The fall of the Second Empire had profound consequences for Gounod’s career. One of these was that the Franco-Prussian War and the brief emergence of the Commune made the life of an opera composer impossible in Paris. Gounod went to England and he fell back on song composing; indeed he composed more songs between 1870 and 1875 than in the rest of his career. He was an internationally famous composer and to mirror that fact he now took to writing songs in languages other than French—namely English, Italian and Spanish. Of course this was done with the encouragement of the formidable Mrs Weldon in London, and it is no surprise that uprooted from his Parisian home the composer threw discretion to the winds and danced the light fantastic down the stylistic avenues of other cultures. The song Boléro
was written in London and originally had an anonymous Spanish text. On Gounod’s return to France in 1874 his faithful friend Jules Barbier (the librettist of no fewer than eight Gounod operas, not to mention Thomas’s Hamlet
and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann
) provided a French text. The song seems to have been influenced by Bizet’s Hugo setting Guitare
from 1866. On the other hand Boléro
by four years. The dedicatee of the song provides the link: Pauline Viardot the famous singer, sister of Malibran and daughter of the Spanish singing teacher Garcia, had a vast repertoire of popular Spanish song—tonadillas and zarzuelas. All the composers of the time, including Gounod and Fauré, heard this music at first hand in her celebrated salon. It was Bizet of course who profited most from what he learned from Viardot, but in Boléro
we hear that Gounod too was willing to arm himself with castanets.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993