Last week we looked at lieder: popular songs in 19th-century Germany that featured a vocal melody with piano accompaniment. These popular “art songs” as they are often referred to, took on similar form in other countries around the globe. The mélodie, for instance, is what the French called their own art song. The French mélodie used the German lied as a model and set serious poetry to music for voice with keyboard accompaniment. While many French composers took to the task of composing mélodies, this week we are going to look at just two: Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) and Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).
Gabriel Fauré knew the human voice quite well, having worked as choirmaster at Madeleine Church in Paris for many years. He typically set poetry that could be flexible rather than restricting himself to something that already conveyed a clear image. His song cycles are known to depict French ideals. Serving as a bridge between 19th-century Romanticism and Impressionism, Fauré influenced many composers to follow him including Maurice Ravel.
Let’s look at one of Fauré’s mélodies. La bonne chanson, Op. 61 uses the literary organization he was known to follow in many cycles after the year 1891. Literary organization arranges the chosen poetry in an order that tells a story. In this case, Paul Verlaine’s poems form a story while Fauré musically organizes the piece based on recurrent themes. Like Schubert and Schumann, whom we talked about last week, Fauré gave equal importance to the keyboard accompaniment as he did the vocal line. His cycle is expressive with a free vocal part, pushing his limits to the point that following this work’s completion, Fauré turned to a simpler style for the remainder of his life.
La bonne chanson was composed between 1892 and 1894. Fauré uses nine poems by Paul Verlaine that the poet dedicated to future wife Mathilde. While working on this piece, Fauré himself dreamed of love, love with the dedicatee Emma Bardac, who later married Claude Debussy.
A Saint in Her Halo
A Saint in her halo,
A Mistress of a chateau in her tower,
Everything that human speech contains
Of grace and love;
The golden note sounded by
A horn far off in the woods,
United with the tender pride
Of noble Ladies of yesteryear!
Together with the remarkable charm
Of a fresh triumphant smile
That has opened within the whiteness of a swan
And the blushing of a child bride;
Pearly hues, white and pink,
A gentle patrician harmony:
I see, I hear all these things
In her Carolingian name.