Berlioz: Les nuits d’été, op. 7

performed by Régine Crespin and the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet

[The poems] form a narrative which leads from a spring-born joie de vivre (Villanelle) and a loss of innocence (Le spectre de la rose), to the death of a beloved (Sur les lagunes), a dirge (Absence), the obliteration of her memory (Au Cimetière), and the beginning of a new future (L’île inconnue).

Annagret Fauser, from here

The first non-German work, and the first for voice and orchestra rather than piano, comes from Hector Berlioz. It’s notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is its sumptuous beauty, as we shall see.

Berlioz wrote the cycle on poems of Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier, or just Théophile Gautier, who was the composer’s neighbor and friend. The poems come from Gautier’s La comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death), and he must have been pleased at the composer’s decision. The work, given the title Les nuits d’été, (‘Summer nights’, despite the first song being set in spring rather than summer) was originally completed in 1841 and written, as was typical, for voice and piano. One of the songs was orchestrated in 1843, and the rest more than a decade later, in 1856. The work was apparently neglected for some time, but became more famous in the 20th century, and is one of the composer’s most famous compositions, with the orchestrated version being performed more often than the piano version.

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that “Berlioz’s innovative creation of an orchestral song cycle had few successors until Mahler took the genre up in the late 19th century,” citing Julian Rushton’s The Music of Berlioz. I find this interesting, because Mahler is one of the most famous composers of Lieder, and his are most commonly performed (or at least recorded) with orchestra, and I’d wondered how this came about. Wagner may have likely not known of Berlioz’s cycle when he wrote his own Wesendonck Lieder, which we are unfortunately not discussing this time around (oops…), but in any case, Berlioz’s cycle came first, and whether Wagner was aware of it or not I cannot be sure. 

It’s also the first work of ours that’s specifically sung by a female. Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin in particular was based on content spoken from a male narrator, that ‘wanderer’ of the first song. In contrast with Schubert or Schumann or others, this ‘cycle’ isn’t a single narrative, but a collection of songs that center around the same idea, much like Beethoven’s work. A.E.F. Dickinson says in his article “Berlioz’s Songs” from the July ’69 issue of Musical Quarterly:

Their common theme is nominally love unrequited or lost, symbolizing, arguably, an ache for vanished or unattainable beauty. But their musical order is apparently fortuitous, and forms an acceptable, rather than a compulsive, association.

In total, there are six songs, four somber ones bookended by more optimistic works at the beginning and end.

Villanelle

The first song, villanelle, is, surprise surprise, a villanelle. ‘What is that?’ you ask? Wikipedia says it’s:

a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

The article continues to say that “The villanelle originated as a simple ballad-like song—in imitation of peasant songs of an oral tradition—with no fixed poetic form. These poems were often of a rustic or pastoral subject matter and contained refrains.” And you can hear it here. The song is orchestrated for only woodwinds and strings, and is quite buoyant, characteristically lush, vibrant, and lyrical, a brilliant way to begin this work.

Gautier’s poem here speaks of the celebration of spring and its beauty upon arrival, of shimmering pearls, birds in their nests, rabbits and deer, “completely happy and at ease”, and “carrying strawberries/ from the wood.” Berlioz’s treatment of this carefree, joyous content is equally lyrical and vibrant, full of life and beauty, especially in Crespin’s hands.

Le spectre de la rose

In the second song, we lose bassoons but gain horn and harps. The subject matter is suddenly far more somber, the speaker of this through-composed poem “the ghost of the rose she had worn to a ball the previous day.” It addresses ‘O toi qui de ma mort fus cause,’ (O you who caused my death), but says that it comes from Paradise, and tells the wearer not to fear. The last verse gives us a flavor of the message of this song. Despite its melancholy nature, its more somber message, it’s ultimately one of beauty, or just an outstandingly, almost absurdly Romantic idea, of love, loss, beauty, tragedy and it all being worth it:

My destiny is enviable
And to have a fate so beautiful
More than one would have given his life;
For on your breast I have my tomb,
And on the alabaster on which I repose
A poet with a kiss
Wrote, “Here lies a rose
Of which all kings will be jealous.”

Sur les lagunes: Lamento

In this song, we lose harp, keep the horns, and get the bassoons back. The last song, actually, was in B major, and it’s only here that we reach a minor key, F minor. This song is the only other through-composed song of the set, and it begins with the most overt tragedy we’ve heard so far, almost a funeral march, except the undulation of the strings reveals what it really is: a Venetian boatman mourning the loss of his beloved, sailing out to sea alone. Listen and let that image sink in, and absorb the greys and deep blues of this song.

Each of the three stanzas ends with ‘Ah! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!‘ (Ah! Without love to sail on the sea!), and even the middle stanza, after reaching some more hopeful moments, still ends with this expression of grief.

Absence

This song seems to follow nicely the previous one, beginning with ‘Come back, come back, my beloved!‘ Wikipedia cites someone in saying this song may have been written from existing music from some abandoned cantata of the composer’s, which might be the reason he didn’t adhere strictly to all of Gautier’s verses as in the other songs.

The Reviens! call that begins the odd-numbered (identical) stanzas sounds almost heroic or triumphant, but the ‘call’ is more that of a lone horn on a hill singing out over a distant landscape in hopes of an ear to hear, fitting with the title of the song. This song also speaks of highly Romantic concepts, like “bitter fate” and “The flower of my life”, and the song easily gives us the imagery of ringing out in a hopeful emptiness, not entirely drowned in tragedy, with bright rays of optimism.

Au cimetière: Clair de lune

The mourning continues, as we find ourselves bathed in the light of the moon at a cemetery, beginning with ‘Do you know the white tomb…’ Despite the mournfulness and tragedy of the subject matter, we still find ourselves in D major, and with only flutes, clarinets and strings. The use of the major key in many of these songs is really wonderful, and how it’s suitable even for these heartbroken but still lush, beautiful songs.

L’île inconnue

After all of that lament and absence and cemetery moonlight, we’re back with ‘The Unknown Island‘, which Wikipedia says “hints at the unattainable – a place where love can be eternal.” Can there really be any more Romantic (or romantic) an idea? The song, as Julian Rushton says, is “cheerfully ironic” “with a Venetian swing.” It’s certainly the most lively of everything we’ve heard since the opening song.

Tell me, young beauty,
Where do you want to go?
The sail swells its wing,
The breeze begins to blow.

With its opening stanza, it manages to change (convincingly) the mood of the piece while still sticking with the overall theme of the pursuit of love. It returns to the pastoral freeness and optimism and beauty of the opening song, but not quite with the same naïveté.

And that’s it.

Berlioz’s choice of poetry is a very (very!) Romantic one, with overall themes of love and loss and all of that, and these six songs fit well together in that way, but standing alone, they’re equally beautiful. The composer’s stunning skill, the spirit and passion in the work, which you might know from something like Symphony Fantastique, (which we did almost exactly a year ago) is readily noticeable here, perhaps more so with the use of the human voice.

It’s absolutely the epitome of what Romantic music , in a compact, easily accessible package of six songs in a half hour. Pick one out, find the text (all available in the Wikipedia article) and get to know it, or listen to the whole thing, and see if you aren’t at least a little bit swept away by Berlioz’s mastery of the Romantic ideal.

But there’s more to come in the next week. I almost apologize that we’re not going to be discussing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, but we’re not. Instead, we’re jumping ahead more than half a century to the real focus, the centerpiece, of this little series on Lieder and works for voice. I’m very excited about it and about what is to come after it, so do please stay tuned and thank you for reading.

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