Massenet had composed a Verlaine duet as early as 1871. Debussy had set his first Verlaine poems (from Fêtes galantes
, 1869) in 1882; these were Clair de lune
(first version) and Mandoline
. By comparison Fauré came late to Verlaine’s work with his own Clair de lune
of 1887. In 1891 Winnaretta Singer (briefly married to the Prince de Scey-Montbéliard, a union that was papally annulled) encouraged Fauré to write an opera to a Verlaine libretto but this idea came to nothing. When she invited him in the same year to come to Venice on holiday it was perhaps not surprising that he should have taken several volumes of Verlaine with him. The idea of a cycle of songs to these texts occurred to him there – the subject matter of the barcarolle À Clymène
might have seemed especially appropriate in this city of barcarolles. Fauré sketched the first song of the set, Mandoline
, in Venice itself, but otherwise returned to Paris to work on them. It is true that the poems are not about ‘Serenissima’, but the composer regarded these mélodies as being ‘of Venice’, the fruit of a much-needed rest where he relaxed in beautiful surroundings, ‘au bord de l’eau’. This association is celebrated by the songs’ first editions which feature a charming illustration of a gondola on a lagoon with the Campanile and the San Marco basilica in the background. In a letter to the cycle’s dedicatee (the first edition notes her former title, ‘Mme la Princesse Winnaretta de Scey-Montbéliard’) he refers to the songs as being ‘a sort of Suite, a story’.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005