In the Hugo source this poem is entitled Nouvelle chanson sur un vieil air
, suggesting that the poet fitted new words to a tune he already knew. Hugo wrote the lyric for his mistress Juliette Drouet. The poem was set by Liszt in 1844 (with an impossible piano part), by César Franck in 1847, and soon afterwards by the adolescent Saint-Saëns (on Hyperion CDA66856) as an Offenbachian galop
. Liszt’s revised version dates from 1859. Saint-Saëns’s title is Nouvelle chanson
but other composers adopt the poem’s first line – S’il est un charmant gazon
. Fauré’s setting, the celebrated poem disguised by this title, is one of the least performed of his songs. It is true that it is more four-square and strophic than his later work, and it has a certain affinity with Gounod – though it is none the worse for emulating that master’s gift for combining sensuality with pudeur. The prosody is far from perfect. But what is already typical of Fauré is the fluidity and independence of the bass line, and the delicacy of the syncopated quavers that shadow the voice and trace the ghost of a counter-melody. The composer directs that the third verse should be sung slower than the others, a modification unique in his songs.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005