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ClassicsOnline Home » WIDOR, C.-M.: Chansons de Mer / La nuit / Nuit mysterieuse (Bundy, Filsell)
It may seem strange to associate Charles-Marie Widor (the foremost organ virtuoso of his day) with the restrained art-form of the French mélodie. Yet it formed an important part of his output and he played a major part in its establishment as a serious art-form. He composed nearly a hundred, including the song-cycle Chansons de mer in which the sea’s constant ebb and flow, rendering all things transitory, reflects human life in its ever-changing moods. The remaining mélodies demonstrate the maturation of Widor's style in different ways.
Charles-Marie Widor (1843–1937)
The Songs of Saint Sulpice
La musique, comme l’architecture, vit de symétrie et de rappels.
L’art est fait de volonté, d’affirmation, de logique.
La musique, comme l’architecture, vit de symétrie et de rappels.
L’art est fait de volonté, d’affirmation, de logique.
It may seem strange to associate the great Parisian Church of Saint Sulpice and Charles-Marie Widor (the foremost organ virtuoso of his day) with the restrained art-form of the French Mélodie. Widor (1844–1937), the consummate aesthete largely responsible for the modern French organ tradition as we know it, was a prolific composer in many genres: His ten organ symphonies are well-known, the chamber music less so, whilst his operas, orchestral symphonies, concerti and songs are largely forgotten.
Although born in Lyons, where his father was the renowned organist of the church of St Francis de Sales, his family lineage was part Hungarian and this, coupled with the fact that his main period of study was with Lemmens in Brussels rather than at the Paris Conservatoire, tended to incline the musical world to view him as an outsider, an interloper. Even the authorities at St Sulpice would only appoint him as organiste provisionaire due to his lack of Parisian credentials, and so he remained for 64 years! Whilst in Brussels his studies were so intense that he lived either for work or the preparation of work, a habit which was to dominate his adult life. His precocious talent and inevitable self-reliance combined to arouse jealousy and suspicion in equal measure amongst his contemporaries, and, whilst it would normally be laudable for a creative artist to be non-partisan, in clique-ridden Paris of the late 19th century this led to mistrust and, ultimately, to his being ignored by the nouveaux musical societies. However, despite all, he played, he conducted, he toured but above all he composed in virtually every genre available, often in too great a haste to be published, which led a satirical magazine to comment, even in 1902, that…Widor est toujours début!
The mélodie formed an important part of his output and he played a major part in its establishment as a serious art-form, ahead of his contemporaries. He composed nearly a hundred, scarcely fewer than his one-time petite organiste Gabriel Fauré, yet Widor was not by nature a miniaturist, conceiving even his smallest compositions in a ‘symphonic’ mould. The song-cycle Soirs d’Eté Op.63 (1889) was the first such work to be composed since Berlioz’ Nuits d’Eté some fifty years earlier—the similarity of the title is not insignificant—and may, for further reasons, be considered as the first true French work in that form.
The verses of Paul Bourget, the poet of Soirs d’Eté (and cousin of the composer), were again utilised in the selection that formed the basis of this, Widor’s second song-cycle, Chansons de Mer Op.75 (1902): The former dealt with nostalgic loss of love, though whether through death or simple separation is left unclear, and, along with Chansons de Mer, the texts were selected, apparently randomly, from La Vie Inquitète (1872) and Les Aveux (1882). As had also been the case with the earlier work, not always the complete poem was used, and the overall effect may seem more of a collage of verses whose (somewhat loose) connection is that of the sea, rather than any serious progression of emotions which should underpin the concept of any true song-cycle. However, that is a somewhat superficial and simplistic reflection, for this is not some jolly collection of pseudo sea-shanties but an examination of the great questions of life, love, death and enduring love: The sea is used as an allegorical, linking concept—its constant ebb and flow, rendering all things transitory, reflects human life in its ever-changing moods. The mélodies that this cycle contains are arranged with great skill to form a cohesive—almost symphonic—structure, and demonstrate great control of dramatic tension, balancing ardent yearning, tender pathos and serene relief.
Four of the fourteen mélodies which comprise this cycle are significantly more substantial than the others—i. La Mer, v. Petite Couleuvre, x. Nuages and xiv. Repos Eternel—and these are in the keys of C minor, Ab major, G minor and C minor/major, which, bearing in mind Widor’s preference for submediant rather than subdominant key relationships and their regular placing within the cycle, might be seen to represent the key structure of a classical symphony. This may seem an outlandish suggestion, for the work was certainly not designed nor deemed to be a ‘symphonic’ cycle, yet, as can be seen from the incipit above, Widor always considered that the structure of a work was as important as the inspiration it contained. Even his insignificant and less imaginative works are well constructed and, as one commentator remarked, as a music critic…Il font, dans une revue musicale, des proportions aussi calculées que dans un temple grec…(Boschot Notice sur la vie et l’oeuvre de Widor 1937).
Yet this is not dry, academic music but passionate, desperate, amorous and stoical by turns. The four songs mentioned above, forming the structural pillars of the cycle, are all concerned with escapism of one sort or another: Both La Mer…and Nuages express the unrequited longing to be borne away—either by waves or the wind—to a better world; Petite Couleuvre is a strange dialogue describing the futile pursuit of a two-timing lover, whose conclusion is that to wait in the grave for her to join him is the only solution. The last mélodie of all (Repos Eternel) is a stoical acceptance of life and mortality but with a positive, unsentimental beauty rather than anything mournful: The final theme of this particular mélodie (commencing at the words Pour charmer le repos éternel…)was to be re-used, nearly twenty-five years later in the Final of the Suite Latine Op.86 (1927), and, even then, its use is anything but elegaic.
The remaining songs in this cycle fall into two categories: The purely lyrical and the quasi-recitative. These latter songs are a development on similar mélodies in Soirs d’Eté and elsewhere, but where once they had been short and episodic songs of a declamatory nature, now they are long drawn out, almost improvised, arioso melodies displaying conflicting and quietly rhetorical emotions. As already indicated, these songs are interspersed with contrasting melodies.
The opening mélodie (one of the few from this cycle to be orchestrated) is turbulent and wide-ranging in its harmonic structure, representative of the poet’s desire to escape to the land of his dreams—…le pays ou vie mon rêve…Its tonality is C minor yet, at one point, C# Major is visited; there are frequent clashes of major versus minor tonalities, and both flattened and sharpened leading notes are heard simultaneously. This is followed by A mi-voix, an intensely lyrical song but one whose rhythmic as well as harmonic pulse is nebulous: Frequent use of syncopations, mis-stressings and harmony even more extreme in its modulations—B Major, A Major (&c.) all in the key of Bb Major—combine to confuse the ear of the listener yet with such skill as to be almost imperceptible in this beautiful mélodie. The love which has (apparently) been lost is regained in Sérénade Italienne—a gentle song of escapism—combining quasi-recitative and lyrical melody (the only such song in this cycle): It ends with a seductive Habañera. Encore un Soir qui Tombe, which ensues, is the first of the true recitative-mélodies: It follows a pattern which will be true of all such songs in this cycle, taking its lead from the preceding Sérénade: It has moments of disjointed lyricism, reflecting different aspects and emotions of the poem, but which flow seamlessly from one to another through the use of linking thematic material. This closes the first part of the cycle in the key in which it began…albeit in the major tonality.
The (once more) lost love is pursued in Petite Couleuvre (the hissing snake of jealousy): His love has been two-timing him with another and the poet follows her to an inn and finally to a cemetery, all the while with the voice of jealous reality whispering in his ear. It is in the graveyard that he feels he must wait for her, or, rather more accurately, in the grave where she must inevitably join him. Although this is the longest mélodie of the cycle and, of necessity, episodic in character, it is held together by the use and development of certain themes and motifs: It is as harmonically wide-ranging as others in this cycle, but there is far greater use made of texture and tessitura to further highlight the emotions expressed and the characters that are expressing them. Commencing on a third inversion of the tonic Ab Major, with a flattened seventh, it moves through myriad keys before returning, in a different tempo, with slower figurations and lower tessitura for its apotheosis. The ensuing A l’Aube is one of two sorbets in the cycle, mélodies which seem, at first sight, to serve no other purpose than to relieve the tension of what has gone before. Although jaunty in character it is full of harmonic and melodic invention, despite lasting scarcely more than a minute. What follows is one of Widor’s most poignant and heartrending mélodies—Ce Monde Meilleur. Commencing with a single, pulsating quaver figure it is full of harmonic clashes and exists in an almost universally low tessitura; there are only a few bars where the accompaniment rises near the top of the treble stave. This song also marks the first occurrence in this cycle of a confusion between major and minor tonalities: In La Mer… there had been clashes of flattened and sharpened leading notes, but here the harmony itself seems undecided as to whether it is major or minor, and remains so until the very last chord. This delicately profound song to a lost love is in direct contrast to its successor—Rosa la Rose—a flippant mélodie lasting hardly a minute, yet one which is surprisingly wide ranging harmonically in its coquettish simplicity. This lack of tension is relieved by Seul dans la Nuit, where, after a short but seemingly meaningless monody of an introduction, a beautifully lyric melody appears. As with so many of Widor’s songs this too commences in the wrong key (the subdominant in this case), a favourite technique employed to propel the harmony quickly into remote realms: Not for Widor a mélodie that began resolutely in the tonic and moved to predictable keys at predictable points. Other songs in this cycle that exemplify this technique are Encore un Soir…(commencing on a dominant seventh) and Petite Couleuvre (the tonic but with a flattened seventh). It is quite unusual for Widor to begin in root position tonic harmony, and less than a quarter of his mélodies do so, the rest either commencing on a tonic inversion or in a more remote key altogether: In this particular song remote keys are visited (B major and E major) yet the song ends in the same key, albeit the major tonality, in which both it and the ‘section’ as a whole began—Ab major.
Nuages, the ‘pillar’ song which begins the next section, once more breaks the mood of its predecessor beginning with a high-pitched, quasi-tremolo, in a distant key—on its dominant—accompanied by suitably nebulous harmonies. The scurrying chords reflect fleeing clouds and thus the poet’s desire to escape to a better, more idyllic, world: Once more, after several ecstatic outbursts, the music resolves onto a melody of suave beauty, yet one which has a considerable range (nearly an octave and a half). This is the depiction of paradise—albeit a palm-strewn one. The mélodie is in a very strict form, for both these ideas return (in different tonalities) separated by a quasi-development section. The whole piece ends triumphantly; paradise has been emphatically gained. The joy is short-lived, for what follows is one of Widor’s most extended and poignant recit-mélodies, Douleur Précoce: It seems one of the few occasions when the text is irrelevant, not that it is not well set but rather that its very triteness is transcended by the beauty of the music that accompanies it. Il faut plaindre tous ceux qui n’ont pas eu de mère…it begins and continues to discuss the plight of a trapped bird—the sentiments may be in keeping with the theme of the cycle, but the style of the verses is not. It is an allegory, obviously. The key is E Minor yet, although the harmony is never in doubt, that chord is not heard until the thirty-fifth bar…of a forty-two bar mélodie: The first cadence is in Eb Major, and similarly strange juxtapositions of harmony continue throughout the mélodie. Whether free-flowing or rhetorical it is always melodic—sometimes heartbreakingly so—and the harmonic progressions are managed effortlessly, the song having its own internal balance: There are many sublime moments. Le Ciel d’Hiver breaks the intimate atmosphere with low octave fanfares and menacing harmonies, yet it too has imploring moments of lyricism, all of which are brushed aside as the bitter wind tears the final leaf from the allegorical bough of life. A considerable amount of this poem was not set by Widor; it would have pre-empted much of what is to follow and would have confirmed, too early, that it was both the loss of love and life that was at issue. The ensuing mélodie—Les Yeux et la Voix—was suggested at one stage as a possible replacement for Près d’un Etang in Soirs d’Eté Op.63 and, indeed the two melodies have many features in common: Time signature, slightly syncopated bass line and occasional moments of recitative. However, this song is much more mature in its overall conception, and contains a moment of recitative-like repose before the final restatement, a characteristic of Widor’s later vocal compositions. A feature that had been hinted at in earlier melodies regarding tonality is here made manifest for, despite chromatic oscillation between major and minor tonalities throughout this mélodie, it ends quite surprisingly in the wrong key—the tonic minor. The mélodie which closes this cycle begins more as a piano nocturne: Using the same technique as exemplified in Silence ineffable (Soirs d’Eté) Widor constructs a melody which, although commencing in the tonic, immediately moves onto the seventh of another key—in this case the subdominant—yet, unusually, this is a melody in which the voice plays little or no part until its recapitulation. When the vocal line begins, it does so surreptitiously against a restatement of the piano theme, rather as had been the case with Morgen by Richard Strauss of a few years earlier. The two instruments—voice and piano—weave around each other in a delightful way. After a good deal of chromatic movement the melody breaks into the tonic major as the theme (mentioned earlier) appears—Pour charmer le repos éternel—the piano having an interestingly altered version (based on neapolitan harmony) before the voice utters the true major-key version. After a cry of ecstasy, rather than the expected pain, the music subsides, ending gently and quietly, low in both the vocal and piano tessitura, with an air of stoical reconciliation—a life’s work completed and fulfilled. In 1902 Widor would have been approaching his sixtieth birthday: How was he to know that he would live for another thirty-five years?
Several of these songs were orchestrated—the four ‘pillar’ songs, together with A l’Aube and Ce Monde Meilleur; it is interesting to see how often, despite being conceived for a large orchestra, the music is intimately scored, with only a few instruments at a time, giving more of a feel of chamber music than grandiloquence. These orchestrations followed closely on the original composition, but there seems to have been no attempt to orchestrate the entire cycle. Unlike the similar treatment meted out to certain mélodies form the earlier Soirs d’Eté (which date from twenty-five years after these arrangements and thirty-five after the original composition) there is no fundamental re-writing of the music to make them appear as independent concert pieces, with the exception of the end of La Mer…which is extended to include many more root position tonic chords, to re-enforce the tonality.
The remaining mélodies are those which either did not appear in the collected editions (or did so erratically) or remain unpublished: They are interesting for they demonstrate a maturation of Widor’s style in different ways. Some are charmingly chromatic or strangely rhetorical, whilst others further exploit the quasi-recitative/arioso form already described. They are, with the exception of La Nuit and possibly Tristesse Infinie, later offerings than Chansons de Mer.
La Nuit (1896), again setting verses of Paul Bourget, is simply a beautiful mélodie; yet alongside this simplicity are several interesting features, some of which have been seen elsewhere whilst others are quite novel. The first innovation, and one which is not readily apparent to the listener, is the sketchiness of the accompaniment: It has relatively few notes and describes the harmony in a very melodic fashion. Familiar thematic linking devices are used, the falling semitone of the introduction for example, but, as ever, the harmony is wide-ranging and reaches some extreme positions. There is an almost improvisational feel to the central section, so free is the rhythm and the word-setting; this section also contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful musical moments. What is rather perplexing, however, is that, given the fluidity and fluency of the composition, it ends rather perfunctorily with a simple perfect cadence.
Tristesse Infinie, with verses also by Bourget, is quite a different style of mélodie: Its introduction uses extremes of harmonic progressions such that it appears almost atonal. The first part of the song is a recitative in which the voice sings discordantly against the simple octave piano accompaniment: The main section is more lyrical but there is further dissonance between the voice and piano. The brief song ends with harsh repeated chords, ending with a final snarl of a second inversion. It is rather hard to date this mélodie for, although it appeared as the Supplément Musicale in le Figaro in 1907 it had also been part of the 44 Mélodies, placed between Op.37 and Op.43, which would imply a date of c.1878: However it makes no appearance in the 40 Mélodies of 1888, and, by its very nature, is a much later composition. The conclusion must be that 1907 was its date of composition and that it merely found its way into a later edition of the collected mélodies, where its position appears to have been far from secure.
Nuit Mystérieuse appeared in Les Frissons,a volume of twenty-two songs (published in 1905) containing the works of many composers, each setting the verses of Paul Gravollet: It also exploits the recit/arioso scheme although it is much more melodically based than others. The various short sections exploit a number of themes and keys, and a horn-call motif features frequently. Rather oddly it is quite reminiscent of some of the early mélodies of Louis Vierne, all of which predate this song, yet it is a charming and beautiful work, somewhat more complex in its construction than might appear at first hearing.
The surprising thing about Dormez, Mèlité is that it still remains in manuscript, for it is one of Widor’s very best mélodies: Composed in 1916, it is perhaps indicative of how passé Widor had become for few of his later compositions were published—the war may have further contributed to this, of course. He would not have been a young man at the time (seventy-three to be precise) yet this mélodie is surprisingly fresh and affecting. It is a through-composed work and there are the usual harmonic surprises accompanying the delicate and graceful melodic line.
Oublieras-Tu que d’Heures Douces (verses by Bourget, once more), is frustratingly undated and approximating a compositional period is problematic. It contains all the hallmarks of Widor’s later style and yet, on the manuscript, there are handwritten suggestions for the reordering (and one replacement) of the songs contained in Soirs d’Eté of 1889. It is very unlikely that this song dates from that period, given its stylistic advances, but could Widor have been suggesting a major overhaul of his first cycle at a much later date? The handwriting, however, is not that of the aged Widor. As mentioned earlier, a suggested replacement song for the penultimate mélodie from Chansons de Mer is listed; here it is called Quand l’amie est là (the first line of the text) and so it may refer to another, as yet undiscovered, mélodie. This is not as far-fetched a notion as it might seem, for there are two completely different settings of N’avez-vous point su les comprendre (Op.43 No.5), utilising different sections of the same poem.
Until his last breath Widor would tinker with his compositions, altering a note here, a chord there, and in 1934 he remarked…Maintenant, je revise un peu toute mon œuvre, je retouche, quelque chose comme un inventaire ou un testament. These tinkerings often came about through his haste to have his work published and performed and there are very few of his mélodies that remain unaltered: Some were completely rewritten, often many times, others partially so, but most would have a change in dynamics or, very late in life, capital letters added to the first lines of text to show the versification. However, none of this should detract from the worth of a considerable oeuvre that is not only original and innovative but full of harmonic subtlety and melodic invention; above all the mélodies of Widor are full of beauty and sensitivity.
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WIDOR, C.-M.: Chansons de Mer / La nuit / Nuit mys...