A Note on the Music
We begin with poetry, with movement, with a beckoning outstretched hand: Henri Duparc’s Invitation au voyage, based on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire is welcoming and sensual, promising and understated. An apt beginning, then, for a recital of some of the most exquisite songs and arias in the repertoire. The Invitation, written around 1870, is distinctly French, but takes inspiration from Richard Wagner (it is said that Duparc heard Rheingold in 1869, and was greatly taken by the work). You can hear the passion in the poetry – Baudelaire was desperately in love with the actress, Marie Daubrun, as he was writing, and he uses the verses to describe a great trip he would take. It’s a journey of the mind more than it is of the body, which is perhaps the reason it translates so well to music; we are able to traverse the world of Baudelaire’s imagination, via Duparc’s notes in an instant from our seat in the concert hall. Duparc’s other showings on the program – his Chansons triste (1868) and Le manoir de Rosemonde (1879) - give insight into the composer’s development. The early pieces speaking to his great reverence for his teacher, César Franck, and the clear influence of Franz Liszt and the aforementioned Wagner. By the time we visit Rosemonde, Duparc was working on bigger projects, specifically a larger operatic work, Roussalka, a piece ultimately abandoned when the composer later left the composition life altogether at the onset of mental illness.
Charles Gonoud, a man who wrote a significant twelve operas in his lifetime, revising them until the day he died, composed Faust to only mild success in 1859. Though it had a slow commercial beginning, Faust became not only one of Gounod’s best loved operas, but also one of the most frequently staged works of all time. “Elles se cachaient...Il ne revient pas” sings Marguerite at her spinning wheel, of her loneliness and the deep betrayal caused by Faust, who slept beside her and did not return. Federico Moreno Torroba’s aria Amor, vida de mi vida from the opera Maravilla echoes this sadness in love – the gifted but luckless singer Rafael is in love with Elvira, who happens to be in a relationship already.
Hopeless love is continued in the two great arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos: in Tu che le vanità, the French princess Élisabeth, who has married the elderly King Philip II of Spain for political reasons, prepares for the arrival of her once-fiancé, now stepson Don Carlos. She, a devoutly religious and loyal woman, broke her happy engagement for the good of the two nations, and sings a this prayer for all those in her life – her husband, so he may lead well and with benevolence, for Don Carlos, who she remembers with such fondness, and for herself, and the peace she knows she will find in death. Rodrigo, Don Carlos’ great confidante, who is about to falsely confess to the treason his friend is currently on death row for, sings of his great love for Carlos in Per me giunto. It is in equal parts heart-breaking and heartening – the celebration of male friendship as potent today as it was at its premiere in 1867.
Just a few years later in 1871, Gabriel Fauré’s music had taken on a “new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy” that became evidence in his song writing, particularly in La Chanson du pêcheur. Gone were the days of Fauré’s great, young charm. He had arrived at a new chapter, this one mature, with a greater understanding of poetry, and a deepening interest in musical experimentation. Later still, in the writing of Automne as a 33-year-old, Fauré took the pleasant enough season and transformed it into a metaphor for the inevitability of passing time, and the elusiveness of memory. Here was a man with an ever-expanding understanding of the world he was living in, and the heartbreak that lay just around the corner. The text, by poet Paul-Armand Silvestre, paints an evocative picture: “Autumn, time of misty skies and heart-breaking horizons, of rapid sunsets and pale dawns, I watch your melancholy days flow past like a torrent”. The music echoes this gloomy feeling, it is circular, moving its listener into a sense of timelessness. We are stuck in a loop – musical memories repeating and returning as if stuck in an almost Groundhog Day-like pattern.
Jules Massenet’s Élégie is another musical depiction of melancholy, written specifically to praise and express sorrow for one who has passed away. Massenet’s Élégie, in its many forms, was one of the most popular pieces in the last decades of the nineteenth century – the sorrowful melody reaching the hearts of many. Originally written for cello, and later adapted for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles, the piece was eventually set to Louis Gallet’s poem ‘O doux printemps d’autrefois’. The composers Nuit d’Espagne shows a different side of Massenet. The piece finds joy in the world, in nature, in love. There is a subtle recognition of darkness, but the piece, after a small interlude of self-awareness (You understand me, cruel one, and you do not come), returns to its glad beginnings. “The night is serene, calm my heart!” goes the poem, “it’s time for love!”
Reynaldo Hahn also uses his songs to discuss the great themes of human existence – love, loss and time passing. In L’enamourée, he keeps his long-lost love alive by thinking of them at night. Conjuring up their image makes them real, if only for a second. With a similar reverence for the power of nature, L’heure exquise explores the possibilities that occur in the evening as “the white moon gleams in the woods... let us dream”, the poem goes, “it is the hour”.
In what would be one of Maurice Ravel’s last compositions, the composer was working with an incredibly strict composition brief from the Austrian film-maker, Georg Pabst. For his film about the Spanish Knight, Don Quichotte, Pabst asked for “a serenade, a heroic song and a comic one”, and while Ravel did not ever deliver (Ibert was hired to replace him), the Trois chansons de Don Quichotte a Dulcinée are wonderful vignettes, showing off Ravels absolute understanding of rhythm and colouring. The three pieces are dances: first, a quajira – a Spanish dance that alternates between bars of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythm. Then, a zortzico – a dance rhythm from Basque Country. The final piece is worked into the rhythm of the jota, a genre of music and dance originating in Aragon. The story is a well-known one: the many personality deficiencies of Don Quichotte. He is a lover, a holy warrior and a drinker, each represented in its own song.
Ravel was not the only 19th century French composer to become fascinated with the sounds and rhythms of Spain. In fact, there was something of a trend in France from the middle of the century: locals were fascinated with the “exotic other”, and the rhythms and melodies of Spain became firm favourites of the French audience, and consistent inspiration for the creatives. Léo Delibes was drawn to the sounds of Spanish music, and his Les filles de Cadix (The Maids of Cadix) became an immediate hit with keen listeners in France.
Spain’s reach was further reaching than Europe, though, and the Mexican composer Agustín Lara wrote his hit song Granada about the Spanish city in several versions: the original Spanish lyrics, an English translation, and the multiple instrumental versions in jazz, pop, easy listening, flamenco and rock styles! It is an upbeat end, after the expansive emotional terrain we have wandered, but it is still a song of love – this time, for a wonderful place, full of stories and culture. Perhaps there is heartbreak around the corner (we are still in the world of opera, after all), but for now, there is only the magic of Granada.