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A beautiful album of French songs, from Augusta Holmès' largely forgotten cycle of Sérénades from 1883 through to Benjamin Britten's 1938 discovery of the prose-poetry of the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud, and taking in Robin Holloway's newly crafted orchestrations of Ravel and Debussy.
Fauré’s famous Clair de lune was orchestrated just a year after the well-regarded voice and piano composition of 1887 at the request of the salon hostess the Princesse de Polignac. This version (Op 46 No 2 for tenor and orchestra) was premiered at the Société Nationale de Musique in 1888 with the tenor Maurice Bagès and was later included in an Op 112 orchestral suite based on the story of Clair de lune which hails from Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes (Courtship, 1869). The scenes created by Verlaine are derived from Watteau’s 18th-century paintings of figures in masquerade costumes and modish dress, set in natural parklands and enjoying a life of leisure. These charmed lives are translated musically by Fauré in playful dialogues between the voice and the instruments, toying with rhythmic patterns and harmonic colours, particularly between strings and harp, and flute and bassoon, which do not always mimic the voice and piano version.
Britten’s settings of Rimbaud’s Illuminations for voice and string orchestra (1940) capture the energy and intensity of a poet who called himself a visionary. Begun in 1939, the composition of these songs was disrupted by the outbreak of war while Britten was abroad in the United States with his companion the tenor Peter Pears, meaning that Britten himself never heard the world premiere given in London by the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss in 1940. Wyss had advocated for Britten to set French poems to music, yet in selecting lively and fanciful prose poems compiled into a collection by a 20-year old Rimbaud around 1875, Britten was in many ways a pioneer, since French composers themselves often avoided setting prose poetry to music. Britten’s colouration of Rimbaud’s parade of outlandish figures is achieved through orchestral textures that are reliant on pizzicatos, harmonics, and thinly voiced chords. Britten creates an appearance of an emotional nonchalance, masking the deeper anxieties buried in the texts themselves.
More ominous, interior visions are imagined in songs by Ravel composed between 1895 and 1906 using poems by French and Belgian symbolists. These songs are stitched together with newly composed intermèdes as Un grand sommeil noir by composer and author Robin Holloway. Holloway uses the same instrumentation selected by Ravel for the later Mallarmé songs (1913), with the addition of a double-bass and a harp. As Holloway explains: ‘the composite result is dark and melancholy, here or there anguished, always disquieted or perturbed—a three-faceted depiction of the composer’s 'dark side', complement to his more usual gaiety, wit, delicate sensuality, hedonism’ (Holloway, 2019). De Régnier’s threatening vision of marauding strangers in a hollowed-out town is presented in densely symbolic language that Ravel translates into short musical bursts. Verlaine’s ‘dark sleep’ poem envisions a deep depression captured by Ravel through static musical language, in which infinitesimal shifts of creeping harmonies wheedle their way round the voice. Verhaeren’s shattered self is trapped in a mournfulness for which the lull of Ravel’s 9/8 time signature offers scant comfort, while the darkness that envelops the whole scene is captured, too, in the print engraving by Odilon Redon for Verhaeren’s Les Débâcles (Defeats, 1888), from which Ravel selected his text.
Holloway complements Debussy, too, in his interweaving and extending of Debussy’s Trois mélodies de Verlaine (1891) with the insertion of the song Mandoline composed a decade earlier (1882). Exploiting his knowledge of Debussy’s writing (Holloway published a foundational study on Debussy and Wagner in 1979), Holloway’s arrangement for string quartet and piano (2022) uses the same technique of link-passages. The songs are characterised by scenes of nature which represent different emotional staging posts, from the euphoria of the expansive seascape in La mer est plus belle, to the carefree music-making within the treescape setting of Mandoline, to more troubled agonies dulled by the autumn-to-winter change of seasons in the forests of Le son du cor, rounding off in a more happy-go-lucky scene of fields and hedgerows in L’échelonnement des haies.
Adding to the soundworlds of composers such as Ravel and Debussy, as Holloway has artfully done, is akin to increasing the exposure of a photograph, giving us access to more expansive visions by revealing what is possible when instruments are used creatively to illuminate French poetry and make the familiar unfamiliar. Less familiar, too, are chamber versions of songs that never been recorded because their composers’ manuscripts languished in the archives.
Chabrier’s Tes yeux bleus is heard here for the first time in a version for string orchestra prepared in the composer’s own hand but left untouched in his publishers’ archives for well over a century. Setting the words of his friend the cabaret artist, poet, and songwriter Maurice Rollinat, it is hard not to hear this song as a musical homage to Wagner who had died that same year (1883). The disarming simplicity of the poem is shaded by its confined soundworld; the poem uses just one rhyme sound for each of the 15 lines of verse, characteristic of the anxieties and obsessions of Rollinat’s collection Les Névroses (Neuroses, 1883) from which the poem comes. Chabrier offsets the poem’s melancholy by a chromatic intensity that unfolds in shimmers of sound. The opening C major held chords build up to an intensity of emotion that never quite finds its release and we never quite learn whose eyes are trained upon the poet.
If we never fully discover what the eyes can see in Chabrier’s song, Holmès’ Sérénades from the same year (1883) give us a clarity of vision through much more limpid musical textures, even though Wagner, too, is an important influence for Holmès. Holmès’ integration of Wagner’s ideas are found less in the musical language than in her decision to compose her own lyrics for the songs, inspired by her encounters with Wagner who wrote his own poems for his operas. Holmès’ Sérénades, heard here in her arrangement for string quintet and piano, express themes of intense, passionate love, composed at a time when her long relationship with poet Catulle Mendès was coming to an end. The songs are dedicated to her new companion, the singer Eugène Cougoul who would go on to cover a role in Holmès’ La Montagne noire at its Paris opera premiere in 1895. Rarely heard today, the popularity of Holmès’ songs lasted well into the twentieth century, often characterised as bluettes, a term which describes well-crafted but unpretentious songs, such as that encapsulated by the music-box charm of Sérénade d’hiver. It is likely that these Sérénades would have been designed for salon-scale performance, such as for the artistic salon in Versailles that Holmès hosted for much of her career.
Also inspired by aspects of Wagner, this time the concept of the Liebestod, is Chausson’s more well-known Chanson perpétuelle (1898/9), which sets stanzas from Cros’ poem ‘Nocturne’ from the poet’s 1873 collection Le coffret de santal (Sandalwood box) and equates love with death. In desolation at the departure of her lover, the poem’s lead character plots her own death by drowning. The musical scale of the scene is presented in chamber forces, using voice, piano, and string quartet, although Chausson also prepared other versions of the song—for voice and piano, and for voice and orchestra—the motivations for which were curtailed by the composer’s untimely death in a cycling accident after completing this version of the piece.
Duparc’s celebrated song Chanson triste was first composed for voice and piano in 1868/9 and orchestrated in 1910/11, using 2 flutes, 4 horns, harp, and strings. The orchestration was premiered by the Montreux Casino Orchestra in Switzerland in 1911, near to where Duparc was then living. Duparc had stopped formal composing some years earlier, around 1885, following a period of mental illness and ongoing troubles with vision loss. The harp takes centre stage in the orchestration, through continuous arpeggiated chords which drive the song, while the other instruments add depth and colour. The poem’s central idea is the same as Rollinat’s Tes yeux bleus set by Chabrier—the poet hopes to find solace and recovery by looking deep into the eyes of a woman—and has clear resonance for Duparc’s own life experience.
These Visions illuminées offer moments of introspection and insight. If poets and composers reveal different ways to escape from the realities of everyday life, they do so by exposing both how we feel pain and how we can ease it.
Helen Abbott © 2023
My idea for the album began simply with a desire to record Britten’s Les illuminations, a work I feel closely connected to, having performed it many times over the years and each time having found something new in it to interest me. I chose not to use a conductor, preferring instead to create as intimate a musical relationship with the orchestra as possible.
With this main piece of the jigsaw puzzle in place, I chose the other works for the programme with the idea of ‘illuminations’ in mind. These are illuminations for the emotions, deeply felt in the soul of the music. There are pieces by some well-known and some not-so-well-known composers, each of whom create their rich musical canvas without getting in the way of the original music or poetry. Just as Rimbaud casts a strange and evocative light upon the visions in Les illuminations which Britten then brings to life with his music, so too have Fauré, Chabrier, Holloway, Holmès, Chausson, and Duparc ‘illuminated’ their songs in challenging, calming, daunting, and uplifting ways.
I hope that, in listening to these new arrangements alongside pieces you might be more familiar with, the texts might take on fresh meaning and colour, and that you find deeper veins of richness in the music, just as I have experienced in recording them.
Mary Bevan © 2023