It is rare indeed for a song composer to find something to set from Les Châtiments
, Hugo’s magnificent tirade about the betrayal of the ideals of Republican France, and the catastrophe (as he saw it) of the coup d’état in 1851 which brought Napoléon III to power. There is a grandeur and desperation about this section of the poem which would not have suited everybody; indeed Fauré’s L’Absent
, which is also to do with the exiled Hugo, is singularly unconvincing. But Saint-Saëns in 1860 somehow manages to convey the heartbreak and pathos of this farewell by treating it in an openly operatic manner. The piano part is a big one which thunders and rumbles with cascades of falling arpeggios, and the voice part goes for broke by striking an attitude of almost crazed grandiloquence which would have seemed ridiculous in later years. Taken in the context of its own time, it remains effective. The dedicatee was Pauline Viardot, and as the song lies in her range (she was a mezzo-soprano) one can imagine what she would have made of it.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997