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8.572346 - VIERNE, L.: Poemes de l'amour / Psyche / La ballade du desespere (Bundy, Filsell)
Louis Vierne (1870–1937)
The tragically romantic life of Louis Vierne (1870–1937) has been described frequently: In truth it could also be deemed romantically tragic for he was to be thwarted in love all his life—either through death or betrayal—and was doomed to become, and remain until his death,…irrémédialement seul. From his earliest years at l’Ecole des Aveugles where he recalled…la promiscuité obligatoire avec des êtres grossiers…through his short marriage, producing two adored sons (and his wife’s illegitimate daughter), to a divorce that denied him, the innocent non-adulterous party, the chance of another union; through his various artistic associations of a long-term nature with certain sopranos—Mmes. Montjovet and Richepin—and close attachment to a number of his pupils; through his passionate relationship with his younger brother René, who acted as chaperon (almost bodyguard) and friend; through his intense relationships with his parents—both of whom died painfully, one of cancer the other septicaemia—and mentors—his Uncle Colin, César Franck, Alexander Guilmant and many others—all his relationships were doomed to frustration. Many of his friends were killed in the Great War, as were his two brothers and his teenage son (the other had died in childhood) and all the women in his life gradually moved away. His life became, in the darkness of his blindness and with his health problems, nothing but a constant round of pain and anguish: Yet he never despaired. It was in his music, and, above all, his mélodies that he sought to express his emotions as a means of expurgation and reconciliation: The importance of these temporal events cannot be underestimated when considering the musical output of this ‘wounded healer’, who even referred to one period of his life as les années infernales. The mélodies of Louis Vierne are important, for they form a unique part of his oeuvre, consistently reflecting his reaction to the world around him, in all its beauty and with all its pain. They were to be amongst his earliest and his last compositions, and his mind rarely seemed to stray from this genre. His vocal compositions can be both beautifully lyrical and unbearably tortured; despite an air of compositional ease there are depths of harmonic complexity and extremes of tessitura that result in moments of dark anguish (deliberately contrasted with moments of startling simplicity) and elemental fury. One must never forget that, due to his blindness (and despite the aid of any amanuensis), the physical and mental effort of composing such material must have been immense, a long and painfully drawn-out process. The cycle Le Poème de l’Amour (composed in 1924 but not published until 1927) contains all the passionate longing, the musical and emotional contrasts, embroidering the pointless tapestry of existence yet expressed with great lyricism.
The cycle is one of Vierne’s later works and follows the desperate hymn of pain that was Spleens et Détresses Op.61 (1918)—a reaction to the deaths of his two brothers and son and his own blindness—and the stoicism of the Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire Op. 45 (1921). Le Poème de l’Amour has been compared, somewhat unconvincingly, with Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and, whilst it does indeed mark a similar progression of sentiment (and probably even its tragic outcome) there is none of the consolation of the earlier work. The cycle of Vierne ends with a depiction of pointless fury; mothers of sailors, having lost their sons to the fury of the sea, throw stones into the waves in an effort to enrage them and to exact some kind of futile revenge.
Based around the four seasons of the Napoleonic calendar—Floréal, Thermidor, Brumaire and Nivôse—the verses are extracted from Les Glas by Jean Richepin (a distant relative of his amanuensis at the time and future champion): It might seem natural that such an allegorical year might begin optimistically and develop (if not decline) during the ensuing seasons. Vierne has none of this, for the cycle which was to be the summation of his attitude to love—scorned, cuckolded and betrayed - begins with a sense of strange foreboding. Thus of the three songs which comprise Floréal, two are somewhat troubled and the third demonstrates that the sole means of achieving happiness is through escape, albeit with the beloved. The first—Le jour ou je vous vis…—recalls the first meeting of the lovers (even at this stage the language is in the past tense) with complex harmony, representative of the shadows that, even then, were beginning to form. There are moments of brightness despite this apprehension, and one of the lyrical themes will be used later in the cycle (Souvenir) as a poignant recollection of this moment. The harmony of Au jardin de mon coeur is hardly less dense but is contained within a more florid accompaniment: Again, although lyrical, the skies are troubled—Mon coeur est un jardin tout planté de soucis. The slower central section recalls some of the harmonies of the first song, the filigree having ceased: It is troubled but still lyrical, indeed Vierne’s ability to set intensely painful emotions to very lyrical and poignant melodies is one of the hallmarks of his technique and gifts. J’aime le beau, je voulu le créer. The final song of this first ‘season’, Le Bateau Rose, is the most optimistic song: Delicate filigree describes a beautiful melody setting words which seem almost too idealistic to be true…
Tes grands yeux seront mes deux étoiles
The songs which comprise the second ‘season’ continue these bitter-sweet thoughts, but there is a feeling that the downward slide has begun; the shadows of earlier have begun to form black clouds. However, three of the four mélodies—Donne-moi tes Baisers, Le Trésor and Abdication—are passionate outpourings, again a little excessive in their expression, resulting in an attitude that is as much obsessive as adoring. The third song—Rondeaux Mignons—is more of a gentle reflection, yet one which is quite nostalgic. Although the first mélodie pulses ardently and the second is carried along on a wave of filigree, the last is a much more serious affair. The obsession is total, the rest of life is meaningless, and there are undercurrents that render this mélodie rather sinister: It is almost a moto perpetuo, yet one based on uneasy augmented harmony. Despite the triumphal ending it is a quite troubled song.
With Brumaire—the ‘foggy season’—come further troubles. As had been the case with Donne-moi tes Baisers, there is a similar pulsating rhythm in Sonnet d’Automne (as had been the case with the first song of the previous ‘season’) but here, in a slower tempo, it represents the tedium of austerity, the mute regret that…Tous mes bois seront nus et tous mes oiseaux morts. The mute, somewhat sterile atmosphere is shattered by the depiction of a witches’ coven that follows—Sorcières: Two verses of cruelty and despair, depicted with incessant semiquaver passage-work framed by two angular and angry clarion calls, reminiscent of Sapho in Spleens et Détresses, a mélodie of equal vitriol. This elemental song renders the ensuing Air Retrouvé even more poignant and, at the same time, imbues it with a quality that it would not otherwise possess: The decrying of love that immediately precedes it renders the opening line of this song—Rien n’est fini, tout recommence—somewhat false, for the love has been lost and the implication is that it will not return. This attitude is further reinforced by the unceasing fury of Le Bateau Noir, again a moto perpetuo featuring a typically angst-ridden Vierne accompaniment.
Nivôse commences in frigid numbness; life and love have departed and only a frozen wasteland remains. The sentiments expressed in the opening song—Jour d’Hiver—lead to one of the most idiosyncratic mélodies in the cycle: Souvenir. Slow-moving, almost a recitative at times, and with dense harmony it makes reference to material from earlier in the cycle at strategic points in the text, indicative of its title, resulting in a gently nostalgic, if somewhat suffocating, offering. This atmosphere is quickly dispelled by the dark depression of Angoisse:
Full of menacing harmonies and rhythms it drags itself along as though with the weight of the world on its shoulders. Sombres Plaisirs, as described earlier, ends this dark cycle in a pageant of despairing fanfares and surging flourishes, finishing with a short snarl of hatred.
Does this cycle really summarise Vierne’s attitude to life and love? It does contain all the important elements of rejection, despair and mortality, but, more importantly, they seem to be present from the very first mélodie as though to emphasise their implaccability. The initial harmonic density and foreboding give further voice to their presence. Although there are moments of delight and ardour there is also an over-riding sense of unease and an inevitable, irreversible decline. That the cycle ends with a depiction of human futility set against a backdrop o the relentless force of life and nature is a further enhancement of an already depressing picture of vain rage.
The two symphonic poems represent the two temporal extremes of Vierne’s published work in this genre; that having been said, Les Djinns Op.35 actually predates Psyché Op.33 by two years. The Ballade…though was his final work of this type, indeed Vierne considered that it would be his last composition for, on the frontispiece of the manuscript is added Op.61 et ? dernier ? underlined three times. [However, he was to compose one more piece a few years later—Messe Basse pour les Défunts—each movement dedicated to a dead friend or colleague.] By the second decade of the twentieth century Vierne was reaching a stage in his compositional style where the piano was an insufficient means of expression as an accompaniment in terms of its volume, its percussivity and, more importantly, its colours. Some of his early songs had been orchestrated—Beaux Papillons Blancs Op.11 No. 1 (as Papillons) and Le Rouet Op.18 No3 for example—and five of the six cycles were intended to be treated in a similar fashion, although not all were completed. There was even an orchestration made of Les Angelus, originally for voice and organ, and an unfinished orchestration of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte—a fascinating choice. It was in the area of the extended symphonic song that Vierne was to make a valuable, if slightly anachronistic contribution to French mélodie: Alas, from the moment he commenced, the world seemed to have moved on, and such large-scale but short compositions were a little passé.
There were two versions of this form that Vierne favoured: The first was an integrated composition and the other a work which began with a long orchestral introduction. Eros Op.33 and the unpublished Dal Vertice Op.41 belong to this latter category whilst Psyché Op.33 and the Ballade du Désespéré Op.61, together with Les Djinns Op.35, the former. However, the two works recorded here could not be more different in character; both are concerned with questions and answers, and both arrive at an unexpected conclusion, which, given Vierne’s attitude to life and love, merely represents two different aspects of the same answer. In the Ballade…as with Le Poème de l’Amour there is a feeling that the poet (and hence the composer) has been rejected and his resulting bitterness can only be redeemed in oblivion; with Psyché the answer is more optimistic, and it is interesting to note that Eros, coming between them, combines both the optimistic passion and the desire for oblivion in one triumphant sentiment.
Psyché begins haltingly with interestingly sensuous harmonies, as the papillon d’amour enters the poet’s room; it soon develops into long flowing, sinuous, almost voluptuous, melody. The poet questions the muse as to the meaning of life…
Nomme-moi la chose sacrée
The Ballade du Désespéré is a much more psychologically serious affair. As with all his deeply personal work Vierne attaches an epigraph to his manuscripts: Whilst with other works—the orchestral symphony, Piano Quintet and Spleens et Détresses—this was normally taken from verses of Verlaine; here the authorship is hard to establish and may, indeed, be by Vierne himself.
The text of the Ballade is by Henri Murger and is constructed as a dialogue: A stranger knocks on the door of a lonely man’s house, and asks for shelter and hospitality but is refused admittance until he reveals his name. The verses themselves are not important except for the relevance that they have for Vierne’s own life: The stranger offers wealth, love, power (&c.) but each time he is rejected, for these temporal vanities have already been possessed and lost. There is a most poignant moment as the stranger claims…Je puis te rendre ta maîtresse but is rejected once more with…Peux-tu me rendre nos amours? which, by its very nature, seems to imply the loss of of friends and family as well as love. Finally the stranger reveals his identity—Je suis la Mort—and describes the horrors that lie in wait. Remarkably the response is anything but fearful, but, rather, it is tender, loving and musically exquisite:
Not only will the stranger receive hospitality but the only payment will be…Dans tes bras tu m’emporteras…—note the use of the intimate, second person singular—and this is the musical climax of the last section: The passionate cry of a desperate lover, who knows that the only sensual embrace he will now experience is to be enfolded in the arms of death. This was the loving release for which Vierne craved, the only such release that was now possible for him: It had been intimated earlier in Eros and in the last of the Quatre Poèmes Grecs, as beautiful a love-song to death as it is possible to imagine.
There are some notable musical features—the threatening ‘knocking’ motif heard at the outset, the dense chromaticism that ensues, the musical depiction of each ‘gift’ that the stranger offers—all used in contrast or intertwined so that, what is in essence, a very sectional, episodic song hangs together as a total entity. It is a most extraordinary composition even when taken at face value, but doubly so when it is considered in terms of Vierne’s own life and circumstances. It was later to be orchestrated by Maurice Duruflé, a pupil of Vierne…sous la direction du compositeur…which does imply that it was begun during the composer’s lifetime, if not completed until after this death.
Whatever one may think of Vierne’s tragic life and its influence on his music, it cannot be doubted that he remained true to his own musical and artistic principles whilst experimenting with form and harmony: He never broke with the teachings of his two mentors, Franck and Widor, although pushing them to extremes on occasions. The expression of pain and grief always results in music of great beauty, despite occasional bursts of fury, and he did seek to influence the lives of others for good: Mon idéal artistique, que je croyais susceptible de rendre les hommes meilleurs, par la traduction du sentiment d’amour universel. But above all was his own credo—J’ai un seul but: émouvoir.
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