This beautiful song, in many ways the composer’s most original mélodie, is an unjustly neglected jewel – Winton Dean calls it ‘a veritable little masterpiece’. The lyric is by someone saluted by Rimbaud, no less, as the most gifted poetess since Sappho; her less extravagant contemporaries compared her to Louise Labé. In any case there are too few musical settings of her pithily elegant (though rather unsophisticated) lyrics. The music was certainly inspired by the famous Gounod Sérénade
which was composed about a decade earlier – the same 6/8 rhythm and a similarly hypnotic accompaniment. The strophic structure is repetitive enough to send a child to sleep, but the slow unwinding of the melody brings a bemused smile to the faces of bewitched adult listeners. The piece is subtitled ‘Sur un vieil air’, and this old nursery tune is brought out in the right-hand accompaniment, sounding like the ring of a carillon. (Couperin used this little jingle, and we hear it towards the end of the ‘Mi-a-ou’ movement of the Fauré’s Dolly
suite, as well as in Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie
.) This old melody is decorated, in startling modern fashion, with a sixth added to the tonic chord, a device better prophetic of jazz – only the first of a number of unusual touches in a song remarkable for its harmonic subtlety. For example, at ‘Si l’enfant repose’ the melody moves up a whole tone, the B natural in the context of F major giving the music a feeling of Lydian modality. The bass note of the left hand is a pedal note: it remains an F, but it now becomes the third inversion of the dominant seventh on G. This harmonic legerdemain gives an other-worldly atmosphere to the music which, in several places, sounds more like a Britten folksong arrangement than a mélodie from 1868. Berceuse
gives us some indication of the astonishingly uninhibited nature of Bizet’s creative personality at its best. And it underlines the loss suffered by French mélodie as a result of his early death.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998