Mélodies III: Fauré in Isfahan – the later works

John Shakespeare Dyson completes his series of articles on the French ‘chanson’

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 27, 2020

With this, the sixth and final instalment in our series of articles on composers of chansons – French art songs – we conclude our exploration of the songs of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). In this particular blog we will be examining the songs he wrote later in his life – from 1896 onwards.

But first we will take a short break from the human voice, and look at some of the instrumental works Fauré produced in the late 1890s and early 1900s. His Sicilienne for cello and piano, for instance, was written in 1898. In this recording the cellist is Steven Isserlis and the pianist Pascal Devoyon:

An anecdote: Steven Isserlis’s pianist grandfather was one of 12 musicians who were allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian music (a surprising concession, perhaps, in view of the fact that he was Jewish). When he arrived in Vienna with his son and set about looking for somewhere to live, he found a suitable flat – but was turned down by the 102-year-old landlady for a reason he had not anticipated: he was a musician. She told him that her aunt had once had a musician tenant who was noisy and spat on the floor. The tenant she was referring to was Ludwig van Beethoven. 

I am pleased to see a painting (The Turn of the Road) by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), a native of Leeds, accompanying the above recording. For those who would like to see more of Grimshaw’s work, here is a YouTube video with music from Shostakovich’s First Symphony. As an asthmatic brought up in the North of England in the 1950s and 1960s, I can sympathise with the lady who appears at 01:27 – has she been asphyxiated, I wonder, by the dreadful air quality that was prevalent in northern towns before the Clean Air Act of 1968?

Though Fauré’s Piano Quintet No 1 is praised for its ‘effortless spontaneity’, in fact it cost the composer a great deal of effort over many years. Written mostly during his summer holidays from the Paris Conservatoire between 1903 and 1905 – though parts of it date from previous decades – it was dedicated to the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931, dubbed ‘King of the Violin’), and first performed in 1906. The programme notes by Adrian Corleonis on the AllMusic website tell you all you need to know. Although he has a liking for using weird words (I had to look up ‘bourne’ – ‘destination, goal’ or ‘boundary, limit’), they are well written.

In this recording the quintet is played by the Auryn Quartet with Peter Orth at the piano. The opening of the third movement (at 21:46) has a decidedly Russian feel to it:

Why do I not list any of the individual chansons (as opposed to song cycles) that Fauré wrote during this period, you may ask? Quite simply, because I cannot stand listening to them. To me, the aimless shifting around between keys does not gel into a musically satisfactory idiom – though I admit that in certain cases, such as that of Prokofiev, ‘shifting around between keys’ can have enough edge to render it meaningful. Fauré’s characteristic blandness does not always work to his advantage, I am afraid. To tell the truth, after I had bravely sampled eight of the chansons of this period in the hope of coming across some unsuspected pearl, I gave up, feeling as if I was sinking into a morass of modulations (or, perhaps, mudulations?).

In 1905, having been a composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire for the previous nine years, Fauré was appointed head of this august institution amid a furore. Accusations had been made that reactionary elements within the Conservatoire had unfairly deprived his pupil Maurice Ravel of the prestigious Prix de Rome, and Dubois, the incumbent head (and quite possibly one of the architects of the stitch-up) resigned in protest. Fauré took over and, with the support of the French government, brought about sweeping reforms. He appointed external examiners to decide on admissions, thus depriving faculty members of their income from private pupils who had hitherto been admitted via the back door. Many of them resigned in high dudgeon. He also broadened the curriculum to permit the study of a wide range of composers (from the polyphonists of the Renaissance to Wagner and Debussy) whose names it had previously been forbidden even to pronounce. As a result, he was dubbed ‘Robespierre’ by the disaffected diehards.   

But although this new position freed Fauré from any remaining financial difficulties (he had a wife and two sons to look after), it once again left him little time for composition. As a result, as soon as the Conservatoire had closed its doors for the summer he would head off to some rural retreat – usually by the Swiss lakes – to spend the late summer and early autumn writing music. It was at this period in his life that he wrote the song cycle La chanson d’Ève – settings of ten poems by the Belgian symbolist poet Charles van Lerberghe which, though begun in 1906, were not finished until 1910. English versions of the poems are not available on the Oxford Lieder or Mélodies Treasury websites, so on this occasion I will provide a link to Barbara Meister’s book Nineteenth-Century French Song: Fauré, Chausson, Duparc, and Debussy, in which there are musical analyses of the songs as well as partial translations. Scroll up to page 132 for the beginning of the article on La chanson d’Ève:

First of all, here is a recording of my favourite song of the ten – Crépuscule (‘Twilight’), which is number nine in the sequence but was actually the first to be composed. Whatever style he may adopt in his more complicated moments, Fauré always does simplicity well. Here are the singer is Dawn Upshaw and her accompanist Gilbert Kalish:

Now, the whole cycle from Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin:

1908 saw a burgeoning of Fauré’s popularity across the Channel. In that year he was invited to play at Buckingham Palace, and the opening of this door led to the opening of others. He also attended the first performance of Elgar’s First Symphony, and dined with the composer. Fauré was in fact no stranger to Britain, having visited London three times in 1898 to get his music published there and to promote his compositions – a process in which he was aided and abetted by Adela Maddison, a good-looking Irish brunette. She was a composer herself as well as a concert producer, and after introducing him to the London music scene she became his student (and, it is claimed, his lover), abandoning her husband to move to Paris. Another conquest for Gabriel the Babe Magnet!

An aside: while in the French capital, Adela Maddison hosted the first performance of Frederick Delius’s opera Koanga. Delius was the son of a German wool merchant who lived in Bradford (his first name was actually Fritz), and was therefore almost a neighbour of the artist John Atkinson Grimshaw. Wikipedia gives us the following information: ‘Koanga is reputed to be the first opera in the European tradition to base much of its melodic material on African-American music.’ Delius had in fact been inspired to begin writing music by listening to the singing of African Americans during the two years he spent in Florida in the 1880s. Here is La Calinda, an instrumental interlude from Koanga, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Barry Wordsworth. They take the piece a lot slower than Sir Thomas Beecham did (Delius himself was often on hand to give him advice), but I like the result:

Now, back to Fauré. The year 1909 was one of further ructions in Paris. A group of young composers – including, among others, Ravel – broke away from the Société Nationale de Musique, which had become reactionary under the stewardship of Vincent d’Indy (who in the late 1920s was to become the Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s teacher of composition), and founded the Société Musicale Indépendante. Typically, though Fauré accepted the presidency of the new organisation, he remained on good terms with d’Indy. Of greater seriousness was the onset of hearing problems. In the years before the First World War he not only began to go deaf but also developed a condition in which high and low notes sounded painfully out of tune. When seeking the cause of this affliction, the astrologer looks at the air signs in his birth chart – sounds being transmitted through the medium of air – and notes that Saturn and Mars, the traditional ‘malefics’ (evil-doers), are both in Aquarius, an air sign.

It is to Fauré's credit that in July 1914, as Austria-Hungary and Serbia were facing off during the so-called July Crisis, he was able to concentrate on his art sufficiently well to begin another song cycle – Le jardin clos (The Enclosed Garden), which was finished the following November. Having chosen Bad Ems, a spa town in Rheinland Pfalz, as the location for his annual retreat (perhaps in the hope that the spa water would cure his hearing impairment), he nearly found himself on the wrong side of the border when war broke out. Crossing over to Switzerland just in time, he eventually made it back to Paris via Geneva.

The eight poems in Le jardin clos are once again by Lerberghe. As with La chanson d’Ève, partial English translations, as well as analyses, are available in Barbara Meister’s book. Scroll up to page 149 for the beginning of the article on Le jardin clos.

I regret that I am obliged to disagree with Ms Meister’s comment that ‘In Le jardin clos Fauré’s characteristic restraint and subtlety are carried to an extreme. Only after repeated hearings do the songs yield their charm and beauty.’ The only justification I can offer for my negative reaction is that I am not alone in disliking the style Fauré adopted during this period. On December 27, 1915, Saint-Saëns wrote to him as follows: ‘Do not curse me if I confess to you that Le jardin clos is not taking me into its confidence, and that the poetry is as inhospitable to me as the music.’ He goes on to compare Le jardin clos unfavourably with Les roses d’Ispahan… but more of that anon. As with the previous cycle, I will begin by presenting a recording of the song I am most comfortable with – in this case, the last: Inscription sur le sable (Inscription on the Sand). In this recording the performers are Jacques Herbillon and Théodore Paraskivesco:

By the way, Théodore Paraskivesco (a Romanian by birth) is to my mind one of the very best interpreters of Debussy – he won the Prix Debussy in 1970. His recording of the two books of Préludes, available on YouTube, is well worth a visit:

Now, here is the complete Le jardin clos cycle performed by Noémie Pérugia (1903-1992), famed in her day for her performances of Fauré’s chansons. Her accompanist in this flawed recording, made in 1941, is Joseph Benvenuti. Crackle- and wobble-haters may wish to skip to the recording after this one:

Those who do not share my recidivistic tendencies (I love old recordings) are welcome to listen instead to a more recent rendition by Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin:

During the war years, Fauré demonstrated his sense of fairness and moderation by refusing to participate in a boycott of German music proposed by Saint-Saëns. Wikipedia tells us that ‘Fauré did not recognise nationalism in music, seeing in his art “a language belonging to a country so far above all others that it is dragged down when it has to express feelings or individual traits that belong to any particular nation”.’ This attitude is all the more praiseworthy for being one adopted by a man whose music was not well liked in Germany – and whose Moon, moreover, was in Cancer, the sign most closely associated with nationalism.

His next song cycle, Mirages, was written in 1919. The four poems on which the music is based are by Baronne Renée de Brimont. English translations by Christopher Goldsack are available on the Mélodies Treasury website.

Here I heave a hefty sigh of relief: at last I can say something nice about the composer’s style! By this time Fauré seems to have reached a plateau from which he can view all the recent developments in modernism and pick out only those that resonate with him. The result is an imbuing of the adventurous modulations of his post-1890 style with a new stability, confidence and serenity. It gives me great pleasure, also, to repeat a video in which Marianne Crebassa and Fazıl Say perform these songs – two of which formed part of their January recital at the Wigmore Hall. The concert was streamed online on May 11 and 12, and this recording was featured in one of my blogs on the subject:

In accordance with the Tao Te Ching’s dictum (in the translation by DC Lau) that ‘Not to value the teacher… Though it seems clever, betrays great bewilderment,’ I now present a 1936 recording of Jardin nocturne, the third song in the Mirages cycle, by Pierre Bernac (1899-1979). Among Bernac’s pupils were Elly Ameling, Jessye Norman and Gérard Souzay. The pianist is the composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Bernac’s companion on the stage for 25 years. In fact, Poulenc wrote 90 songs specifically for him:

I wonder whether you will agree that in Mirages Fauré achieves a sense of continuity that was absent in La bonne chanson, La chanson d’Ève and Le jardin clos? It seems to me that now the music has a much better sense of direction. The modulations are more skilfully managed: they actually go somewhere, enhancing rather than disrupting the phrasing of the melodic line. As an illustration of this, in the first one, Cygne sur l’eau (Swan on the Water), listen to the way in which the series of modulations that begins at 01:15 plays out over the next 30 seconds. To save you having to scroll up to it, here is a repeat of the link to the Marianne Crebassa / Fazıl Say performance:

I would conclude that in this song cycle the composer has finally hit upon a tonal idiom in which he is comfortable. Taureans like to know the limitations within which they can operate, ‘definite’ being one of their keywords. Having established the limits to which he is willing to push tonality, Fauré can now play happily within them. In Reflets dans l’eau, the second song, which begins at 03:25, I am particularly impressed by the way the piano works up to a climax founded on a first-inversion chord of A major (this starts at 06:08), then lets it fade away before coming back for two more hits – or in this case, two more swirls in the water. All built on top of that C sharp in the bass, and modern in the finest sense.

The part of Reflets dans l’eau that I have just alluded to is the one where the poetess looks at her reflection in the water and thinks about sliding in. (Don’t do it, dear! It didn’t do Virginia Woolf any good!) In terms of the piece’s structure, this is where the interesting stuff begins. For the academically minded, here is a link to a brilliant piece by Roy Howat on the use of Golden Section in this song. It comes from Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis, published by Cambridge University Press. (You will need to scroll up to page 192 for the beginning of the section on Fauré’s Reflets dans l’eau.) The contents page – page vii – gives you an overview of the rest of this scrumptious book, which is a ground-breaking analysis of the architectural principles, including the Fibonacci sequence, that Debussy and others applied in many of their works:

The first performance of Mirages took place at the end of 1919 with Fauré as accompanist. This was the last occasion on which he played at the Société Nationale de Musique, his hearing loss having by now become total. In 1920, the year he retired from the Conservatoire, he received the grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur, an award rarely given to musicians.

L’horizon chimérique (The Illusory Horizon), his last song cycle, was written in 1921. It is based on four poems by Jean de La Ville de Mirmont. The Oxford Lieder website supplies us with English translations by Richard Stokes: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/26

In the following recording, made in 1936 (no apologies this time – the quality isn’t all that bad), the singer is the celebrated Swiss baritone Charles Panzéra, to whom the cycle was dedicated. He is accompanied by his wife, Magdeleine Panzéra-Baillot:

As you will have discovered if you perused the notes under the YouTube video above, in 1922 Alexandre Millerand, the President of the French Republic, led a public tribute to Fauré. The Musical Times described it as ‘a splendid celebration at the Sorbonne, in which the most illustrious French artists participated, [which] brought him great joy. It was a poignant spectacle, indeed: that of a man present at a concert of his own works and able to hear not a single note. He sat gazing before him pensively, and, in spite of everything, grateful and content.’

Despite his Taurean placidity, a quality much praised in Hexagram 30 of the I Ching (‘Care of the cow brings good fortune’), towards the end of his life Fauré did not enjoy good health, one reason being that he was a heavy smoker. He did, however, have the emotional support of Marguerite Hasselmans, his faithful mistress since 1900. A lady of great beauty, intelligence and sensitivity who was 30 years his junior, she was at his bedside when he died of pneumonia on November 4, 1924, at the age of 79.

And so we come to the songs of Fauré’s middle period that I have been so churlishly withholding until now. They are, of course, some of my favourites, and are three in number. Chanson d’amour, a setting of a poem by Armand Silvestre, dates from 1882. Here is Richard Stokes’s English translation from the Oxford Lieder website: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/76

In this first video the Canadian soprano Lois Marshall is accompanied by Stuart Hamilton. You also get the score, and so will be able to follow the series of seamlessly managed modulations that takes place from 0:27 to 0:44, and the excursion at 01:13 into F sharp major – one of the last keys you would expect a song based in G major to arrive at within such a short space of time. But the amazing thing is that none of these meanderings in and out of remote keys sounds forced:

Now, a performance of Chanson d’amour by Barbara Bonney, accompanied by Warren Jones:

Song Number Two is a setting of Après un rêve (After a Dream), a poem originating in Italy – the French version is by Romain Bussine – that was composed in or around 1877. I strongly recommend that you investigate the lyrics, available here in Richard Stokes’s English translation from the Oxford Lieder website: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/15

Après un rêve, which recounts a dream of flight through the skies with a lover and the subsequent bitter awakening to reality, is not just a cracking good song but also the ultimate expression of the composer’s Saturn-Neptune conjunction. Neptune’s fantasies of idealised love (after all, he is known as the ‘higher arc’ of Venus) are punctured and brought down to earth with a bang by ‘Get real, dude!’ Saturn. Literary readers may be reminded of JG Ballard’s sci-fi novel The Unlimited Dream Company, in which the hero teaches the inhabitants of the London suburb of Shepperton to fly, and they all take off into the firmament together. At the beginning and end of the following video – in which Après un rêve is sung by Elly Ameling – we get to see what the late Mr Dalton Baldwin, the skilful accompanist we have heard in so many of the chansons explored in this series of blogs, actually looked like:

In the next video Après un rêve is sung with gusto by Gérard Souzay. He certainly belts it out. In fact he completely drowns the piano in some places. The accompanist left in the shade is Jacqueline Bonneau:

Before leaving this song, I will hazard the opinion that the following rendition by Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard Amner is of outstanding merit. The slow tempo allows you to savour her voice to the full, and – if you wish – to wallow in the angst and victimhood:

And now, Song Number Three. It is, of course, the long-awaited Les roses d’Ispahan, composed in 1884. Here is Richard Stokes’s translation of the Orientalist poem by Leconte de Lisle – who (as you might guess) never visited Isfahan in his life. Fauré’s setting includes only four verses of the original six.

I myself was tempted to take a plane to Isfahan when staying in Tehran in 1976, but in the end I decided not to shirk my duties at the house in the suburb of Tajrish in which I was living while its owners were away in Scotland. Their cat and dog had been placed in my charge, and besides, I had formed an attachment to Ricky the Alsatian.

Anyway, here is Barbara Hendricks in Les roses d’Ispahan, with Michel Dalberto at the piano. This YouTube video has the score. Notice how exceptionally well crafted the song is: the piano introduction is reintroduced as an accompaniment to the vocal line, but its entry as such is sneakily delayed until 0:16. And the modulations (these start at 01:16) acquire at 01:42 a Spanish flavour that is entirely appropriate to the Oriental atmosphere:

The next rendition is by Kathleen Battle and James Levine. They take the song much more slowly – possibly too slowly, but I leave that to you to decide:

Finally, we return to Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin, who will have the last word:

These two may indeed have had the last word, but the last bark shall belong to Ricky the Alsatian. When I first arrived at the house in Tajrish, where I was to stay for three days, I was given instructions on how to care for the resident pets by a British neighbour. One of the things he showed me was the chain fixed to the wall of the compound, right beside the gate, which in case of need was to be attached to Ricky’s collar by means of a clip. All well and good – for the first two days, at least. I explored the local markets and bought a new pair of trousers, but spent most of my time in the house reflecting on my recent journey from India via Pakistan and Afghanistan, writing my diary, and contemplating the dead leaves that had filled the empty swimming pool, creating a melancholy tableau. (Ever since then, I have always associated the month of November with Tehran.)

On the third day someone rang the bell of the compound, and in order to see who it was I went through the garden, passing by the swimming pool on the way, to the gate. I was preceded by Ricky, who unaccountably seemed to be getting more and more excited the nearer she came to the gate. I tried again and again to fix the clip on the end of the chain to the ring on her collar, but the mechanism defeated me. Eventually, not wishing to keep the person waiting any longer, I decided to hold her collar with one hand and open the gate with the other. Outside I found a man in blue overalls and an oil tanker. He explained, by means of gestures (as I spoke no Farsi), that he had come to deliver fuel oil. Ricky, meanwhile, was going bananas. This surprised me, as up to that point her demeanour had been uninterruptedly placid. In fact, I had found her and the cat to be ideal companions in my reflective mood.  

The man, who was quite obviously not keen to indulge in social proximity with Ricky, entered the compound and made towards the house. At that point the dog set off in hot pursuit, barking furiously, me still holding on to her collar. By the time he had reached the side of the swimming pool she was fast closing on him, so instead of continuing to the front door of the house he retreated to the far side of the pool. This tactic did not cut any ice whatsoever with Ricky. She suddenly lunged forward, and in doing so I was pulled to the ground – she was a very strong dog. The three of us then performed several circumambulations of the pool as Ricky dragged me round and round it in her attempts to get at the man. In the end (and after both knees of my new trousers had been ripped away), he succeeded in bolting into the house and slamming the door. The dog, having lost sight of him, then calmed down sufficiently to allow me to haul her back to the front gate, where I finally solved the clip mechanism and attached the chain to her collar.

Leaving her barking ruefully at being denied the chance of teaching the man the lesson she felt he deserved, I went into the house and listened uncomprehendingly to a lengthy, and very aggrieved, monologue from him. Now safe from Ricky’s attentions, he then went out to the tanker, returned with a long hose, and filled the house’s oil tank. After that we had another rather one-sided conversation in which he continued to protest at the injustice to which he had been subjected, and asked for payment. I handed over a goodly sum in rials, expressing in body language my abject apologies for the trauma he had experienced, and he left.

When I felt a little calmer, I telephoned the British neighbour and described to him what had just transpired. ‘Ah yes,’ he said, ‘the fuel-oil man is Ricky’s worst enemy.’ Then I told him the sum that had changed hands. ‘He charged you how much?’ he asked incredulously. I repeated the figure. ‘He’s overcharged you,’ he said, outraged. ‘He’s overcharged you by a lot.’ I was not particularly mortified, being heartily relieved that the swimming pool did not now contain a corpse as well as dead leaves. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘you should have let Ricky at him.’

And so my series of blogs comes to a close in this unlikely setting. The day after the dog incident I boarded the train for Istanbul. After crossing the Turkish border we followed the course of a river for some time, and I watched as an eight-year-old boy on a horse raced us on the far bank. Eventually I left the train at a station in the Euphrates valley… but that is another story. I hope that these pieces on composers of chansons have provided at least some relief to those who for many weeks have not always had the freedom to step outside their houses, let alone race along a river on horseback.

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