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La bonne chanson, Op 61
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'Fauré: The Complete Songs, Vol. 3 – Chanson d'amour' (CDA67335)
Fauré: The Complete Songs, Vol. 3 – Chanson d'amour
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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

La bonne chanson, Op 61
Verlaine published his cycle of twenty-one poems in December 1870. In the previous July the poet had dedicated this work in manuscript to his timid and inexperienced fiancée, Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, whom he later described (in Romances sans paroles) as a ‘child wife’. The poet saw in La bonne chanson his rebirth as a new man. The cycle of poems glows with Verlaine’s optimism and high-flown belief that his darker side could be obliterated by the healing power of transcendental love. Victor Hugo, no less, greeted the cycle as ‘a flower in a bombshell’. Despite the conventional, even bourgeois, subject (the love of a man for his betrothed) the great old poet perceived the manic, even dangerous, nature of the personality behind the idyll. Mathilde is scarcely seen as a real woman, she is a magical force, the idealized Madonna, an answer to the prayers of a man hitherto bedeviled by his demons. The writing of the poems was part of a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Robert Orledge observes with perspicacity that ‘the predominantly homosexual Verlaine put more genuine passion into La bonne chanson than he ever found for Mathilde’. Twenty years later, by the time Fauré came to set these texts, the tragic outcome was already literary history. Verlaine failed to suppress his drunkenness and his inclination to violent rages; less than two years after the publication of the poems he left his wife and baby and went off with the teenage poet, Arthur Rimbaud, with whom he was besotted. This was his farewell to a life of respectability, and the beginning of a long downhill spiral into vagabondage and destitution.

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

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Details for CDA67335 track 28
N'est-ce pas?
Recording date
4 August 2004
Recording venue
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
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