The hypnotic racket of the cicadas is the business of the right hand of the accompaniment. But the stationary nature of this insistent music also suggests stillness and heat; bare fifths in the left hand paint expanses of scorched open countryside. In her collection Les Pipeaux Rosemonde Gérard has been careful to print the poem in three groups of three strophes; each of these sections, probably representing different stages of the day, is separated by a printer’s flower. Although he alters her words here and there, Chabrier scrupulously respects the poet’s shape. He makes of this song three expansive strophes. The third verse of each section has the refrain (‘Les cigales, ces bestioles’ etc) and how memorable and infectious this is! But leading up to this in each case are two strophes which gradually warm up the vocal line and prepare us for the climactic explosion of memorable melody which has won Chabrier so many admirers for more than a century; this song which has been an epiphany for many who later turn out to be ardent chabriéristes.
In the beginning of the song the voice gently insinuates itself against those strumming chords as if the singer were gradually waking up from a siesta. The words ‘Le soleil est droit sur la sente’ begin as a monodic murmur, almost a recitative, but this gradually warms into greater enthusiasm. The intervals in the vocal line range wider and wider. The phrase ‘C’est Midi, c’est Midi qui chante’ is full of the love felt by this composer for his own part of the world – indeed, one can almost feel the ache of the Auvergnat in his longing to flee the cool north in favour of the south. The key is A minor/major but it is spiced with extra accidentals which give the music Chabrier’s unique harmonic colour, his very own mode. At ‘Sous l’astre qui conduit le chœur’ C major chords are decorated with clashes where F sharps jostle against Gs and F naturals. The extended build-up into the triumphant return to the A major chorus is masterful. It seems that the phrase ‘Les cigales, ces bestioles’ overflows into the tonic key like a tributary reaching the ocean, or like a river brimming over its banks. There is a reckless, inevitable quality to this music which is exactly right for the poem; the composer sings his heart out as unselfconsciously and joyously as the little creatures he describes.
All the while the pianist strums along – these are chords which trace broad arches of melody; in the heat of all this exertion he feels as mad as the cicadas in the midst of their intoxicated aria. After the surprising mezzo-staccato word ‘violons’ (pronounced ‘vi-yo-lons’ as Bernac directs) the accompaniment is allocated an interlude of ecstatic abandon. Rumbling semiquavers in the bass and rippling chords cut a swathe across the keyboard with an irresistible, and totally original, pianistic energy. The imagery of sawing violins has put the composer in mind of that instrument’s other possibilities: Chabrier imagines the apotheosis of pizzicato with these spread right-hand chords, but if a real violin were ever to be plucked with such violence it would break in two. The next three verses are a strophic repetition of the first three, and no less effective for that.
The final verse is perhaps the most beautiful of Chabrier’s many modified codas. A number of French mélodies end with a magically distant nocturnal verse (as in Debussy’s Chevaux de bois for example) and this is one of the most beautiful of these hushed epilogues where a change in the time of day transfigures the music. The poem is ambiguous as to whether its conclusion is set in the period of noonday siesta or in the cool of evening. There is a marvellously sensual stretching in the slower passage (marked ‘cédez’) of ‘Verse le sommeil et son baume’: in these unwinding sequences we hear that work has come to an end. At ‘Tout est mort, rien ne bruit plus’ the vocal line is distilled to its essence: monotone murmurings on the same note. Around this the piano embroiders a melody high in the treble that has hitherto only been heard in the voice. If this is indeed a nocturnal picture it eould explain why the music seems bathed in a glistening silvery light as the cicadas continue their song, now an obligato to the angelus which tinkles in the distance. For a moment those strummed chords in the piano take on a chiming resonance The refrain is now heard pianissimo for the first and only time. But enthusiasm quickly returns and the song ends with unequalled relish and bathed in all its original sunlit glory. The extraordinary unresolved clashes of the final four bars of the postlude announce a composer on the threshold of modern music. If Chabrier had only ever written this single song he would have been remembered as a master.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002