Hyperion Records

Four Verlaine Songs
composer
No 1 originally called The River
author of text
translator of text
published 1904

Recordings
'Coles: Music from Behind the lines' (CDH55464)
Coles: Music from Behind the lines
Buy by post £4.40 CDH55464  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I  
Details
No 1: Fantastic in appearance
Track 4 on CDH55464 [1'29] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
No 2: A slumber vast and black
Track 5 on CDH55464 [2'55] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
No 3: Pastoral 'Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit'  The sky is up above the roof
Track 6 on CDH55464 [1'14] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
No 4: Let's dance the jig  O most I loved her pretty eyes
Track 7 on CDH55464 [2'49] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I

Four Verlaine Songs
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The Four Verlaine Songs (or ‘Verlaine Lieder’ as the front cover of the manuscript states) for soprano and orchestra were Coles’s first significant work to be composed in Stuttgart, though from the unmarked condition of the score and parts, they were probably left unperformed. A version for tenor and orchestra (in piano reduction), omitting the third song, also exists, and was sung at the Royal College of Music in 1921. Coles’s interest in French poetry may indicate an enthusiasm for the mélodies of Fauré, Chausson, Debussy and Ravel, all of whom composed settings of Verlaine. Certainly French traits such as the predilection for sumptuous ‘sound moments’, deli­cate scoring, and seductive harmony form part of the opulent language of these fine miniatures, and the spirit of the French mélodie, with its elegance and refined strophic designs, inhabits Coles’s style. This is certainly evident in the simple, two-verse scheme of Fantastic in appearance (completed in May 1909 and originally called ‘The River’) with its luxuriant opening progressions (I–IV9) and arresting shift from the dominant of E minor to the dominant of E flat (‘Pure, through the suburb’s peacefulness’), and the artless legerdemain of the Pastoral (‘The sky is up above the roof’).

More enigmatic and satirical, however, is Let’s dance the jig, which, in its stoical acceptance of lost love, seems to com­bine a delicate French harmonic palette with a more earnest German scheme of developing variation. Of all the four songs it is A slumber vast and black (‘Un grand sommeil noir’) that is most redolent of the progressive post-Wagnerian language Coles would develop in his other songs (notably his settings of Heine and von Liliencron) and his later orchestral works. Set in B major, that most Tristan-esque of keys, the song embarks with a sequence of solemn chromatic progressions scored for divided cellos, cor anglais, and horns which evoke that passio­nate, yet despairing air of the last act of Tristan und Isolde. The harmonic control here and throughout the song demonstrates just how far Coles had developed from the more immature pages of From the Scottish Highlands of 1905/7. Indeed, the massive architectural climax, marked by tremolando strings and the positively Mahlerian inner voice of horns in their lowest register, reveals a composer who was already in possession of an enviable technique.

Coles set these four Verlaine poems in loose translations which, though not acknowledged by the composer in the sur­vi­ving manuscripts, were taken from Poems by Verlaine, selected and translated, with an introduction, by Ashmore Wingate, published in London and Newcastle in 1904 by the Walter Scott Publishing Company. These translations—some of which had been set by a fellow Scot, Sir John Blackwood McEwen, in 1905—were some of the first English translations of Verlaine to be available.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2002

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