Catulle Mendès was more or less a contemporary of Fauré’s. By the time that the composer alighted on his work in 1902 the seventy-year-old poet was resting on old laurels – he had been, after all, Gautier’s son-in-law, Chabrier’s librettist, the lover of Augusta Holmès. This is a modern Fleur jetée
written eighteen years after that famously tricky song from 1884 with its Erlkönig
-like repeated octaves. There the flower is thrown to the winds, here it is tossed by stormy waves. The accompaniment for La fleur qui va sur l’eau
trumps Fleur jetée
in terms of difficulty. The amount of tension generated by these restless semiquavers oscillating between the hands is tremendous. This must be one of the most ingenious, as well as the most maddeningly tricky, accompanying patterns ever devised by a composer – the fingery detail that sets this cauldron a-bubble also manages to suggest something fragile bobbing on the surface of the sea. The singer receives no help at all from the pianist in maintaining his own rhythm; in the midst of a maelstrom of notes he must count or die (the terms ‘at sea’ or ‘cut adrift’ come to mind). The accompaniment becomes calmer as the song progresses; by the last page broad groups of quavers, and an elegiac vocal line, suggest a bitter requiem for lost struggles. Perhaps Mendès has in mind a floral metaphor for a beautiful woman drowned and afloat, a symbolist Ophelia. The imagery of the rose’s union with the sea, an aquatic deflowering, could also be seen as a symbol of a disgrace that has led to suicide. There is certainly a rage to this music (‘un air irrité’, at the very least) that suggests a dramatic subtext of this kind. The song has been compared to La vague et la cloche
; it deserves at least as many performances as Duparc’s quasi-operatic blockbuster, but its difficulties (which do not sound as formidable as they prove to be under the fingers and in the voice) have discouraged generations of singers and pianists.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005