At age16, after studying piano, Jean-François Lapointe devoted himself entirely to singing. He worked under Louise André at Université Laval in Quebec City before completing his tuition in the United [...]
They spoke about it
Henri Duparc and the French Mélodie
This recording is devoted primarily to Henri Duparc, whose few songs for voice and piano are considered by many to be among the high points of the French mélodie genre. To kick off this homage, baritone Jean-François Lapointe had the excellent idea of performing the rarely recorded version for voice and piano of Ernest Chausson‘s diptych for voice and orchestra Poème de l’amour et de la mer, which the composer dedicated to his good friend Duparc.
The French mélodie and Wagnerism
The difference between the German lieder and its younger cousin, the French mélodie, was perhaps most clearly expressed by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) in an article entitled “Souvenirs” published in Revue musicale in 1922: “Though it may surprise some, I feel that the musical disposition has much to gain through frequent contact with the 16th- and 17th-century masters, and that the study and practice of Gregorian chant can develop one’s talent. How dare we say that such and such a melodic line or such and such a novel harmonic innovation do not have their roots in a past from which we believe ourselves so removed and distant?”
With respect to the two composers united here, however, another major influence also weighs heavy in the balance—the fabulous world of Richard Wagner’s operas. At the time when Chausson and Duparc were embarking on their careers, Wagnerism was so far-reaching that it probably acted as much to fuel a chronic self-doubt in their own originality and talent as it did to stimulate their imaginations. But perhaps that self-doubt was the price to pay to create the finely wrought gems they did manage to complete.
Though he died before the age of fifty, Ernest Chausson (1855–1899)showed exceptional talent in literature, art and music from a very young age. After finally settling on music, he studied at the Paris Conservatory with, among others, Massenet and Franck. In 1879, at the age of 24, he travelled to Munich to see the complete Ring cycle, which had been premiered at Bayreuth only three years previously, and the next year he returned to see Tristan und Isolde. In 1882, he attended the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth itself, and the following summer, he returned to Bayreuth on his honeymoon to hear once again what turned out to be Wagner’s last opera, Wagner having died in Venice the previous winter.
After his first visit to Bayreuth in 1882, Chausson began to openly explore the new perspectives opened up by Wagnerian music drama with a work for voice and orchestra: Poème de l’amour et de la mer. The composition is a long, two-part work separated by an orchestral interlude. Its text combines fragments of various poems—taken from a collection called Poèmes de l’amour et de la mer (note the plural) by his friend Maurice Bouchor—grouped together under two titles, “La fleur des eaux,” and “La mort de l’amour.”
But self-doubt in his worth as a composer, combined with a perfectionism bordering on the obsessive, delayed the work’s completion until 1893. Chausson probably needed those ten years first to assimilate the influences of Wagner and then to free himself of them. So while this “poem” exhibits the influence of Wagnerian principles such as the leitmotif, through-composition and the cyclical form, the orchestration is much lighter and displays a refinement and clarity that foreshadows Debussy.
The work’s official premiere in Paris in April 1893 was preceded by a performance of the version for voice and piano in Brussels on February 21 by the tenor Désiré Demest and the composer himself at the piano.
When Chausson undertook this huge work in 1882, he had just completed his first cycle of mélodies, of which “Sérénade italienne” and “Le colibri” are performed here. With their attention to the finely polished vocal line supported by an elegant harmonic structure, along with a sensibility aimed more at expressing elegant ideas than deep feeling, these songs betray the influence of Chausson’s first master, Massenet, who was eventually eclipsed by the quality of his student’s work.
Though he was born seven years before his friend Chausson and died 33 years after him at the venerable age of 85, Henri Duparc (1848–1933) completed only a handful of works; hypersensitivity and illness forced him to abandon composition at a relatively young age. The majority of his output is a group of 17 mélodies written between 1868 and 1884, yet these few songs represent some of the genre’s most original and popular works.
Even while still a student, both his teacher, Franck, and his classmates saw in Duparc the potential for an exceptional mélodiste. In 1869, at the age of 21, he published his first collection of songs, three of which are recorded here: “Chanson triste,” “Soupir” and “Sérénade.”
According to a friend, the poet Francis Jammes, young Henri “sealed his engagement” with “Chanson triste”; and though he dedicated it to his fiancé’s brother, this, notes Rémi Stricker, was merely “the modest gesture of a young, well-mannered suitor in those times.” The vocal part is supported throughout in the piano with a continuous series of arpeggios, reminiscent of the first prelude of J.S. Bach‘s Well-tempered Clavier but with the harmonic progression reshaped by a Schumann-like romanticism.
The accompaniment of “Soupir” (or “Sigh”) also modulates around a single ad libitum motif, though there are a number of pauses, suggesting the sighs of a suitor who, like Duparc himself, is forced to give up seeing his beloved for a time in order to prove to his parents that his feelings are genuine.
“Sérénade” is a charming exercise in style whose goal was apparently to offset the sadness of the two previous mélodies with gaiety.
In the autumn of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Duparc set Baudelaire’s famous poem “L’invitation au voyage” to music. It was as if the poem had “invited” Duparc to embark on a fantastic voyage of music, leaving behind the hard realities of the times even when circumstances made physical travelling impossible. “The focus of the musical effect,” notes Stricker, “is thus to highlight the invitation rather than the voyage. At every level, the accompaniment’s oscillation represents the immobile subject, despite the movements of his dreams.”
In fact, Duparc had only just returned from a trip, having spent the summer of 1870 in Weimar for the Beethoven centenary celebrations, presided over by Franz Liszt. There, he heard several of Wagner’s operas, whom he had discovered the preceding summer in Munich. A mutual friend of Liszt’s and Wagner’s noted in her diary that she had met “a Madam Duparc and her son, who was a Wagner enthusiast and who studied composition.” Duparc’s zeal for Wagner would prove to be more than a passing fancy.
“L’invitation au voyage” was perhaps written too soon after his return for it to bear any real Wagnerian influence, especially given that France was at war with Germany. But the two mélodies of 1874, “Extase” and “Élégie,” are deeply rooted in Wagner’s harmony and sinuous chromaticism, and the works’ contemplative character is very much in the vein of Tristan. In 1879, three years after the premiere of the Ring in Bayreuth, “Le manoir de Rosemonde,” with its initially tempestuous then plaintive nature, resonated like an echo of the contradictory states of anger and dejection experienced by Wotan in Die Walküre.
In 1882, the year Parsifal was premiered in Bayreuth, Duparc wrote “Phydilé,” apparently in an attempt to rid himself of Wagner’s influence. For the text, he took several verses from a poem that was originally much longer, and for each of the three times of day evoked by this text (morning, midday and evening), he created a specific atmosphere, each foreshadowing a little more closely a Debussy-like impressionism. Between each section is a lullaby-like refrain, representing a sleeping nymph Phydilé, whom no one can awaken before night falls.
But the very next year, 1883—the year of Wagner’s death—Duparc turned once again to Wagner with “Testament,” his most vehement mélodie. Figuratively, both the text and the music in this piece resound like the desperate cry of an awestruck disciple faced with the disappearance of the master whose music had so enthralled him: “All my life force has withered in the bright noon of your beauty […] Your eyes have scorched me to the soul, like two merciless suns!”
Another year later, in 1884, Duparc composed his last mélodie, the moving “La vie antérieure.” As the text, he chose the sonnet of the same title by Baudelaire, which evokes the seductive memory of a paradise lost. Duparc was all too aware that his illness would soon force him out of his one refuge, the paradise of music.
© Guy Marchand
Translation : Peter Christensen
“I wrote these mélodies expressly for my few friends (some of whom are unknown to me), without any care for praise or fame. While short, they are (and this is their saving grace) my very essence, and it is from the bottom of my heart that I thank those who have understood this. It is their souls whom my own soul addresses: nothing else matters to me.”
? Henri Duparc