Like Les berceaux
this is a poem that compares life at sea with life on dry land, or rather, in this case, death at sea with a decent Christian burial. Jean Richepin’s poem is taken from his bulky collection of often melodramatic verse entitled La mer
; the subsection is entitled Les gas
– ‘The chaps’, the sailors. The outer strophes are set in a cemetery. The initial peacefulness of this evocation precedes the savage contrast of music for victims of wave and storm. A mood of rarefied simplicity (the Requiem
is a contemporary work) depicts the poet’s thoughts on hallowed ground. The modal purity of these chordal progressions shines out with rare conviction. In Fauré’s songs, accompanying chords such as these often embark on complicated harmonic journeys; their rhythm is plain and undemonstrative, yet the effect, as here, is poignant and noble in its understatement. At the end of the poem’s fourth strophe a huge crescendo in the tonic key (in this case E minor, despite the misleading printing of the song a tone lower in Hamelle) plunges the mood into bitterness with amazing speed. All hell now breaks loose with a merciless chromatic tightening, a tidal wave of anguish in a dangerous tessitura. Left-hand triplets smash like breakers on to the second beats of the bar, the buffeting of a gigantic storm at sea. At the frightening image of ‘Et les yeux grands ouverts’ the accompaniment drifts like a body sinking to the depths. In a typically Fauréan ellipsis, as neat and almost as sudden as a change of shot in the cinema, we return to the safety of the churchyard and a recapitulation of the first verse. It is printed thus in Richepin’s poem, but Fauré, wishing to round out the musical shape in binary form, repeats the poet’s second strophe also.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005