To close his second period, and open the doors into his third, Fauré composes what is for many people the quintessential French mélodie. The poem (the opening of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes
, 1869) is a flawless jewel, and the music follows suit. Debussy had already set the text for his mistress, the soprano Blanche Vasnier, in 1881 – a menuet with the charm of Massenet. Debussy’s second version, from Fêtes galantes
, the mature master at the top of his form, was composed in 1891. Between these, in terms of chronology, is Fauré’s song – sublimely indifferent to his rival’s earlier setting, and unperturbed by the later. The two are worlds apart: Debussy uses five sharps, Fauré five flats, the irreplaceable colour of B flat minor. This Clair de lune
stands in the hearts and ears of many listeners as a kind of definition of the French mélodie – similar to Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade
settings in the German lied. The high profile of the piano-writing in both songs is no coincidence. Watteau’s paintings of courtly revels in the gardens of Versailles set the tone; Fauré responds with that air of tenderness, boredom and distance which is the nineteenth century’s view of the eighteenth. Time-travel of this kind is familiar enough, but not one of the many minuets, sarabandes and bourdons that abound in French song can match Clair de lune
. Under the unruffled surface of this music, passion and spontaneity are tightly corseted by etiquette and intrigue. Jankélévitch sees in Fauré’s simulated indifference an iron fist in a velvet glove. It was Ravel who noted that the phrase ‘mode mineur’ strays into the major key, perhaps a musical metaphor for the fact that the suave words of a courtier never mean what they say. After the celebrated twelve-bar introduction, voice and piano perform a nonchalant pas de deux, sometimes coalescing (as at ‘Au calme clair de lune triste et beau’) yet always seeming to lead independent existences. Verlaine’s poem reflects the chasm between public utterance and private life; he who writes poems of courtly love is not necessarily a courtly lover. The solitary melancholy in this song seems apt for an unhappily married composer for whom the scandal of divorce was unthinkable. Whatever pleasure is arranged au clair de lune it will be felt at one remove; the thrill of pursuit is already marred by the certainty of the final parting.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005