No 1: Une sainte en son auréole
No 2: Puisque l'aube grandit
No 3: La lune blanche
No 4: J'allais par des chemins perfides
No 5: J'ai presque peur, en vérité
No 6: Avant que tu ne t'en ailles
No 7: Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d'été
No 8: N'est-ce pas?
No 9: L'hiver a cessé
Fauré wrote this cycle at the height of his powers. The composer’s passion for the dedicatee of the cycle, Emma Bardac, his mistress and the work’s first private interpreter, played a large part in the joyful virility and optimism of the music. Fauré set nine of the twenty-one poems; on the whole he avoided poems in the cycle that expressed doubt or anguish. He paid no attention whatever to the poet’s ordering apart from ending his cycle with Verlaine’s final poem. Fauré selected Nos, iv, v, vi, viii, xv, xvii, xix, xx and xxi – or, in the order of the composer’s Op 61, viii, iv, v, xx, xv, v, xix, xvii, xxi. The first eight songs were composed in 1892 and 1893; the last was not ready until February 1894.
There are five main themes in the cycle noted by both Jankélévitch and Orledge: the ‘Carlovingien’ theme A (first heard in song 1, bars 15 to 16, and 79 to 80); the ‘Lydia’ theme B (named after the melody of the song Lydia, heard most plainly in song 3, bars 9 to 12); the ‘Que je vous aime’ theme C (first heard attached to those very words in song 5, bars 65 to 69); the pair of jauntily dotted figurations at the Allegro moderato of song 6 (bars 8 to 9) that introduce the singing quails, theme D; the ‘Sunrise’ theme E (first heard in song 6 bars 72 to 73), denoting the power of nature. The deployment of these motifs in different songs is the musical glue which gives this work its astonishing unity, as well as an obsessive single-mindedness.
The complexity of La bonne chanson won Fauré few friends in the short term; his old teacher Saint-Saëns was horrified by its wilful complexity. The main criticism concerned the incessant modulations; it had always been a tendency of Fauré to revel in his mastery of harmony but, as Jean-Michel Nectoux observes: ‘Harmonic instability in La bonne chanson reaches a pitch rarely equaled in Fauré’s output. Tonality is undermined by tortuous chromaticism so that at times … a sense of key is almost obliterated.’ Marcel Proust wrote: ‘The young musicians are almost unanimous in disliking La bonne chanson. It appears that it is needlessly complex … but I don’t care, I adore it.’
Proust’s view was to prevail with Fauré enthusiasts, but as Robert Orledge remarks, for many members of the public Fauré’s ‘bonne’ chansons were his old chansons. Indeed, the work remains inaccessible to many an admirer of the earlier Fauré; it is often the performers, rather than the audiences, who emerge from the concert hall singing the cycle’s praises. Fauré is usually counted rather a self-effacing fellow; when he flexes his musical muscles, as in this cycle, many a listener is disconcerted by the resulting creative exuberance. (The cycle was arranged for string quintet and piano accompaniment for a performance in London in 1898, a version that Fauré disliked.)
With La bonne chanson Fauré’s song-writing reached the apogee of its complexity. Never again would the composer’s mélodies challenge the listener’s ear in quite this way, and there is nothing like this cyclical cross-referencing in the composer’s later song cycles.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005