It seems amazing that Saint-Saëns wrote this ballad in 1852 at the age of seventeen, for it is certain that he never managed anything better, or more popular with the general public. It is one of the first songs in the French repertoire which uses deliberate archaisms (now familiar as film-music clichés) and suggestions of modal harmony to evoke a world-gone-by of troubadours and brave knights. All it needs is Erroll Flynn to stride across the sound-stage to set the seal on the bluff camaraderie which evokes a Hollywood historical romance, for this song’s narrator is something of a wag, and the song has long been used as a vehicle for every amateur French baritone who fancies himself as Jack the Lad in tights. Like L’Attente
this is the music of horse-ride, and we feel the excitement as the narrator approaches the capital city, the hub of the world. The overjoyed cry of ‘C'est Paris’ (and the clever build-up before it) is worthy of Poulenc who placed that city on the pedestal of his affections. Saint-Saëns’ devices and treatment of the various episodes are simple throughout, and highly telling: at mention of the fair Isolde, sweeping downward arpeggios as if painting the flow of her tresses; the fanfares of the joust and the excited stamping of the horses as they thunder in the lists; the outrageously sanctimonious appearance of monks and virgins to quasi-modal chords. All these things seem natural and unforced, and we realise that the composer himself was young enough to take this stirring evocation at face value. The song ends with an elegant flourish of a quill pen where staccati in voice and piano scratch the parchment (and the surface of the stave) with gallant nonchalance. In signing off in this manner the singer seems to shrug, as if such excitement and spilling of blood is all in a day’s work in old France. In 1903 Debussy humorously added the first four lines of this poem as a motto to his own song Chevaux de bois
as an ironie comment on Verlaine’s wooden horses.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997