Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Nuits d’Ete, Op 7 (1840-41)
Le spectre de la rose
Sur les lagunes
At one time people extolled the brassy brilliance of Berlioz in the belief that there was no more to his music than that. Today, however, we are equally aware of its inspired quietness. Even some of his grandest works make their most memorable effects by stealth. Thus in his Requiem the soft swishing of six pairs of cymbals in the Sanctus is as important as the outburst of the four brass bands in the Dies Irae. Yet not until he composed The Childhood of Christ did the French public recognise the restraint and chasteness of Berlioz’s output. The shock was so great that they thought he had mended his ways and changed his style - to which Berlioz patiently replied that it was only his subject he had changed.
But one thing that never altered was his devotion to song as an expression of his deepest musical feelings. The human voice inspired his most haunting and characteristic melodies, with their long spans and asymmetrical phrasing, their ability to compress a lifetime of melancholy into a few lines of music. Within his largest operas and choral works he always left space for things such as Hylas’s homesick lament in The Trojans or Marguerite’s ballad in The Damnation of Faust, whose simplicity of utterance strikes straight to the heart.
The most moving of all his songs are the six that form Les Nuits d’Ete and which he assembled as his Op 7, though as an orchestrated entity they date from later in his career than their low opus number implies. To call them a song cycle would be misleading, since they form no kind of narrative the way Schubert’s Schone Mullerin and Winterreise do. Yet they are undoubtedly unified by their subject matter, which explores aspects of romantic love, and by the fact that they are all based on poems by Berlioz’s friend Theophile Gautier, author of Histoire du Romantisme and proponent of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’.
Their structure moreover makes it essential that they be sung as a set, because only then can we appreciate that the music, after the pastoral sweetness of the opening song, sinks into an abyss of sadness from which it does not rise until (and even then somewhat uncertainly) it lands upon the ‘Unknown Island’ of the final song. The seemingly peaceful title of the work, Summer Nights, thus needs to be treated with caution. For Berlioz, such nights did not necessarily imply warmth and happy love but just as possibly the chill of a lagoon or the darkness of the grave.
Though the cycle An die Ferne Geliebte (To the distant loved one) by Berlioz’s adored Beethoven must surely have been a model for these songs, the music anticipates Mahler, Ravel, and Britten in its subtle use of the orchestra as accompanist, rather than the traditional piano. Not being a pianist, Berlioz was in this respect a pioneer, and nobody surpassed his ability to find the right instrumental shading for the mood of each song. Ideally, the music demands more than a single singer to do it justice. Berlioz himself specified different voices, though today a soprano or mezzo-soprano who has confidence in her compass and emotional range may tackle all six songs, as Maggie Teyte, Regine Crespin, and Janet Baker all did.
At any rate, the opening Villanelle demands both charm and wistfulness in its evocation of the dew-covered lilies and baskets of wild strawberries which are insufficient to conceal the transience of young love. For Berlioz - and again the singer needs to reflect the fact - the Spectre de la Rose meant more than it did to Weber in his Invitation to the Dance, though the story (of a rose returning as a spectre to haunt the dreams of the girl who wore it to her first ball) is the same.
But if the first two songs are to some extent equivocal, Sur les lagunes is not. Here the twin images of movement and sea, the ocean swell beneath the bereaved singer’s feet, are profoundly conveyed by way of the music’s grim F minor tonality, by the chillingly repeated three-note figure and the poem’s heartfelt refrain, “Ah without love to go off to sea.” As for Absence, the separation here is a matter of mountains and valleys, no less engulfing in their loneliness and in the desolation of empty space provided by the vast declamatory cadences of the melodic line.
After this grandly floating melody, Au cimetiere sinks us to the depths and to an almost tactile presence of death and doom, of white tomb and pale dove. Then, in L’ile inconnue, the nightmare passes and benign sea breezes blow us to the faithful shore where people love forever. Towards the end, however, the pace slows and a recognisable musical quotation from Absence suggests that things are perhaps less promising than they seem.
© Conrad Wilson
Programme note to follow.
Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream transports us to Shakespeare’s fairy world with its enchanting evocations, including the well-loved ‘Wedding March’. Sir Roger Norrington, one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance, has long produced striking and unforgettable interpretations of cherished masterpieces.
The Shakespearean theme is established in Berlioz’s languid Les nuits d’été, settings of six poems by French poet Théophile Gautier that pay affectionate homage to the great English dramatist. Celebrated Austrian mezzo soprano Angelika Kirchschlager is famed for the warmth and vividness of her readings, ideal qualities in these beautifully crafted songs of love, desire and longing.