The music is in a lolloping 6/8 – a deliberately grotesque parody of a bergerette perhaps, in any case music which suggests a country scene and the skipping gait of a shepherdess in the old French tradition. But this is an unruly update of the old story; the quasi-Wagnerian succession of sly discords in the piano writing show that love-potions are in the air. There is no trace of the home key of F major in this eight-bar introduction which is anchored in C major, the dominant, embroidered with deft suspensions, crafty diminutions of the Tristan style. With the words ‘Nez au vent’ the composer introduces Bertha. The sauntering figurations in the piano’s left hand (they somehow suggest the nasality of a bassoon) underline a risqué sense of purpose beneath the seeming tranquillity of the longer note-values in the vocal line: Bertha is on the prowl. Indeed, the insouciance of this song and its mixture of middle-class respectability and libidinous abandon bring to mind Noel Coward’s Alice is at it again.
Not even the entry of the voice settles the song in its tonic: we are left dangling on a long dominant pedal for nearly twelve bars, which heightens a sense of ‘waiting for something to happen’. The duet between the prancing left-hand quavers and the more languid vocal line is delectable; the latter is a typical Chabrier tune made up of intervals which plunge as suggestively as a fin de siècle neckline. With the word ‘panier’ we arrive in F major at last, the cadence ornamented with sliding thirds in semitones in the right hand; this self-consciously naughty little motif sounds like a silent-film music cliché long before the movies. It is here that Chabrier prophesies Poulenc and that composer’s Apollinaire setting L’Anguille – a portrait of Parisian night life at its most louche.
For the second strophe the composer moves into a modal passage more or less in A minor and grounded in open-fifth basses, a Chabrier trademark. At ‘Comme une sœur’ the music slips briefly into E major. The vocal line turns into a monotone at ‘Et dans de folles rixes’ (verse 3) as if two roués were exchanging secret addresses, the staccato piano writing saucier than ever above the whispering. The addition of rollicking little triplets in the accompaniment under ‘Et des ondins’ illustrates the element in which the watersprites gambol. This is the first and last we hear of these creatures whose name brings to mind Ravel’s Ondine. These three strophes together make a musical AB structure that is the basis of each of the three musical sections of the song.
Mendès has divided his poem, most unusually, into ‘three’ scenes, spaciously set out in his first collection of poetry entitled Philoméla. These sections might be unofficially summed up with the three words ‘cruising’, ‘courtship’ and ‘consummation’. In Chabrier’s strophic setting these are separated by subtly different appearances of the same piano introduction. In the second section, just before the voice re-enters with ‘Un elfe dit à Berthe’, the right hand of the pianist begins to sing the tune of the first verse (as at ‘Nez au vent’) in a solo marked ‘sempre dolce’. A bar later the singer enters as if engaging the piano’s melody in conversation, a veritable colloquy of sexual negotiation where the courtly bows of the elf-cavalier are traced in the undulating coquetry of the vocal line. The A minor section expands the physical description of the elf as if to explain Bertha’s partiality to him. The undertones for ‘Conduisez-moi, dit Berthe’ – sung sotto voce as if she were giving instructions out of the corner of her mouth – take the song into new realms of the racy and ridiculous.
Another appearance of the piano refrain, rendered slightly more convulsive by semiquaver triplets, leads to Part Three – the lovemaking. The musical texture becomes more heated and passionate with the addition of octaves in the piano writing – otherwise this is one of those songs that one scarcely notices is strophic because the music is so full of charming incident. In this strophe the E major cadence for ‘Un doux plaisir’ (each syllable cheekily tweaked by a staccato chord in the pianist’s right hand) is particularly delicious, a rare case of the third appearance of a passage in a three-verse strophic song being the most appropriate to the words. It seems that the experience between Bertha and the elf is good enough for her to abandon all thoughts of strawberries – ‘Let’s do it again’ is the implication. The monotone of her decision to stay just where she is wonderfully suggestive because it seems so casual and underplayed. The postlude is a little miracle of musical summing-up. It sounds wonderfully delighted, as if with a good day’s work: ‘Opportunity deftly grasped’ it seems to say ‘ and eh voilà – carpe diem’. This must have been the young Chabrier’s own amatory philosophy before he settled down as a family man. In my experience the outrageously pert little cadence with which the song ends (three staccato chords) never fails to produce a chuckle of laughter from an audience. This is proof of Chabrier’s mastery in translating piquant humour such as this into musical terms. And he is one of the very few composers who has ever been able to do so.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002