Over the years, an astonishing number of eminent artists have spent time in the village of Bougival, some 10 miles from the heart of Paris. Ivan Turgenev had a dacha there resembling a Swiss chalet, and Georges Bizet composed his masterpiece, Carmen, in the village, during the height of the Belle Époque. The titans of Impressionist painting—Monet, Renoir, Morisot, and Sisley, among them—were drawn by the magical sunlight and picturesque setting upon the Seine. For Gabriel Fauré, however, the attraction had little to do with water or light. When he arrived at his summer residence in Bougival, in 1892, the unhappily married composer had his sights set on another woman. Fauré’s long vacation that year was spent largely in the company of his friends the Bardacs—Sigismond, a banker, and his wife, Emma, a noted soprano. It was Emma whom the composer was in love with, and the two carried on a clandestine affair coinciding with the composition of perhaps the most beautiful and opulent of Fauré’s song cycles, La bonne chanson.
The work marked a turning point in Fauré’s evolution as a vocal composer. His earliest mèlodies—he would end up writing more than 100 over a 60-year period—were influenced by Charles Gounod. They were conventional in style, relatively straightforward. With this set, Fauré ventured into new terrain, creating a richly chromatic and contrapuntal score with an elusive sense of tonality, the entire cycle unified by the intricate manipulation of recurring themes. La bonne chanson is also a rarity among Romantic song cycles in that it doesn’t drip with melancholy, angst, despair, or heartbreak. Rather, it is music of pure happiness.
We can surely thank Emma Bardac for that. She was a cultured and intelligent woman who had married at 17. In the words of Dolly, the Bardacs’ daughter, Emma “was small and pretty with auburn hair and topaz-colored eyes. What is more, she had an incomparable charm, to which nobody could remain insensible.” Neither she nor Sigismond was immune to infidelity. Emma happened to be particularly fond of painters and musicians, and several years later, she would begin a scandalous affair with Claude Debussy, becoming his second wife. During that summer of 1892, however, she had eyes only for Fauré. He worked on La bonne chanson in a kind of white heat, showing Emma what he’d done each evening and listening to her sing the constantly evolving work. “I’ve never written anything as spontaneously as I did La bonne chanson,” Fauré would later recall. “I must say, indeed I must, that I was helped by a similar degree of comprehension on the part of the singer who was to remain its most moving interpreter. The pleasure of feeling those little sheets of paper come alive as I brought them to her was one I have never experienced since.”
Fauré’s feelings for Emma may have informed every line, every phrase of those refined, elegant, and charming songs, but given the nature of the texts themselves—Paul Verlaine’s sequence of poems La bonne chanson—how could he have failed to compose anything but the happiest of notes? Verlaine wrote the cycle of 21 verses while in the blush of his own moment of unalloyed joy, having fallen in love with a 16-year-old girl named Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. He completed the sequence in the spring of 1870 and married Mathilde later that year. The poems are, as you might expect, endearing and hopeful, glowing in temperament, mingling invocations to the beloved with tender depictions of the natural world—a lark ascending at daybreak, the woods bathed in moonlight, the sound of a thousand quails singing.
Fauré used only nine of these poems, rearranging the order, leaving out those that sounded a hesitant note. Just one mèlodie in Fauré’s cycle, “J’ai presque peur, en vérité” (“In Truth, I Am Almost Afraid”), suggests agitation or restlessness. But only briefly. In the last line, “Que je vous aime, que je t’aime” (“How I love you, how I love you”), with the sudden shift from the formal vous to the intimate tu, Fauré modulates to a major key, banishing all of the previous uncertainty. The writing is lyrical throughout, with so many delicate and legato passages—and not a trace of saccharine sentiment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of euphoric moments, especially in the third song, “La lune blanche luit dans les bois” (“The White Moon Is Shining in the Woods”), with its uncertain yet beguiling harmonies. How thrilling are the words O bien aimée (“O beloved”), following the descriptions of the moonlight, the reflecting pool, the black willow weeping. And the climactic line, C’est l’heure exquise (“This is the exquisite hour”) gives us nothing less than an exquisite jolt, as the singer leaps an octave on the words C’est l’heure. Similarly, in the final song, “L’hiver a cessé” (“Winter Is Ended”), the music glides and takes flight, culminating on L’hiver a cessé—another shiver, another shudder—before releasing its energy and landing again in a realm of serenity and tenderness.
For me, the most remarkable song is the sixth, “Avant que tu ne t’en ailles” (“Before You Vanish”). The text consists of two contrasting interwoven parts, the first an entreaty to the morning star to allow the speaker entry into the dreams of his beloved, the second a depiction of nature during the expectant moments before sunrise. Fauré gives both strands a different texture and mood, beginning with the simple piano introduction and the tranquil entrance of the singer. The character of the song then shifts—the line flickering, the tempo fleeter, the dotted rhythmic figures mimicking the singing quails—before the quiet mood is felt again. There’s a wonderful tension, with the music alternating between meditation and movement, until the two styles begin to merge and the song reaches its climax on the final line, Car voici le soleil d’or! (“for here is the golden sun!”)—bright, ecstatic, and bold. What a marvelous conjuring this is, a reminder, lest we should ever forget, of the wondrous regenerative power of nature.
Fauré composed La bonne chanson over a span of more than two years, finally finishing the piece in February 1894 and dedicating it to Emma. Two months later, a private performance was held in the Parisian salon of the Comtesse de Saussine. Given the harmonic intricacies, which nobody in attendance that day could have expected, it’s perhaps not surprising that the piece was not enthusiastically received. The musicians gathered that day, both young and old, left the salon bewildered. The conservative Camille Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s former teacher and a father figure, as well, was utterly repulsed by the chromaticism and constant modulations; only a man gone mad, Saint-Saëns declared, could have composed such music. Still, there was one prominent voice of dissent, Marcel Proust, who wrote, “The young musicians are almost unanimous in disliking La bonne chanson. It appears that it is needlessly complex … but I don’t care, I adore it.”
The music was ahead of its time. Today, it is considered a masterpiece. Yet there’s more to this story, as it pertains to Paul Verlaine. In the end, Verlaine’s marriage to his child-bride did not lead to the long and happy life that the poet had envisioned. He quickly became bored with Mathilde, and if he had hoped that domesticity would quell his impulses toward violence and alcohol, he was painfully mistaken. Two years after his wedding, Verlaine left Mathilde and their baby boy to commence a passionate affair with another teenager—fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud. As the pianist Graham Johnson has written, “This was [Verlaine’s] farewell to a life of respectability, and the beginning of a long downhill spiral into vagabondage and destitution.” Yet in July 1873, Verlaine was having second thoughts, feeling the urge to return to Mathilde. He abruptly left Rimbaud and made his escape to Brussels, only to be pursued by his younger lover. Rimbaud caught up with Verlaine at a hotel in the Belgian capital, and one afternoon, a terrible, drink-fueled fight broke out. At its culmination, Verlaine pulled out a revolver and fired two times at Rimbaud. One bullet missed its mark. The second struck Rimbaud on the wrist. Thus did the torrid affair come to an end, and yet, Rimbaud’s letter to Verlaine eight days later—Come back, come back, dear friend, only friend, come back. I swear I shall be kind—suggests that his physical pain was nothing compared to the anguish of his youthful heart.
Fauré knew all this, yet he chose to ignore the sordid details, the tragic outcome, and train his lens instead only upon positive thoughts, the feelings of hopefulness and joy that the poems invoke, and upon his own momentary rapture with Emma. For this reason alone, these nine mèlodies may well be the most optimistic pieces of music ever written.
Listen to Gerard Souzay sing La bonne chanson, with pianist Dalton Baldwin in this recording from 1960.