Fauré & Debussy Album

THE BELLE EPOQUE is considered by some to have begun in 1880, and by others – perhaps those who think of it as the Fin de Siècle – in 1890. All are agreed, however, that it ended with the beginning of the First World War. The songs of Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy on these recordings span the whole of this “beautiful period”, from Debussy’s nostalgic mid-1880s settings of Les cloches (“The Bells”), Romance and Les angélus (“The Angelus”) to Fauré’s 1914 cycle Le jardin clos (“The Enclosed Garden”).

Most of the songs on this album received their first performances in the salons of Paris. There, in the homes of rich and aristocratic patrons of the arts, there were regular gatherings of musicians, painters, poets and writers who would exchange ideas and present their latest creations. Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, was one of these hostesses. She offered Fauré a large sum of money to write a short opera for which Paul Verlaine was to provide the words. By the late 1880s, however, Verlaine was an alcoholic, spending much of his time in hospital, and well past his prime. Fauré’s several attempts to get Verlaine to focus on the project proved fruitless and he had to give up. (Fauré was the organist at Verlaine’s funeral in 1896.)

Perhaps as a consolation prize for the princesse, Fauré offered her new settings of five poems that Verlaine published in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Two of these Chansons de Venise (written during and after a holiday in Venice in 1891) – Green and C’est l’extase – are included here, together with another Verlaine setting, Spleen, composed in 1888. Debussy too was attracted to Verlaine’s symbolism and had already set these three poems in 1887; they were republished in 1903, with certain modifications, as the Ariettes oubliées (“Forgotten Arias”). Confusingly, Fauré’s Spleen is the same poem as Debussy’s Il pleure dans mon cœur (“There is weeping in my heart”) but Debussy’s Spleen is another poem by Verlaine (not set by Fauré). Although the “Il pleure…” settings bear certain resemblances — a simple lyrical melody above the pitter-patter of raindrops; the similar vocalisations of “Quoi! Nulle trahison?” — the two treatments of C’est l’extase could not be more different.

In 1892, one year after writing the Chansons de Venise, Fauré began work on La bonne chanson (“The Good Song”). Verlaine’s series of poems to his fiançée Mathilde were the perfect vehicle for Fauré’s feelings at this time, enabling him to pour out pages full of passionate energy, joyful birdsong and exuberant arpeggios. He had just met and fallen in love with Emma Bardac, the wife of a wealthy banker. She held a salon not far from the Champs-Elysées and was a talented soprano. She reciprocated his love, and their relationship lasted for several years. Fauré showed Emma the sheets of manuscript as work progressed, and she is said to have given him advice and made suggestions.

Perhaps that is why La bonne chanson is by far the most singable of Fauré’s song cycles. The fairly limited compass of the vocal line, with its small intervals and lyrical melodies, where the voice is allowed to soar freely at its natural volume, and the beautifully paced phrases, all of just the right length, combine to show the voice in its best light. One has the feeling that Emma Bardac was perhaps not so much a virtuosic singer as a wise one.

Yet this ecstatic and vigorous cycle, where the piano does most of the hard work, did not go down well at its première in 1894. Proust loved it and considered it Fauré’s finest song cycle, but others found it too complicated. Perhaps they thought Fauré had gone a few twists too far down the harmonic road in J’allais par des chemins perfides (“I went along treacherous paths”), where he delights in wrong-footing his performers and listeners all the way. Perhaps, in an age when salon singing was supposed to be decorously restrained and self-controlled, they couldn’t stand the heat in the exhilarating closing song when Fauré, throwing caution to the wind, gave himself a starring role in the piano part, dashing at a mad gallop towards the finishing line, there to halt with a triumphant flourish before the final cooling down of the coda.

Fauré disliked unduly sentimental interpretations of his work, preferring to let the music speak for itself without overindulgent rubato and exaggerated musical expression. He was known as a human metronome, pressing on with his accompaniments and leaving in his wake any singers inclined to wallow. It is this forward momentum that makes his Bonne chanson cycle so exciting, leaving listener and performers alike quite breathless at the end of it.

Debussy, according to Proust, was one of those who disliked the Bonne chanson cycle. Certainly nothing could be further removed from this style of writing than his own Chansons de Bilitis [Bilitis songs], written only three years later in 1897. Set to the poems of his friend Pierre Louÿs, they contain heat of a different sort: the most overtly erotic writing in the whole of the French song repertoire of the time — as much in the piano part as in the vocal writing, where melody has almost given way to sung speech. Yet even at the climaxes, the voice is not allowed full rein. Debussy usually seems to require a vocal sound that is ethereal, otherworldly, disembodied. There is a feeling of restraint, of impression and suggestion, dictated by the colours he conjures in the piano part.  (Chevaux de bois  — “Wooden Horses” — in the Ariettes is a rare exception.)

A large or heavy voice would probably not marry well with the underlying liquid and delicate piano textures. Debussy constantly strove for subtlety and intimacy of sound and often played in public with the piano lid closed. Many of the singers who performed his songs had small voices with little vibrato. Whether he wrote the music to suit the voices or chose the singers to suit the music, the result is the same: Debussy seldom requires more than half voice, even in the so-called Wagnerian songs of the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (“Five Baudelaire Poems”) cycle.

The Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire were composed between 1887 and 1889. Le balcon (“The Balcony”), which opens the cycle, is the longest of Debussy’s songs. The dense chromatic harmonies may be Wagnerian in style, but the songs retain a lightness of touch that is unmistakably French. Le jet d’eau (“The Fountain”), with its gently cascading piano figurations, contrasts with the darker, more velvety atmosphere of the other songs in the cycle.

By the time Fauré began work on the Chanson d’Eve (“Song of Eve”) in 1906, Emma Bardac was living with Debussy, whom she married in 1908. Not only did the two men share the same woman (though Fauré’s relationship with Emma had ended well before she met Debussy) but they both composed music for Pelléas et Mélisande, a play by the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy’s opera lives on, but Fauré’s incidental music survives only as an orchestral suite of four extracts, plus the Chanson de Mélisande. Fauré re-used the theme of Mélisande’s song in the Chanson d’Eve, notably in the piano introduction to Paradis and as a recurring motif throughout Crépuscule (“Dusk”).

The Chanson d’Eve was completed in 1910. Quite different in character from La bonne chanson, it reflects the vague and abstract poetry of another Belgian symbolist, Charles Van Lerberghe. The flamboyant piano writing of La bonne chanson has given way to something simpler and altogether more introspective. The first song Paradis, evoking the creation of the world with its single-note opening, is perhaps the most strikingly original (in every sense) song in the cycle and is a world away from anything that Fauré wrote before it. He must have been attracted to Van Lerberghe’s writing because it suited the increasingly reflective and abstract nature of his own compositions at this stage in his life, when hearing problems were beginning to confine his sound-world to his mind’s ear.

Le jardin clos, with its pre-raphaelite imagery, is of the same mould as the Eve cycle but even more mystical and obscure. Written in 1914, its final song Inscription sur le sable (“Writing in the Sand”) reflects the sense of loss that Fauré must have felt as his son, his students and his staff at the Conservatoire went off to war. The long period of peace and prosperity enjoyed in the Belle Epoque was over.  Superficially, Le jardin clos has some parallels with the Chanson d’Eve. Each cycle ends with a “death” song consisting of a calm and unadorned vocal line intoning above softly tolling piano chords. The second song in Eve has a similar structure to the fifth in Le jardin clos. Busy, shimmering accompaniments characterise the fifth and seventh songs of Eve and the third and seventh songs of Le jardin clos. But what marks all of Fauré’s output more than anything else, in the extroverted and introverted songs alike, is an infinite tenderness.

Fauré’s southern accent, with its distinctly articulated feminine endings, bears evidence in the way he set words to music. Many final “e”s that would be unstressed and often unsounded in standard French are not only vocalised as separate syllables in his songs but elongated, sometimes for several beats or even whole bars. This is particularly evident in the Jardin clos cycle, indicating that, even after a lifetime in Paris, Fauré never lost sight of his Mediterranean origins. The weighting of final syllables, especially when placed on strong musical beats, must have sounded strange to the northern ears of Van Lerberghe and contrasts oddly with the delicacy of Fauré’s music.

The recordings on this album are not studio or concert-hall recordings. Instead they attempt to represent a salon performance. They were made in a private house with a domestic-sized piano and a single pair of microphones.

Vierne & Ravel Album

Louis Vierne and Maurice Ravel were close contemporaries, born five years apart and dying in the same year (1937). They had Gabriel Fauré as a common point of reference — Fauré was the former’s spiritual mentor and the latter’s actual mentor at the Paris Conservatoire — yet their composition styles had nothing in common. Ravel went in the direction of impressionism, while Vierne chose the path of expressionism.

That Vierne wrote pieces for voice and piano usually comes as a surprise to devotees of his organ music as well as to lovers of the mélodie genre. Vierne’s output was in fact sufficient to categorize him as a major mélodiste: he wrote about sixty songs, many of which he later orchestrated, as well as several works for voice and orchestra. Most of the songs were out of print at the time of this recording, which is probably the main reason for their neglect thus far, as their quality is not in doubt.

This album contains all the voce-and-piano songs from his mature years (excluding for the four songs with harp accompaniment) for which scores exist in archives or national libraries. Also included are three earlier mélodies that are in print, two of which have never been recorded. Ravel’s Histoires naturelles cycle about birds and insects (also featured as flm shorts on YouTube) closes the second disc and complements Vierne’s setting of “Les Hiboux” (“The Owls”).

In his biography of Louis Vierne, Bernard Gavoty said that “he stood halfway between Franck and Fauré, was less ecstatic than the former but less pure than the latter, was more profoundly lyrical than both, and generally allied himself to a more absolute romanticism.” One might add that whereas Fauré was always elegant and refined in his composition, and generally chose poems that would enable him to reflect those qualities in his music, Vierne was more elemental, more overtly passionate and, by some gothically tragic streak in his nature, was naturally drawn to poems that featured lightning storms and maelstroms, turmoil and tormented souls. Vierne recalled how Ravel once accused him, albeit in the nicest way, of having a perverse fondness for so-called romantic music — “that music which one listens to with one’s fists in one’s eyes”. Vierne replied to Ravel that he would sooner have his fists in his eyes than be obliged to use them to block his ears, at which they both laughed.

Inspired by the verses of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Jean Richepin, the virtually blind Vierne gave flight to his imagination in vividly colourful depictions of every human condition from ecstasy to despair. The scenery in these songs ranges from the cold stillness of a winter’s day to the full ferocity of a storm at sea and includes all manner of creatures, from butterflies and birds to angels and witches.

Vierne’s piano parts can be dense and almost symphonic in scope but are often punctuated with the sort of crisp and tricky detail (e.g. “Sérénade”, with its rattling skeletons, or the horse’s hooves in “Le Galop”) that makes them much more than mere accompaniment. Voice and piano are truly equal partners in most of the settings. Indeed, in some of the sea-songs, it seems that the piano has the principal role as the voice struggles to make the poem heard above the whoosh of the spray, the roar of the wind, the crash of the waves and the crack of thunder.

Louis Vierne loved to accompany singers at fashionable soirées in Parisian salons, but two interpreters of his mélodies played prominent parts in his life. Jeanne Montjovet was a young and talented soprano with whom he shared his life for a time and for whom he wrote his first major cycle, the Stances d’amour et de rêve (poems by Sully Prudhomme) in 1912. His muse for the two great song cycles of the 1920s and during the rest of his life was Madeleine Richepin, a cousin of Jean Richepin who contributed the verses for the Poème de l’amour. This long cycle of fifteen songs was written in 1924, three years after the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire.

The Spleens et détresses cycle (1917) of Verlaine settings contains some of Vierne’s most dramatic writing but also some of his most hauntingly beautiful, notably “Promenade sentimentale” and “Le Son du cor” (“The Sound of the Hunting Horn”). Written before Vierne met Madeleine Richepin, the cycle was premièred by its dedicatee, the Comtesse du Boisrouvray.

Although Vierne’s songs can, for the most part, be appreciated as pieces of music for their own sake, without necessarily knowing what the individual words mean, especially in the case of such strophic songs as “Le Rouet” (“The Spinning-wheel”) or “À l’hirondelle” (“To the Swallow”), the same cannot be said for Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, where the tales are narrated in a quasi-parlando style and each word is given its own special musical treatment. To miss the punch-lines is to lose more than half the point of the music. Speech rhythms and inflexions are used throughout, and Ravel demanded that singers abandon the classical singing convention of voicing final “e”s that are normally silent in speech. Jules Renard’s prose poems recall the fables of La Fontaine or Aesop. On 12 January 1907, Renard wrote in his diary:

M. Ravel, the dark, rich and elegant musician of the Histoires naturelles, insists that I go to listen to his mélodies tonight. I told him of my ignorance in such matters and asked him what he could possibly add to the stories. “My aim was not to add to them but to interpret them,” he replied. “Why? What’s the point?” I asked. “To say with music what you say with words when you are, for instance, in front of a tree,” Ravel said. “I think and feel in musical terms. There is instinctive, sentimental music — mine … and there is intellectual music — that of Indy. There will be only Indys in the audience tonight … so this will be an important test. At least I have confidence in my interpreter: she is admirable.”

The interpreter in question was Jane Bathori, but the piece, premièred that night at the Salle Erard in Paris, was ill-received by audience and critics alike. Pierre Lalo, in Le Temps, described it as “café-concert music with ninths”. Had Monsieur Lalo ever sat on a riverbank and watched a kingfisher, or seen guinea-fowl chasing chickens in a farmyard, he would surely not have dismissed Ravel’s keenly observed transcriptions so readily.

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In line with our previous album of mélodies of Fauré and Debussy, the recordings on this album are not studio or concert-hall recordings. They were made in a private house with a drawing-room grand piano and a single pair of microphones. Perhaps this makes them more representative of what might have been heard at a salon performance.

Notes by Corinne Orde