This is one of the most autobiographical of all poems by Hugo, inexorable opponent of the corruptions of the ‘little’ Napoléon’s regime. From the collection entitled Les châtiments
, the poem was written at the beginning of the poet’s exile in the Channel Islands. Fauré sets these words eighteen years later in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, the debacle which ended the emperor’s rule. Hugo’s opposition to Napoléon III had been vindicated by history, and in the grandeur of this music we feel that Fauré is somehow paying tribute to the great republican’s stand. It is typical of the composer, no revolutionary himself, that his tribute to Hugo’s bravery is a retrospective one; it is also typical of Hugo that instead of the prison and shroud he darkly predicts for himself in L’absent
, he will return to Paris, still alive and the most fêted Frenchman of all time. The swaying grass of the poem’s opening line inspires a bare accompaniment where minims toll like melancholy bells that mourn a living death. The vocal line, an elegiac pronouncement with the spoken immediacy of recitative, is supported by these rocking suspensions; despite restless harmonic movement the mood is one of emptiness. At ‘Chien, veille au logis’ (pets are dangerous participants in songs of this seriousness) the accompaniment quickens into triplets. The marking is Un poco più mosso
and it is the image of the child weeping for his absent father that releases the floodgates of emotion. That plaintive cry of ‘L’absent’, the highest note of the song, speaks for the pity of war and the panic of the displaced and dispossessed. In a wild outburst for piano Fauré abandons his customary restraint; this kind of interlude is scarcely to be found elsewhere in his songs. After these eight bars the return to the original tempo is perfectly engineered. The image of the ‘bagne sombre’ thickens the texture of the accompaniment: the minims now seem as impenetrable as prison walls, the vocal line fatally hesitant, the final left-hand triplets bathed in Stygian gloom.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005