In the summer of 1873 the tension between those run-away lovers Rimbaud and Verlaine reached breaking point. The pair had travelled backwards and forwards between London and Brussels, and the arrival of that éminence grise
, Verlaine’s mother, complicated matters further. On 10 July Verlaine shot Rimbaud twice with a revolver and wounded him, though not severely. He was tried in October, and sentenced to two years in prison. (It was fortunate that this incident took place in Belgium, rather than England.) The poet spent the whole of 1874 in custody in Mons; during that time he reconverted to Catholicism, receiving communion. He was released in January 1875; a few months later he took up a position as a teacher in Stickney, Lincolnshire. The text for Prison
– Fauré’s pithy title allows the uninformed listener to place these words in context – appeared without heading in Sagesse
, a collection of poetry published in 1881 under a Catholic imprint, evidence of Verlaine’s chastening, albeit only temporary. The song is among Fauré’s most powerful, and it is certainly his most concise. In that most melancholy of keys, E flat minor, the clarity of the light, the muted poignancy of the chiming clock (in octaves on the third beats of bars 4, 7, 10 and 13), the enviable simplicity of life on the outside, the birdsong ruefully appreciated in the distance – all these things are depicted with rigorous economy. In Fauré’s setting the anguished middle section, beginning ‘Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là, / Simple et tranquille’, is no appeal to a higher power, but the self-castigating outburst of a battle-scarred ne’er-do-well (‘God, I’ve been so stupid’). The composer was a master of the religious miniature when he chose, but he ignores the devout penitent of Sagesse
who emerges in Séverac’s music for this poem; this is no monastic cell, and the poet’s confession is for all to hear. The final lines are accompanied by inexorably rising harmonic progressions on an E flat pedal. This heartbreaking music signifies an evaporation of youthful hopes, a wasting of life’s vital substances, the disappearance of good fortune over the distant horizon. Debussy had the good sense not to attempt a rival setting. Reynaldo Hahn’s D’une prison
has languid charm, but it suggests an idyllic incarceration on a desert island. In the ineluctable rhythmical impulse of Fauré’s music, quiet and gentle though the opening is, we can hear the bars of the poet’s cell, and the iron that has entered his soul.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005