Appropriately enough, Venise
is a song from Gounod’s Italian period, and it is a barcarole. At more or less the same time Robert Schumann was composing the Thomas Moore Venetian songs for his Myrthen
cycle. Despite the inevitable and constant limitations of strophic form, the composer triumphantly succeeds in holding up a musical mirror not only to the melodically curvaceous beauties of ‘La Serenissima’ but also to the dark city of intrigue and forbidden delights. Musset’s original paean to Venice was much longer, but Gounod pruned it mercilessly to find the right shape for his song. Musset re-wrote the poem after 1866; the earlier version used by Gounod refers, in the last strophe, to the occupation of Venice (Austria governed the city for nearly seventy years in the wake of the Napoleonic wars) and a Frenchmen’s outrage at the injustice of it, albeit caused by his former emperor. There was doubtless some talk of politics at the Villa Medici and the younger residents might well have been in sympathy with the Young Italy party and the aims of the Risorgimento for a new united nation. This song, however, highlights the atmosphere of the old Venice at the height of its powers—in the time of Monteverdi perhaps—the better to contrast the city’s former freedoms with its present plight. The extraordinary piano introduction (which also does service as an interlude) suggests whispering and bustling, the rustling of silk skirts and clandestine assignations as much as the dancing of light reflected on the waters of a moonlit lagoon. Once the voice enters, the vocal line is underpinned by a bass line, sensually rocking in arpeggios of tenths so as to suggest undercurrents both aquatic and personal. Fauré must have known this song which evokes so well the gentle bobbing of gondolas tied to the poles of noblemen’s palaces; we hear the same undertow in his celebrated song Les berceaux
has always been considered one of Gounod’s most successful songs; in 1855 he arranged it for four-handed accompaniment.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993