About this Recording
8.573696 - MEYERBEER, G.: Songs, Vol. 2 (Rotem, Zak)

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864)
Songs • 2


Giacomo Meyerbeer is best known for his four French grands opéras (Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, L’Africaine) and two opéras-comiques (L’Étoile du Nord, Dinorah), He wrote several earlier German and Italian operas, and also contributed to the more intimate world of song. These, like his operas, encompass a variety of languages. Volume 1 (Naxos 8.572367) presented 26 of them. This second volume adds another eighteen. The songs in this collection were composed between 1829 and 1857, and cover a long period of the composer’s life, from his late thirties to his mid-sixties. The songs were intended for performance in the salons of Paris and in the home, and helped keep Meyerbeer’s name in the public eye in the intervals between his major operatic works. He wrote music to texts in French, German and Italian, reflecting his own cosmopolitanism, but the majority of the songs on this disc are in French (twelve), with four in German and two in Italian. The songs range in subject from the longings, joys and pain of romantic love to Arcadian idylls and religious themes. Fourteen poets are represented (with one anonymous text); the writers include journalists (Henri Blaze de Bury, 1813–88, and Ludwig Rellstab, 1799–1860), a singer (the tenor Gustave Roger, 1815–1879), the French poet and librettist François-Joseph Méry (1798–1866, remembered for his work on Verdi’s Don Carlos), the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827, famous for writing the song cycles set to music by Schubert), the Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832, in French translation), as well as the dramatist M. F. Langois (1798–1867, known as Aylic-Langlé) and minor poets Ambrose Bétourné, Hermann Kletke, and Charles-Hubert Millevoye.

La Marguerite du poète, by Henri Blaze de Bury, celebrates the rustic simplicity of the poet’s beloved, who fetches water from the well, spins and sews. But as she works, the girl sings the well-known ballad The King of Thule, thus evoking another Marguerite—the tragic Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust—and throwing a disturbing shadow across the innocence of the song. Wistful chords in thirds and sixths and minor-keyed colouration conjure up a mood of reflective simplicity, with oblique reference to Goethe’s Margarete, and hence a sustained pun in the French of the name of the girl and the flower she wears in her natural unaffected beauty.

The second poem by Blaze de Bury in this collection, Chant des Moissonneurs vendéens, has a simple Arcadian charm. The young reaper working in the fields has no need to write letters to his love, who lives far away: the lark, who visits both their villages, can say all that is needed. The louré chords distil the typical pastoral road mood of the country setting, the minor key reflecting the sadness of separation, and followed by a smoother secondary major-keyed section of arpeggios and unison harmonies, as thoughts turn to the happy consideration of shared love.

In Die Rosenblätter (Wilhelm Müller) the poet, using a lyric conceit, compares rose petals his beloved has thrown onto the water to her pink lips and cheeks, wishing they could swim to him as easily as the little petals can. The song is introduced by rising and falling octave semiquavers punctuated by tiny fleeting pauses (fermate) injecting a note of hesitancy, and always dolce e leggiero, with voice and piano combining in a charming unison caprice, punctuated by gentle echoing chords, and rising bass and treble lines.

The poem of Hirtenlied (Ludwig Rellstab) is pervaded by an atmosphere of serenity: the shepherd reflects on the happiness of his simple Arcadian life on the mountain, his blissful days untouched by the storms of the world below. This is a contribution to the genre of obbligato songs, a tribute to Franz Schubert (1797–1828), and also to the clarinettist Heinrich Baermann (1784–1847), a friend of Meyerbeer’s youth in Munich. The song is a peaceful meditation of thanksgiving, with melancholy declamation followed by more lyrical movements and stanza variation. The serenity of line and mood is never disrupted. The clarinet blends with both voice and piano, providing wistful solo commentary and low major arpeggiated passages that emphasize the instrument’s mellow and consoling chalumeau or lower timbre.

À une jeune mère (Pierre Durand) offers consolation to a young mother who has known grief and despair. The poet urges her to respond to the innocent affection of her child, to find her reward and comfort in their mutual love. The tender, deeply-felt mood of this little gesture of compassionate understanding is reflected in the gentle declamation of the of the opening bars, the pensive, deliberate 3/4 rhythm, the stillness of the consoling words, the gentle quickening of the pace at the end.

François-Joseph Méry’s text is mysterious in La Fille de l’air. Who is the daughter of the air, the free spirit who flees clumsy mankind to fly with the larks and the swallows? Is she a bird, a supernatural being? Or is she perhaps the poetic soul, freed from the earth’s banalities to soar into the heights of imagination? Cascades of alternating treble demisemiquaver figurations in a febrile 6/8 capture a fragile, aerial mood (toujours très doux et légèrement), reflecting the effortless elevation of the seemingly airborne Marie Taglioni (1804–84), the innovative dancer and star of the Romantic ballet who left a heritage of legendary artistic achievement. She created the rôle of the Abbess Hélène in the Ballet of the Nuns in Robert le Diable (1831). The Berlin Jewish journal Sulamith noted in 1837 that “Meyerbeer has composed a ballad, ‘The Daughter of the Air’, which is heard in all the Parisian salons. This ‘daughter of the air’ is no less than Taglioni, to whom the composition is dedicated”.

Charles-Hubert Millevoye’s poem Le Poète mourant, about a dying poet, is in elegiac mood. As he feels himself slipping away, the poet begs his friends to save his poems from oblivion as a legacy of his short life, and asks women to strew roses, the symbol of fleeting beauty, in his memory. Meyerbeer’s most extended and heartfelt romance, this is a developed dramatic monologue in several parts, with dramatic recitative, melting lyricism, and fearful minor-keyed utterance, in a ternary structure, with coda trailing into nothing. The accompaniment is consistently varied in each of the successive sections, full of affecting harmonic variation and imaginative figurations.

The first and longer of the two Italian poems, A Venezia, by Pietro Beltrame, is a paean of praise to the poet’s beloved Venice, the uniquely beautiful city on the waves, as he travels homewards in his boat at twilight. In 1856 Meyerbeer returned to Italy for the first time in twenty years. His tribute to Venice, with its skipping dotted waltz-like ritornello, is also a type of musical reminiscence, recalling Ständchen in its restless sustained boating rhythm, and La Fille de l’air in its lovely melodic variant with treble arpeggios. The third stanza is more tranquil and reflective, before resuming the fleeter bright mood of the cascading figurations. The shifts of mood are underscored by the subtle changes of tonality.

Le Voeu pendant l’orage, by Ambroise Bétourné, requests protection for a loved one, the prayer of a woman whose lover is at sea during a storm. She begs the Virgin Mary to save the life of her beloved, and vows to offer up her jewels, and to go on an annual pilgrimage, if he is saved. In the last verse, her prayer is answered. The piano part is stormy, with rustling arpeggios, rising bass figures, upward chromatic runs across three octaves, and is reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig in the initial, fearful minor-keyed mood. A shift to the major initiates a restful, prayerful, aspirational frame of mind, with octave chords rooted on D and deep rolling bass figures suggesting a calming sea, and soothing the drama in this near-operatic scena.

La Barque légère (Joseph Naudet) is a song of enticement and seduction: the shepherdess Lise is persuaded into Lucas’ boat, but when a storm blows up he steers further away from the shore, and moors the boat beneath a canopy of leaves, where Lise finds out, too late, that the boat is propelled by love. The arch nature of the text is suggested by the scherzando nature of the accompaniment. Mercurial rising and falling triplets and answering figures in thirds establish a playful mood, with an ostinato bass figure in octaves G2 to G3 suggesting deep water and somewhat darker implications. The ambiguous nature of the situation is distilled by the sharp exclamatory “Ah!’s” that precede moments of ironic silence before the growing significance of the actions. This insight, revealed incrementally over smooth but chromatically inflected chords, is released in a wry waltz movement revealing that erotic love is the true helmsman of this intrepid bark. Alternating stanzas in the minor key, with elaborated accompaniments emphasizing low and growling bass figures, sustain the mock seriousness of the theme.

Sonntagslied (Herman Kletke) is a straightforward religious hymn to the peacefulness of Sunday, the day of the Lord which brings calm to the poet’s troubled heart. The extended, slow, deliberate E flat major ritornello establishes a serious mood suitable to this Sunday reflection and prayer. The affecting four-part harmonies in the accompaniment add solemnity to the vocal line, enriching and punctuating its sentiments. The third stanza sees an affecting change of key, with caressing figures in the piano part, as the anxiety of the heart is soothed by Sabbath peace.

Près de toi ( Gustave Roger and Joseph Duesberg) is a joyful and tender song of praise of the poet’s beloved Anna, before whose beauty all nature bows. He entrusts her to the care of an angel, to guide her through the storms of life and bring her to him. The cello is the solo instrument in the setting of the tenor Gustave Roger’s poem. It instils some sonic depth and a slightly melancholic dimension to this set of reflections and prayers for the beloved, often leading the melodic line and expanding the piano part. The extended introduction provides the cello with ample opportunity to generate the dominant mood, with the piano providing a series of high treble chords rooted on D that recur throughout, integral to the restless mood and movement. The last stanza is varied by change of key and pizzicato writing for the obbligato instrument

The texts by Méry are more allusive, using few words. Sicilienne conjures up a scene of a summer night, redolent of warmth and love. The verses build on one another, the first evoking summer, the second the warm moonlit night, and the third the poet’s love. The fourth verse pulls all the elements together. The dotted figures of the chordal accompaniment, with recurring sliding triplet figures, provide a restless ostinato in F major to the loping 6/8 sicilienne rhythm, as the protagonist muses on the various tropes of romantic yearning: spring, night, heart. The third stanza is varied by the more reflective coda which softens the insistent rhythm, and pulls together all three of the images.

In La Pauvre Louise, by Sir Walter Scott, from the novel The Fair Maid of Perth, Louise is warned not to venture into the woods alone, since grave danger awaits her there. Arresting chords introduce this brief dark admonitory miniature, taken from Sir Walter Scott’s novel. There is a real sense of foreboding captured in the minor key, the slow deliberate piano part, and the striking harmonic fullness of the postlude.

The anonymous lines of Soave istante, a simple Italian arietta, express the longing of the poet for a token of love to sweeten the moment. Bright clear bouncing rhythms initiate a simple, ingenuous folk-like melody over clear simple harmonies, a little album piece composed for the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794–1854).

Ständchen (Gabriel Seidl) presents a minstrel under his lady’s window at night. His music will steal into her room with the moonbeams, waking her and bringing her to draw aside the curtains and greet her lover. The very deliberate appoggiaturas of the unison accompaniment conjure up the awkward, faltering strumming of an amateur guitarist, varied by the magical treble arpeggios in the middle section, where the thoughts of the serenader take flight in the moonshine, a transformation underscored by the affecting remote key of D flat major.

In the poem Fantaisie (Henri Blaze de Bury) the protagonist, a young woman, calls all of nature to her assistance, and to participate in her joy, as she waits at her window for her lover to come to her. A lighthearted, slightly giddy mood is emphasized by the recurrent appogiated bassline, reflecting the evanescent theme of the poem, the joyful anticipation of the advent of the loved one.

Ballade dans la comédie Murillo (Aylic-Langlé, from the play Murillo, ou Le Peintre Mendiant un modèle) is the plea of a poor artist, asking a beautiful woman to model for the figure of the Virgin in his painting. Her gift in posing for him will be rewarded not merely by his prayers for her, but by the prayers of all Spain. Dramatic gestures usher in the vigorous Spanish rhythm of this piece (mouvement de boléro), with détaché triadic chords, like the strumming of a guitar. A suave melody is punctuated by a restless variant mood, with long sustained high notes on D5, and echo effects in the accompaniment. A strongly contrasting middle section in G flat is calmer (doux), more meditative, with dotted minim chords in the treble over a rocking bass rooted on G2, and a gentle supplicating vocal line, rising from B4 to F5, caressed with grace notes, before the verve of the bolero takes over again.

© Robert Ignatius Letellier

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