Schmuggler unter_einer alten Eiche bei Mondaufgang - Eduard_ Leonhardi
Smugglers Beneath an Old Oak as the Moon Rises (fragment) - E. Leonhardi

This blog began in February 2012 with a Lied by Schubert (of course), and after Strauss, Schumann, Duparc, Mahler and Vaughan Williams, we heard Fauré in April. I've never planned the contents in chronological order or any kind of order, I leave that for my courses; They are songs who usually asked me to be shared, and those first posts mostly respond to the request of songs so often heard. We've heard six more works by Gabriel Fauré so far, and while preparing this article in which we're listening to the eight one, I realized that I haven't talked yet about his importance as a composer of mélodie. Maybe it's time to write some lines about because Fauré is a central figure of the genre.

The birth of the mélodie is usually set around 1870, coinciding with the Franco-Prussian War, the arrival of the Third Republic and the rise of the Parnassian poets; it would replace romance (the French song until then) by taking Lied as a reference. Two composers of similar age head this musical renewal: Fauré, born in 1845, and Henri Duparc, born three years later. With them, songs begin to really attach importance to poems, paying attention to intelligibility and prosody; those two issues were secondary to the romance, which particularly focused on voice.

Fauré and Duparc followed similar paths for a time. They studied together, were friends, admired each other's work, and also shared admiration for German music in general, and Wagner in particular. However, Duparc's health problems caused him to retire young and his legacy is reduced to barely seventeen songs. Fauré's career was different: His first mélodie, Le papillon et la fleur, was composed around 1860 and his last cycle, L'horizon chimérique, in 1921, three years before his death. So we're talking about sixty years of career; when you learn about Fauré you learn, in practice, about the history of mélodie, if you allow me the hyperbole. The around a hundred songs he composed, the most significant part of his work, is usually divided into three periods:

  • The first one ends between 1880–1890, depending on the authors; taking the lower limit, it basically includes the songs of Vingt mélodies. Premier recueil (Fauré's catalogue was revised ten years ago and now includes new entries from the early years). We still hear many influences, but the songs are irresistible; Tristesse or Au bord de l'eau are examples of this time.
  • The second period ends about 1904. During these years, Fauré chooses poems more consistently and writes more personal music, and also writes the first song cycles. If we take 1880 as the limit between the first two periods, we've listened to songs as beautiful as Notre amour or Clair de lune.
  • Finally, the third period is marked by the composer's deafness. Progressively, Fauré isolates himself, and loses contact with the music of his time. Songs throw off the lyricism that characterized them and tend to declamation, the music increasingly gets refined, becoming self-absorbed, fascinating music. We haven't heard any songs from this period so far, but we'll leave it for another day because...

...my aim for this week was to listen to Le secret, a gorgeous song, in my opinion. Everything else came later. Le secret is, as its name suggests, a mysterious, restrained and, at the same time, moving song; its slow, melancholy melody and the simple accompaniment, some chords that enhance the words, give it a religious feel. Fauré composed Le secret in 1881, from a poem by Armand Silvestre included in the collection Le pays des roses, published the following year; he was supposed to work with a manuscript copy of the poem. The song is included in the second collection of Vingt mélodies and follows another one with the same poet, Notre amour.

Silvester is virtually unknown today, but this trained engineer, art critic, had a very close relationship with music. Not only because, in addition to Fauré, other contemporaries such as Tosti, Chaminade, Massenet, Delibes or Chausson wrote songs with his poems, but because he wrote the libretti for some thirty operas, most of which I admit I don't know even the composer. Nowadays, the poet is known because of Fauré, who composed ten mélodies with his poems between 1878 and 1884; in 1904, shortly after his death, two more songs came. The poem of Le secret is named Mystère; Fauré added to the score some elisions not usual in French that I'm also reproducing; if not, you could think that the singers forgot the essentials of French.

Le secret is an elegant mélodie, and the performers must convey both that elegance and the devotion implicit in the song; this requires acquaint oneself with it. Therefore, it's a very difficult song to sing, and Poulenc's quote referring to his mélodie Nous avons fait la nuit just explained to us why: “It is difficult to convince the performers that in a love poem, calm can only result into intensity”. It's one of those songs that creates a sense of great anticipation in a recital, and there are only two options: it's disappointing or you have a lump in your throat. I've chosen Simon Keenlyside's version, I hope you like it as much as I do. This time, he is not accompanied by Malcolm Martineau (and I miss him) but by Caroline Dowdle.

We're opening the 2020-2021 season with a wonderful song; I hope it will be better than the one that ends, in all senses, and I hope we can enjoy music in concert halls and opera houses.


Le secret

Je veux que le matin l’ignore
Le nom que j’ai dit à la nuit,
Et qu’au vent de l’aube, sans bruit,
Comme une larm' il s’évapore.

Je veux que le jour le proclame
L’amour qu’au matin j’ai caché,
Et, sur mon cœur ouvert penché,
Comm'un grain d’encens il l’enflamme.

Je veux que le couchant l’oublie
Le secret que j’ai dit au jour
Et l’emporte avec mon amour,
Aux plis de sa robe pâlie!

I want the morning not to know
the name that I told to the night;
in the dawn wind, silently,
may it evaporate like a teardrop.

I want the day to proclaim
the love that I hid from the morning,
and (bent over my open heart)
to set it aflame, like a grain of incense.

I want the sunset to forget
the secret I told to the day,
and to carry it away with my love
in the folds of its pale robe!

(translation by Peter Low)

 

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Comments (2)

  • Charly

    Hello ! I wanted to react about this point in your article : the difference between Romances and Mélodie. I think the difference is more than chronological (and 1870 seems to be very late for the birth of this genre !), but it is also more than a difference of relation to the words (I read your article about romance too, and the emphasis on the words and intelligibility which would be a characteristic of the Mélodies). I think the true difference is is the ambition of the works : Mélodies can have higher musical ambition (complexity, density of musical ideas, links with the words …) and Berlioz is a pioneer with his Nuits d’été in this aspect. In French « Romance » can be a slightly depreciative term, referring to an enjoyable piece of music, with no deep musical or psychological complexity. They could be sung by both professional and amateur musicians in the pre-revolution or empire’s salons. This lightness is probably what Debussy has in mind when he called two of his melodies « 2 romances ».
    But that being said, here is something I would never argue about : Le Secret is a masterpiece, thanks for sharing :-)

  • Sílvia

    Hello Charly, and thank you very much for your thoughts. I agree with you that 'Les nuits d'étè' marks a milestone in French song, its artistic ambition and quality go far beyond the "usual" or previous Romance. But I wouldn't call these songs Mélodies, their (wonderful) music doesn't fit what I understand as Mélodie, Let's say they are high-level Romance :)). Berlioz, Gounod, Massenet, Bizet, in my opinion, rework Romance and compose a new kind of song that, in addition to other characteristics we mentioned previously, tends to an operatic conception of song and is essentially Romanticism, unlike what I call Mélodie. I wonder if we could talk about Romantic Mélodie (Berlioz et at) and Mélodie (Fauré et al), as we talk about Classical Lied and (Romantic) Lied...

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