The poem, one of Hugo’s most celebrated lyrics, appears in the collection entitled Les rayons et les ombres
(1840) as No xxxiv. This is an extended structure of thirty-eight strophes. Of these Fauré selected verses 1 and 8 for the opening Grave
, and then 9, 10, 31 and 32 for the Allegro non troppo
. Victor Hugo himself is ‘Olympio’ (subsequently used as a nickname by his contemporaries). The background of the poem is the poet’s love for Juliette Drouet. In 1834 and 1835 the couple dallied in the woods that lay between their respective holiday lodgings in the valley of the Bièvre river, not far from Paris. (Hugo was a guest at the Château des Roches with his wife and young family.) After this secret idyll which occasioned some of his greatest love poetry, Hugo revisited the region on his own in 1837 when, as ‘Olympio’, he castigates nature for being impervious to the former presence of the lovers. Nevertheless he realizes that a landscape, however evocative, can never retain the imprint of human memories. Tristesse d’Olympio
is also a lament for the gradual waning of the ardent passion Hugo had known with Juliette (although she remained devoted to her beloved ‘Toto’ until the end of her life). The composer has cleverly cut the poem, but Fauré’s song fails to encompass Hugo’s philosophical scope; it is no surprise the composer withheld it from publication. The music, however, aspires to something of the poet’s grandeur: the modal feel of the opening slow section is typical of Fauré in elegiac mood, a spaciousness that suits the structure (AABCCB) of the two six-line strophes. The solemnity of this music is prophetic of such songs as Seule!
, and Au cimetière
. This section ends with the words ‘Alors il s’écria:’. After this colon Hugo places the poem’s remaining thirty strophes – all quatrains – in inverted commas as Olympio speaks in the first person. This change of voice ushers in a new, faster tempo – restless accompanying quavers supporting a terse and desperate vocal line where the ABAB rhymes tumble out across the stave. This moto perpetuo, where the piano-writing carries the voice ineluctably forward, is prophetic of Toujours
, but it also has an intensity that brings to mind J’ai presque peur, en vérité
from La bonne chanson
. Both of these songs can be heard later on this disc.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005