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Toutes les fleurs

1889; dedicated to Ernest von Dyck
author of text

This is a Rostand poem which was never published. It provided Chabrier with the excuse for his most riotous song. Although there is nothing violent about ‘les fleurs’ in themselves, the song is about a profusion of flowers, and an extravagant profusion at that. The song is worthy of Nero drowning his dinner guests in rose-petals, or of Sir Elton John’s florist as he presents his annual bill. If one could imagine an armful, nay a room- or mansion-full, of flowers there would be a mixture of heady and giddy-making perfumes such as these. The introductory ritornello – swirling, loud and enthusiastic – is unequalled in energy in all the composer’s vocal œuvre. Thundering double octaves between the hands are ornamented by semiquavers filled in by the roving fingers of the pianist’s right hand. This makes for a gushing torrent of rather silly music that is unequalled by anything else in the French mélodie; this is distinct overkill for a floral subject of course, but it is absolutely typical of Chabrier’s sense of the ridiculous.

The voice enters with a trumpeting arpeggio (‘Toutes les fleurs, certes’) in the home key of G major. ‘Je les adore!’ moves to the dominant. This opening passage is largely unaccompanied music, a flourish of recitative. The hyperbole of the word ‘adore’ is a key to the song’s character. The bombastic opening yields ridiculously to flowers, as if each one were a maiden. (It is no wonder that the song’s dedicatee was the tenor Ernest Van Dyck, France’s first Parsifal.) The singer of this song is a Heldentenor and a botanical expert into the bargain. There now follows a walk through the garden with each species of flower lovingly labelled and catalogued. There is an intimate complicity between the vocal line and the right hand of the pianist which doubles it; one can almost feel the delicate touch of the singer’s hand as he caresses a bloom the better to show it off for admiration. Gently rumbling semiquavers in the left hand provide a frisson of support in the bass – an extended pedal note on G with those added sharpened fourths of which the composer was so fond. Cornflowers (‘les bleuets bleus’) occasion a staccato figuration which prances delicately, and the undulations of the waving corn (‘Les blés onduleux’) are reflected in a legato phrase which suggests the sweep of a broader vista. After ‘De ses doigts frileux’ there is a splendid harmonised scale, chords which ascend the stave as an extended upbeat to the appassionato of ‘Mais surtout’. Here the voice hits a high G and then sinks to repeated Ds below (by now this kind of vocal pedal is recognisable as a genuine Chabrier trademark) while the piano writing roves passionately in phrases which heave in great gusts of enthusiasm.

This is gestural music which paints the contortions of a handkerchief-brandishing concert artiste so effectively that the singer himself can afford to stand quite still while performing it. This passage is also remarkable for the interplay of counterpoint between the voice and the pianist’s bass line. These entwining tendrils could only have been dreamed up by a composer who knew Wagner’s Tristan by heart and was able to parody its clichés. The climax of the strophe is unashamedly theatrical: ‘Des lilas lilas’ (top notes sung forte, big piano flourishes in hysterical arpeggios) is superbly inappropriate for the words, and the musical pulsations associated with the ‘roses roses’ are equally over the top. This is a sly parody of the opera singer caught within the confines of the drawing-room and shocking all the refined guests with the brutality of his ardour. In writing to the song’s dedicatee, Chabrier referred to ‘Ta romance, Toutes les fleurs celle où il faut montrer au minimum 64 dents et dont le 3e couplet couplet veut être dit aves les yeux blancs, et la main sur la couture de la braguette, avec de délirantes baves et un feu de tous les diables…’. (‘Your romance Toutes les fleurs, where you have to show a minimum of 64 teeth and the third couplet of which has to be sung with white eyes and your hand on the seam of your trouser fly, with crazy slobbering and hell-for-leather passion…’). How such a piece which goes to these extremes manages a simultaneous aristocracy of expression, and retains our fascination in the brilliance of its musical procedures, is a mark of Chabrier’s almost indestructible classiness.

The second strophe is an exact repeat of the first: after a repeat of the introduction as interlude in standard Chabrier fashion, a whole new list of flowers is described with caressing affection and then dismissed in favour of those perennial favourites the lilac and the rose. And as Chabrier intimates in his letter to Van Dyck he has saved up something special for the third verse. As in Les Cigales this represents a softer, rather than a louder, peroration. Much of the musical material is the same, some of it is thinned and lightened with softer dynamics and a dream-like feeling which is this composer’s special way of depicting rapture. This is because the poet now concentrates on the subject of the beloved with her tea-coloured hair and lips in full bloom. All the horticultural comparisons are now revealed as flowery compliments galants with a personal motive. The most heady passage in this verse is at ‘Mais surtout’ with its entranced repetition of ‘surtout’ as if rooted to the spot by a vision of beauty; the singer plunges to the bottom of the stave at ‘je suis amoureux’ burying himself in the skirts of the piano writing which continues to swoon and wilt over his head (a lovely moment this for the pianist’s right hand!). When the singer comes up for air it is to attempt a succession of mezza voce high notes (marked ppp, quite unreasonably, by the composer) before recapturing his gusto for a final forte ‘Et des roses roses’. The pianist brings the song to a close with all the panache of a bull in a china shop, or perhaps a Heldentenor in a floral boutique.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002


Chabrier: Songs
L'heure exquise
Studio Master: CDA67962Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
My Garden
CDA66937Archive Service


Track 25 on CDA67133/4 CD2 [4'50] 2CDs
Track 7 on CDA67962 [4'45]
Track 18 on CDA66937 [4'30] Archive Service

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