Bizet’s republican political sympathies are covertly emphasized by his decision to lavish his musical powers on a lyric by the most famous exile from the corrupt France of Napoléon III. It is without question the composer’s greatest song. The piano’s seductively writhing ostinato cradles a vocal line which swoons and sways on the desert sands in the most sultry fashion. Despite the fact that it is set in French-speaking North Africa, this is perhaps the most effective of all the ‘oriental’ evocations in the mélodie repertoire, Ravel’s orchestra-accompanied Shéhérazade
excepted. It abandons the rigid strophic form of the stultifying and unvarying couplet tradition, and the composer’s utter originality seems to have been genuinely inspired by the words – like the young Schubert led to higher expression by Goethe. The song contains the louche sexual promise of the colonies set against a background of monotonous heat and lassitude. The lower pedal (also typical of Gounod) enables the vocal line to undulate mesmerically, as if we were watching (or hearing) a slow belly dance. A composer as different as Francis Poulenc expressed his admiration for this Arab hostess in his Journal de mes mélodies
: Bizet ‘knew how to vary a strophic song in detail. That is often what is missing in Gounod’. Certainly the older composer never dared to compose a piece so explicitly sexual, for we sense that there is nothing that this girl would not do in order to keep the young Frenchman; indeed, we are musically invited to imagine the sensual implications of the girl’s pleading. It also emphasizes Winton Dean’s observation that Bizet was not at his best with conventional love music but always more inspired by what might be termed the ‘forbidden’, or the unusual, in relationships between men and women. (Carmen
is the ultimate case in point, and Dean also tells us that Bizet had a great enthusiasm for prostitutes.) Although the composer ruthlessly cut four of Hugo’s strophes, and adapted some of the remainder, we have here a hauntingly hypnotic masterpiece, a true collaboration between a great poet and a great musician despite the fact they never met. The direction on the last page which instructs the singer to use a voice ‘broken by sobs’ gives us a glimpse of the musical manners of another epoch, impossible to reproduce in our own without raising an eyebrow, or even a laugh.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998