The song was written for Emilie Girette, later wife of the pianist Edouard Risler, and one of the many singing beauties who inspired the composer over the years to song composition. It is another Samain setting, the composer’s third and last dalliance with this poet, and among the least performed of all Fauré’s mélodies. Less obviously voluptuous than Pleurs d’or
, it shows the composer on the border of his third period. The music has all the harmonic complexity of Fauré’s late style, but it has yet to achieve the transparency and lucidity of the four final cycles. This extended mélodie is best understood as a series of pictures, each reflecting the composer’s lifelong virtuosity with musical imagery depicting water. The first of these (the poem’s opening five lines) is accompanied by pulsating mezzo staccato quavers, ever changing yet somehow immobile – a perfect musical description of shimmering moonlight on the flat and mirror-like surface of ‘Le grand lac parfumé’. In the next seven lines the singer plies his oar in ‘broad slow swooning strokes’. Each plunge in forte
quavers and triplets sets off a series of subsidiary ripples in piano
semiquavers. The next two strophes (from ‘Là-bas la lune écoute’) inspire yet another pattern: limpid sextuplets spiral between the pianist’s hands, and from the lower stave to the higher, a miracle of teeming uneventfulness, the gliding of the boat in unearthly silence. This is water music, simultaneously nocturne and barcarolle, whose upward drift is also redolent of the fragrance of the lilies mentioned in the text. The final strophe of the poem is set to the music of the opening as both moon and poet’s oar touch the surface of the water. The vocal line is neither melody nor recitative, but a continually evolving combination of the two – pure music that simplifies an over aesthetic text. If the song as a whole is not one of Fauré’s greatest, it contains ample evidence of his own greatness.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005