Hyperion Records

Couplets de Mariette
This seems to be an aria out of a forgotten opera; contrary to his practice when writing songs, Chabrier indicated his ideas for orchestration at a few crucial points. The text has little poetic merit and we shall never know, or need to know, the exact circumstances behind the distressed state of mind of Mariette (whoever she is). And yet Chabrier lavishes music of the deepest feeling on these lifeless words. The A minor tonality and shape of the piece suggest that the ghost of this piece came back to haunt the composer when he wrote the famous Chanson de l’alouette in Le Roi malgré lui. The two arias have certain family resemblances.

This is definitely Chabrier in his most gentle non-bombastic vein. The melancholy of A minor is a sign of this. Like Schubert, Chabrier relishes the change of minor to major in this key. One of the most beautiful moments is in the fourth bar of the introduction: bars 3 and 4 are an exact repetition of bars 1 and 2 with the exception of the marvellous insinuation of G sharps in the piano writing which gently lift the cadence originally in E minor (bar 2) into E major (bar 4). The right-hand piano writing is like the most eloquent of oboe solos, the gentle drooping fifth immediately establishing the mood of the piece.

This aria was written between Gounod’s Faust (1859) and Bizet’s Carmen (1875). It has the romantic Schwung of the former and some of the delicate shading and colouring of the latter. Just when one fears that the music may be tending toward the commonplace there is a turn of phrase which happily confirms the identity of its creator: the younger, rather than the mature, Chabrier. The two sections of the aria (both heard twice) are the opening ‘Allegretto tranquillo’ (A minor) and, at ‘Toi qui depuis quinze ans’, a faster A major section (‘Pressez – appassionata’) where the emotional temperature of the music is heightened by a newly energised vocal line with its repetitions of ‘Toi, Toi’ off the beat. This new hand-wringing impulse is emphasised by the piano’s ardent quasi-canonic imitations of the voice. Before the faster section there is a sostenuto passage (‘Ah! douleur amère’) where the singer’s line is doubled without harmony by the piano, a device which serves to emphasise Mariette’s bereft loneliness. The composer has no scruples about recycling words from the first strophe in the second, and adding an expressive ‘hélas’ in the closing phrase.

Darius Milhaud made use of this song (with specially commissioned words by René Chalupt) when he made a new performing version of Chabrier’s operetta Une éducation manqué for the Diaghilev company in 1924.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002

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