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L'invitation au voyage
It really was very bad luck for Chabrier that his friend Henri Duparc should have set this poem at the same time, making of it, moreover, the French mélodie which defines the entire form perhaps better than any other. In the face of the rarefied perfection of Duparc’s song it is hardly surprising that Chabrier suppressed his own setting; its only recorded performance was on 18 April 1874 when it was sung by Mlle. Homberg at a soirée of the Cercle d’Union Artistique. On that occasion it was billed as a scène chantée, and the obligato bassoon part was played by a cello. This was a special pity: only a performance of this song with a fine bassoonist can demonstrate the extraordinary sound-world that the composer had in mind when voice and piano combine with this exotic sonority, particularly when the bassoonist adds his lowest notes to the musical texture. There is literally nothing like this colour in the rest of the mélodie repertoire and Chabrier’s song deserves to be heard much more often, not least because of the importance of the poem.

Duparc discovered his own voice with his setting of these words: the exoticism of Baudelaire’s imagery is ideally caught by the musical imagination of a fellow-Wagnerian. But Duparc’s enthusiasm for the grandeurs of Wagner is tempered by a French sensibility which translates the poet’s words into something both passionate and secretive, simultaneously immediate and distant, erotic at the same time as being infinitely mysterious and unattainable. As a result the luxe, calme et volupté of Duparc’s music has come to define the temperamental differences between the German Lied and the French mélodie, the bridge between Gounod and Debussy. Because Duparc was a Franckist he had been trained to appreciate German music. But the lesson of his L’Invitation au voyage is that French music could aspire to the seriousness and profundity of German music without being swamped by self-conscious heaviness.

Chabrier’s setting is not as great a piece of music as Duparc’s, but it is nevertheless wonderfully effective on its own terms. If Duparc had never written his song, Chabrier’s would be better known. Compare the two opening preludes: Duparc’s undulating semiquavers suggest a magic vessel moving through water, the gentle winds in its sails. Chabrier’s introduction on the other hand suggests the lapping of water on distant and exotic shores. In the first we are on the way to a magical destination; in the second we are already there, the invitation already accepted and acted upon. In these four introductory bars there is a sense of ease and luxury. The first two lines of the poem are set in quasi-recitative style, but on the crucial word ‘là-bas’ a piano arpeggio only partially disguises the entry of the bassoon. Thereafter the soprano voice and the obligato instrument engage in a passionate conversation underpinned by the piano’s restlessly chromatic support. At ‘qui te ressemble’ the cadence back to the home key of E minor is coloured by the marvellous bloom of that low E on the bassoon which, as a piece of sheer sound-imagining, says more about the composer’s response to the poem than many of the notes themselves.

Admittedly the sense of inevitable organic growth in the vocal line to be found in Duparc is missing, but there are many lovely moments culminating in the syncopated excitement of ‘De tes traîtres yeux / Brillant à travers leurs larmes’ which works itself into a rapture characterised by the vocal leaps dear to the composer (note, after this, Chabrier’s own extra ‘Ah’ plunges down the octave). And then the most famous phrase of all – ‘Luxe, calme et volupté’ – and here Chabrier does not disappoint, particularly if Duparc’s inspired incantations are set aside for a moment in the mind. The change from minor to major sets the scene for the realisation of the dream. The chromatic descent of this music, the piano shadowing the voice, is most sumptuous, and the little solo phrase of the bassoon which underscores the vocal line unfurls with an almost feline sensuality. The voice is in a lower register, the piano alternates between sonorous bass chords and ethereal passages where both hands are in the treble clef, and the heady sound of the bassoon is nasal and strangely exotic. And then the sudden contrast when the instrument adds the rumbling resonance of a low B to the last syllable of ‘volupté’ (the singer must also dive beneath the stave). As the soprano holds on to her note the bassoon rises an octave and then makes another huge jump to the G sharp above middle C. The result of all this is music that sounds marvellously sybaritic and strange, as if the composer were basking in the afterglow of an orgy in the south seas.

For Baudelaire’s second and third verses (the second was not set by Duparc) the music is an exact repeat of the first. The idea of the strophic song is built firmly into the mind of composers of the time, and we remind ourselves that Duparc’s songs are also variations on the strophic model. Three times we hear this music to different words; the result is colouring of specific words which is sometimes apposite and sometimes not. But the sheer musical effects remain a pleasure which is not reduced by repetition. Chabrier’s characteristic coda is perhaps the only miscalculation in the piece. After the ‘volupté’ which closes verse 3 the singer repeats ‘Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté’ in quasi-recitative style and with growing musical tension in Wagnerian manner. Semiquavers begin to quiver in the piano and then the mood of Ivresses! suddenly invades the setting. Not for the first time Chabrier cannot resist embroidering Baudelaire’s words (‘Là, oh oui là tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté Ah! Ah! Ah!’). These last exclamations occasion frantic vocal leaps leading to a heroic high A under which a slew of descending chords in the right hand is bolstered by syncopated octaves rising in the left. This hysterical passage suggests a singer terrified of missing the last train to Samoa. A final repetition of ‘Luxe, calme et volupté’ returns us to the dream of the orient, but the damage has been done. The closing bars are very beautiful indeed, but that heated cadenza, as if this were an aria rather than a song, has shown Chabrier’s enthusiasm getting the better of him. In wanting to cram all of his musical invention into a single piece he has allowed the magisterial vision of Baudelaire’s verse to be dissipated by showmanship. It is then that we realise how remarkably cool Duparc’s setting remains throughout, despite all its intimations of ecstasy, and that it is all the more successful as a result.

There are two manuscript versions of this song, the second (used for this recording) a semitone higher than the first. The version published in 1913 omits Baudelaire’s second verse (perhaps to bring it into line with Duparc) but, thanks to Roger Delage’s edition for Le Pupitre, performers are now able to perform the song as the composer would have wished to hear it.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67133/4 disc 1 track 12
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-02-13312
Duration
9'26
Recording date
29 March 2001
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Chabrier: Songs (CDA67133/4)
    Disc 1 Track 12
    Release date: July 2002
    2CDs
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