The 1850s were remarkable years for the composer’s ascent to operatic fame. The decade began with Sapho
in 1851 and via such works as La nonne sanglante
(written for Viardot) and Le médecin malgré lui
, culminated in Faust
in 1859. The song Sérénade
from 1857 (Gounod’s only Hugo setting) was thus written in the most creative years of the composer’s life, and its popularity is richly deserved. A barcarolle rhythm is used here without a drop of water in the poem; the imagery involves cradling and rocking—of a child or a loved one rather than of a boat on the lapping waves. The composer as always seems able to spin a tune out of nothing—a genius which was all his own. As usual with Gounod it is a song in which the artists have to take the responsibility for change of colour and mood between the verses, particularly in the third where singing and smiling cede to sleeping. The end of each strophe provides a formidable coloratura challenge for the singer, but nothing could be more appropriate and less gratuitous than this display. The wordlessly seductive melismas are the last word in charm; it is as if the voice affectionately strokes the lucky recipient of this serenade, first in one direction up the stave, and then down the other. The work is a Gounod classic and it was the first song in which I heard, many years ago now, the recorded voice and art of Pierre Bernac. One of the fruits of that unforgettable first encounter was to convince me in a trice that so-called ‘salon’ music of this kind (and in the right performances) yields nothing to German Lieder in terms of its power to delight and bring a tear to the eye.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993