dates from Gounod’s years at the Villa Medici in Rome, though it would be hard to imagine a more thoroughly French response to this poem from Lamartine’s celebrated Méditations poétiques
. This collection, published in 1820, was of crucial importance in the establishment of the romantic movement in French literature, and Lamartine was a major influence on Franz Liszt in works such as Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
for piano (dedicated to the poet) and in the tone-poem for orchestra Les Préludes
. In this and three other Lamartine songs, Gounod’s response to the poet’s words is less spectacular and wide-ranging than Liszt’s, but it shows an innate ability to match the tone which is lofty at the same time as burning with personal sincerity. Less masterful poems of spiritual import were later to serve the composer less well. In any case Le soir
is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces and perhaps the quintessential Gounod song. Only a composer capable of writing long melodies could match the span of Lamartine’s spacious metres; the calm of the evening is established in one of these long-breathed vocal lines (prefigured by a piano introduction) of which Gounod was a master. What might have been banal in other hands achieves here a nobility of utterance which matches the poet’s own definition of his work—‘classique pour l’expression, romantique dans la pensée’. The change of key at the beginning of the second and fifth verse provides the requisite sensuous touch of magic in a song remarkable for its twilight shades of chaste purity. Le soir
was also published with an optional horn obbligato and in 1861 the composer rearranged the song as his third Romance sans paroles
for solo piano.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993