Ivresses! is as complete a farrago of musical nonsense as Chabrier ever penned, but we have to admire it for its sheer verve. Its gruesomely untalented text and outrageously inflated manner are part of the joke that the composer aimed to play on both its performers and its audience. As with Ah! petit démon it shows the way to a new epoch where popular music would be taken seriously and allowed to influence its more serious musical relations. Ivresses! is far too difficult to sing and play for it ever to have been a popular piece in the accepted sense of the word, but it is something of a pioneering work in that the composer marries his own forceful and eccentric creative world with that of the composers of vapid waltzes for popular consumption. The result is awkward and odd at the same time as generating a certain excitement and glee. It strikes the ear like an early sketch for a companion piece to España, something which might have been a forerunner of Ravel’s La Valse for example. It is no surprise that the autograph shows signs that Chabrier had considered orchestrating it. But we are not even certain that Ivresses! was ever performed, even at a café concert. It is possible that in recycling this song as piano pieces in the Suite de valses Chabrier salvaged what he could from a work that seemed otherwise unperformable. Sheerly in terms of its vocal (not to mention its rhythmical) challenges it would have required a musical hall artist of great musical sophistication to take it on.
The music sometimes seems embarrassingly episodic, and as such it could never have been a rival for Ravel’s suites of dances. The pieces it brings to mind are also cabaret songs: Je te veux and Tendrement of Erik Satie, which have similarly erotic (though milder) texts. Chabrier’s achievement with Ivresses! (if one may call it that) is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind that Satie’s Je te veux dates from almost thirty years later and seems altogether less extreme than this reckless hotch-potch. But recklessness is a quality that was part of Chabrier’s make-up, and one cannot forget that it was in the 1860s, perhaps after a night of abandoned drinking and dancing, that he contracted the syphilis which was eventually to kill him.
The work opens with an overture for piano in 6/8 (‘Vivace’), fifty bars of upbeat arpeggio fanfares and strident chords that sound as if they are practising for an appearance in España. A brief ‘Andante’ (five bars) leads to the first waltz (verse 1) – a sinuous melody with a number of wide intervals, one of Chabrier’s trademarks.
With verse 2 (‘Vois jaillir les éclairs’) a second waltz is introduced with those España-like chords – indeed this whole section contains prancing and music which was later to be reworked into that Spanish context. Turbulent repetitions of ‘aimons!’ and triumphantly gratuitous ‘ahs’ and ‘toujours’ lead to a transitional passage where piano scales and awkward low notes for the singer lead to the next section.
Verse 3 is a shortened musical repetition of verse 1. The words here confusingly suggest an interchange between man and woman. It is clear that this grande valse is a rondo where various episodes punctuate reappearances of the opening tune. A short transitional passage (and a change of key from F to C major) leads to a third waltz (verse 4 – ‘Ta lèvre qui m’enflamme’); this is less of a melody than a short-breathed succession of sighing phrases with a rather boisterous accompaniment in ceaseless quavers. Nevertheless this music generates a certain infectious energy.
Verse 5 is yet another tune, and not a very memorable one. The surprise this time is that the voice is completely unaccompanied. This is not very convincing and one cannot help feeling that there is a possibility that Chabrier intended to provide an accompaniment for this passage at some later date. This leads to an exact repetition of the music (and words) for verse 4 – for the purposes of this recording this is marked as verse 6.
Another interlude of piano scales and chesty repetitions of ‘Ah!’ and ‘aimons!’ lead back to F major and the first waltz, this time sung to the words of verse 7 as the piano heats up the musical temperature by doubling the vocal line. This music becomes more and more frenetic and leads to a whirling ‘Presto’ (verse 8 – ‘Ah! Je suis folle!’) where the 6/8 rhythm, last heard at the beginning of the piece, is re-established. Now we understand that there was at least some architectural reason for the piano introduction which finds its counterpart here – the two matching episodes are like two book-ends encasing this grande valse – but this time with vocal obligato. This is surely the most extravagant and maddest part of the work; the singer abandons any attempt at coherent melody and contents herself with exclamations at the top of the stave illustrating a drunken desire to embrace pleasure at all costs. This culminates in four repetitions of the word ‘Ivresse!’, each phrase pitched a semitone higher than the time before. The final line of the poem (‘À moi! secours divin!’) is cast as a cadenza with a concluding high C for the soprano. A frantic postlude, also marked ‘Presto’, brings this extraordinary work to a close – as wilful a piece of artful vulgarity as Chabrier ever composed. However, there is something about the vulgarity of a man with a huge heart and a refined ear which makes us listen to such music with interest and indulgence.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002