Biondina

First line:
Ier l'ho scontrata in abito di festo
composer
1871/2
author of text

 
Gounod composed Biondina (his only song cycle) in 1871/2 during his extended stay in London. The poet Giuseppe Zaffira was one of Mrs Weldon’s house guests and it seems likely that the lady indulged her match-making propensity as Muse to the Great by bringing biddable composer and sentimental poet together. She probably insisted that Gounod started work immediately on this venture which was bound to be commercially profitable for her orphanage. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm for the Tosti style of ballad in Victorian England, and Gounod, ever a master of gauging the public taste, seems to have predicted this. Paolo Tosti himself made his first visit to London in 1875 (just after Gounod left England to return to France) and encountered such enthusiasm for his Italian songs in the British capital that he eventually took up residence there. Biondina could almost have been written by Tosti but it has all the Gounod hallmarks of subtle invention. It is a highly skilful work which incorporates echoes of the Italian music which the composer had heard in his student years in Rome, but it also contains pre-echoes of the Italian verismo style, and the story line brings the tale of Rodolfo and Mimi in La bohème to mind. The influence of Gounod’s most celebrated Italian contemporary Giuseppe Verdi also looms large; there is no doubt that Gounod would have heard Les vêpres siciliennes in Paris in 1855, and that the first performance of Don Carlos in Paris in 1867 was still fresh in his memory. Not until Benjamin Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo would a non-Italian song composer think himself into the national musical style with such success. Like the Britten cycle, much of what Gounod wrote would never have been written by an Italian composer of the period, but the overall effect is that of a highly authentic stylisation. Biondina gave rise to a number of imitations; the most distinguished of these is probably Venezia, a set of songs by Reynaldo Hahn (recorded by Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Souvenirs de Venise).

(1) Prologo: Allegretto, F major. Gounod glides into song as gently as the Biondina slips into the narrator’s consciousness; the opening has a simplicity appropriate to a story about an ‘orfanella’. His love for the girl is stated in rather more delicate musical terms than might have been the case in the opening of a genuinely Italian cycle. The rhythm is a rocking 6/8 and the composer woos his listeners with particularly melting cadences.

(2) Allegretto, C major. The poet has promised us a set piece at the end of the prologue, and here it is, a real Italian serenata with a similar evocation of guitar accompaniment to that used by Hugo Wolf twenty years later in Ein Ständchen euch zu bringen from the Italienisches Liederbuch. Both composers favoured C major for their open-hearted declarations of love. We will hear this music in the minor key later in the cycle.

(3) Allegretto, C major. Throughout the cycle the composer has thought carefully about key relationships. This song is a segue from the serenade, a more masculinely assertive contrast to the restrained and dreamy No 2. We stay in the same ‘pure’ key of C major, and the effect is to make us realize how obsessive the narrator is becoming about his beloved Biondina.

(4) Moderato un poco agitato, C major. The potential monotony of the same key yet again is broken by piano interludes in the chromatic style of César Franck. In the introduction, the effect of church music improvised at the organ lends a certain holy/sensual aura reminiscent of that composer (Jean Aubry referred to it as ‘serene anxiety’). Once the song itself begins we are aware that the key word in this setting is ‘il timor’—the timidity reflected by the accompaniment’s rhythm in a hesitant 3/4 which seems to hold its breath beneath the vocal line. The intertwining of voice and accompaniment in thirds and sixths (at ‘Che avrebbe quasi affascinato’) is a Verdian device. Note the descending chromatic motif at ‘Color delle viole’ (and later ‘Io mi sentii morire’) which will reappear later in the cycle.

(5) Andantino – Allegretto, C major – G major. The introduction moving from the timidity motif to stronger chords and recitative nicely reflects the poem’s first two lines. The main body of the song is another serenade in 2/4, rather more sturdy this time and appropriate to the well-travelled man of the world who declares his love.

(6) Allegretto, E major. The first substantial change of key takes place after a tuning struggle reminiscent of Schubert’s An die Leier. The new stringing of the mandolin demands just such a shift of tonality. The rollicking song that follows is prophetic of Arthur Sullivan’s Savoy operas which were to take London by storm only a few years later. The vocal line and accompaniment of the second verse are considerably more subtle and more French. Perhaps this was meant as a sly compliment to the nationality of Laura of Avignon.

(7) Maestoso pomposo, A major. The return to triple time is a welcome change. After the rhetorical beginning we have a piece that once again recalls the declamatory energy of Verdi—relatively simple musical means achieving sophisticated dramatic ends. The triplet flourishes of the ornamented vocal line recall the extravagances of bel canto. In contrast the end of the song is perhaps the cycle’s crowning point: the exquisite mood is a worthy and touching evocation of the idyllic pleasures of the pastoral life, including the distant horn sounds in thirds and sixths—the traditional musical metaphor associated with images of forests and open countryside.

(8) Allegretto, F major. The opening of Envoi de fleurs comes to mind, perhaps to mirror the excitement of young love in full bloom. This is perhaps the most varied song in the cycle; it starts in delicate patter manner and moves into the priest’s garden with a suitably demure change of registration in the accompaniment which gives the second strophe an other-worldly and rapt quality. Once the marriage day has been agreed the masculinity of the piano’s bass line re-establishes itself in no uncertain manner. The bustling energy of the last verse seems prophetic of the kind of verismo excitement we hear in Act II of La bohème—an evocation of the colourful and communal street-life of Italy.

(9) Allegretto, D major. It is once again something of a verismo operatic scene which is evoked here. The tolling of bells and the excitement of marriage make it an Italianate counterpart of Schumann’s Helft mir, ihr Schwestern from Frauenliebe und -leben. The last verse which covertly describes the wedding night is a complete contrast and turns to the erotically sighing harmonic vocabulary of Duparc (via Liszt) to make its effect. When the poet touches the hem of the Biondina’s dress in No 4 he feels himself die in a chromatically falling motif. This motif is recapitulated for the end of No 9 when the poet at last touches the body beneath the dress—the dying fall is a musical euphemism for sexual release. There then follows an eloquent piano postlude in the manner of Duparc’s Extase or Soupir.

(10) Allegro agitato, G minor. The first minor key song in the set opens in stock melodramatic fashion as illness strikes its fateful blow to the hopes of the couple’s happiness. This is the most extended and dramatic song in the set and it shows a mixture of influences. The portentous falling vocal phrases separated by sobs at ‘e son d’avviso … Che Dio … la voglia fare’ and the accompaniment, where the piano stands in for right hand brass and left hand timpani, is pure Verdi in his noblest Don Carlos manner; the second verse is an astonishing mixture of Fauré (the deployment of the artful accompaniment) crossed with the Wagner whose recent music for Tristan (1865) is invoked by the poet’s desire for an Italian brand of Liebestod. This impression is strengthened in the poem’s third verse by the utterly un-Italian musical sequences where the setting of the second line is a drooping semitone lower than the first. The same words are then repeated in fervid ascending sequence—in fact a recapitulation of the honeymoon music at the end of No 9. The cries of ‘La tomba’ are once again in Italian style, and the song’s postlude is reminiscent of some of the accompaniments of Liszt’s Lieder. Gounod seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

(11) Andante, C minor. This is a reworking of the Serenade of No 2, now transposed into the minor key with a significantly slower metronome mark. It seems a simple, almost a lazy means of writing a new song, but the modified recapitulation is effective in binding the work together. The influence of Berlioz is not easily discernible in Gounod’s other songs, but his use of cyclical form in Biondina almost certainly owes something to that composer’s experiments; these were to influence Liszt and Franck, and if there seems something rather Franckian about moments in this cycle it is an example of Gounod anticipating a younger French composer’s preoccupations rather than merely imitating them. The third strophe of the poem introduces new material: the narrator faints with grief as ominous diminished sevenths are underpinned by stentorian muffled drum beats in the pianist’s left hand.

(12) Tempo di marcia funebre, G minor. This music is derived from the ‘Verdian’ motif from No 10 and strives to depict noble grief. It is perhaps at this point that we fail to believe that the narrator is real person whose bereavement touches us. Gounod is no Schubert after all, and even less so in this stylistic guise. It must also be admitted that the cardboard kitsch of the verse is no help. The dramatic conventions of operatic mourning are obeyed however, and the last two pages of the cycle (from ‘L’altro era bianco’ where purity is contrasted with sadness) adopt a device typical of Gounod’s late style: throbbing triplets which generate a type of holy ecstasy (cf the end of The Worker) and which aim to lift the vocal line into the sublime realms of the afterlife. Heard in the spirit in which it was written even this musical cliché (probably freshly minted by Gounod and debased by its frequent use by lesser Victorian composers) is effective. The cycle ends with a simple but heartfelt postlude.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993

Recordings

Gounod: Songs
CDA66801/22CDs

Details

No 01: Prologo 'Da qualche tempo'
Track 1 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [1'57] 2CDs
No 02: Biondina bella
Track 2 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [4'12] 2CDs
No 03: Sotto un cappello rosa  Ier l'ho scontrata in abito di festo
Track 3 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [2'34] 2CDs
No 04: Le labbra ella compose
Track 4 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'18] 2CDs
No 05: E stati alquanto
Track 5 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [1'53] 2CDs
No 06: Ho messo nuove corde
Track 6 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [1'51] 2CDs
No 07: Se come io son poeta
Track 7 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'15] 2CDs
No 08: Siam iti l'altro giorno
Track 8 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [1'50] 2CDs
No 09: E le campane hanno suonnato
Track 9 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'11] 2CDs
No 10: Ell' è malata
Track 10 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'32] 2CDs
No 11: Ier fu mandata
Track 11 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'17] 2CDs
No 12: L'ho accompagnato
Track 12 on CDA66801/2 CD2 [3'58] 2CDs

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