) there is a new key signature of E major. The F sharp bass is retained for six bars however, giving the harmonisation of the melody a pleasantly modal aspect. Use of staccato in the vocal line adds character to the wide-ranging melody, as does the use of melisma for the word ‘roses’. The figuration is aptly descriptive of a flower opening its petals but at the end of the verse the same nine-note figure of oscillating thirds (this time in conjunction with the word ‘cochons’) sways like shuffling trotters teetering on the trottoir.
After this the vocal line waddles without further ado into the next strophe. The next eight lines of poetry (Rostand’s verse 2) shows Chabrier’s ability to make something organic and inevitable of an ongoing melody built partly on sequences, partly on echoes of the first strophe (e.g. at ‘On voit s’étendre’ where we hear the shuffling melisma again). The composer’s command of modulation and chromatic harmony suggest avid exploration of every corner of the farmyard, as if his snout were digging up a succession of delicious sharps and flats like so many truffles. The singer’s bending line is decorated by grace notes and is full of unlikely leaps – all authentic Chabrier trademarks of course, but here they seem less decoration than inevitable parts of a greater whole.
Verses 3 and 4 of the poem are similarly paired, as are 5 and 6 and, finally, 7 and 8. There is a piano interlude (the same as the introduction) before verses 3, 5 and 7. Schubert would have taken pride in a work such as this which seems on first hearing to be simple but which is in fact a highly elaborate strophic song – a form which other lazier composer have employed to make less work for themselves. In this case it would have been easier for Chabrier to make a through-composed setting than this sophisticated variation of the old-fashioned romance. As always, the careful changes between the strophes in the details of word-setting and the different harmonic emphases show meticulous care; it is this which renders the work particularly hard to memorise. Chabrier’s music can give an impression of happy-go-lucky improvisation but this has cost him many hours of painstaking work. As always the composer saves up something special for the coda. Changes of tempo (‘Très ralenti’ and ‘Molto moderato’) put the pigs to bed with exquisite care and no little poetry.
Chabrier dedicated this song to the buffo bass Lucien Fugère who was an experienced singer in the café concert as well as in the Opéra-Comique where he created the role of the Duc de Fritelli in Le Roi malgré lui. As with Mily-Meyer, the composer seems to have been disappointed with Fugère’s performance. He wanted to make an effect with these songs which seems to have eluded his contemporaries; sometimes the accompanists were to blame, sometimes the singers who must have been baffled by this music – far too complicated to be cabaret, yet not serious enough to be straightforward mélodie. It is also likely that Chabrier was counting on the public at large to share his sense of humour, which was very particular. This pastorale strikes us as gently amusing, but the composer seems to have envisaged people falling about in laughter. He had hoped to write a great many such animal songs, a whole farmyard-full, and thus create a new style of mélodie. It seems that the publishers were not convinced of the success of this project, and neither was Rostand who was more interested in writing plays than providing further texts for Chabrier’s bestiary.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002