February 12, 2021 update on live performances and events at the NAC.
NAC Orchestra with Mario Bernardi, 1975 ©
NACO Home Delivery

Dame Janet Baker sings Berlioz

In this Home Delivery, the NAC Orchestra transports you from the biting chill of winter nights to the heated passions of summer evenings. This 1975 recording from our archives features the Orchestra with then-Music Director Mario Bernardi and the celebrated mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker in a glorious performance of selections from Berlioz’s exquisite set of songs, Les nuits d’été.

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) is perhaps best known for his imaginative works for extravagantly large orchestras (notably, Symphonie fantastique), and in more recent history, his grand operas. However, during certain points in his life, he seemed to have turned to the more intimate medium of art song, penning nearly 40 in total.

The circumstances and purpose surrounding the initial creation of the six songs of Les nuits d’été are mysterious; Berlioz, being uncharacteristically private, did not mention them in his published Memoirs nor in any correspondence. In 1840, he selected six poems from the volume La comédie de la mort (The comedy of death) by his close friend Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) and set them for high voice and piano. For part of an ambitious European concert tour in 1843, he orchestrated “Absence” for performance in Germany. He later orchestrated the rest of the songs in 1856 and they were published, in Switzerland, as a set.

During his lifetime, Berlioz never heard the songs of Les nuits d’été performed as a unified entity, and it is unclear whether he intended for them to be so, like a song cycle. Taken together, the songs explore various perspectives on love, including passionate desire, despairing loss, and the ache of memory and longing. (It is likely Berlioz was drawn to these poems as he dealt, in the early 1840s, with the decline of his own marriage to Harriet Smithson, the muse whom he so ardently memorialized in Symphonie fantastique.) Yet, the specific order of the songs suggests a compelling dramatic arc, which is underscored by a delicate and nuanced orchestral setting. In the opening “Villanelle”, the lovers are full of hope and the fiery promises of a beautiful “forever love”; the gently bouncing orchestral part lend the song a naïve tone, though fluctuating harmonies add a tinge of melancholy. We then move to “Sur les lagunes” (this performance omits the second song, “Le spectre de la rose”), in which a lover contemplates the loss of his beloved, with each verse punctuated by a bitter cry of despair; at the end, the music remains unresolved.

“Absence” has all the drama of an operatic song, during which the protagonist begs longingly, across time and space, for his beloved to return. In “Au cimetière”, the voice, singing of haunted visions and memories, is enveloped in the otherworldly atmosphere of the orchestra. After these sober songs, “L’île inconnue” recalls something of the playfulness but not the naïveté of “Villanelle”. It’s as if the protagonist has accepted that the “forever love” in the first song rarely does endure forever, and thus, freed by this notion, is better able to ride its waves with hope.

By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

Download the libretto of Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1841; orch. 1843, 1856)
French texts by Théophile Gautier
 

Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1841; orch. 1843, 1856)

French texts by Théophile Gautier
English translations by Richard Stokes, from A French Song Companion (Oxford, 2000)
Text and translation provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (oxfordlieder.co.uk)

I. Villanelle

When the new season comes,
When the cold has gone,
We two will go, my sweet,
To gather lilies-of-the-valley in the woods;
Scattering as we tread the pearls of dew
We see quivering each morn,
We’ll go and hear the blackbirds
Sing!

Spring has come, my sweet;
It is the season lovers bless,
And the birds, preening their wings,
Sing songs from the edge of their nests.
Ah! Come, then, to this mossy bank
To talk of our beautiful love,
And tell me in your gentle voice:
Forever!

Far, far away we’ll stray from our path,
Startling the rabbit from his hiding-place
And the deer reflected in the spring,
Admiring his great lowered antlers;
Then home we’ll go, serene and at ease,
And entwining our fingers basket-like,
We’ll bring back home wild
Strawberries!

III. On the lagoons

My dearest love is dead:
I shall weep for evermore;
To the tomb she takes with her
My soul and all my love.
Without waiting for me
She has returned to Heaven;
The angel who took her away
Did not wish to take me.
How bitter is my fate!
Alas! to set sail loveless across the sea!

The pure white being
Lies in her coffin.
How everything in nature
Seems to mourn!
The forsaken dove
Weeps, dreaming of its absent mate;
My soul weeps and feels
Itself adrift.
How bitter is my fate!
Alas! to set sail loveless across the sea!

The immense night above me
Is spread like a shroud;
I sing my song
Which heaven alone can hear.
Ah! how beautiful she was,
And how I loved her!
I shall never love a woman
As I loved her.
How bitter is my fate!
Alas! to set sail loveless across the sea!

IV. Absence

Return, return, my sweetest love!
Like a flower far from the sun,
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your crimson smile!

Such a distance between our hearts!
So great a gulf between our kisses!
O bitter fate! O harsh absence!
O great unassuaged desires!

Return, return, my sweetest love!
Like a flower far from the sun,
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your crimson smile!

So many intervening plains,
So many towns and hamlets,
So many valleys and mountains
To weary the horses’ hooves.

Return, return, my sweetest love!
Like a flower far from the sun,
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your crimson smile!

V. In the cemetery

Do you know the white tomb,
Where the shadow of a yew
Waves plaintively?
On that yew a pale dove,
Sad and solitary at sundown
Sings its song;

A melody of morbid sweetness,
Delightful and deathly at once,
Which wounds you
And which you’d like to hear forever,
A melody, such as in the heavens,
A lovesick angel sighs.

As if the awakened soul
Weeps beneath the earth together
With the song,
And at the sorrow of being forgotten
Murmurs its complaint
Most meltingly.

On the wings of music
You sense the slow return
Of a memory;
A shadow, an angelic form
Passes in a shimmering beam,
Veiled in white.

The Marvels of Peru, half-closed,
Shed their fragrance sweet and faint
About you,
And the phantom with its languid gestures
Murmurs, reaching out to you:
Will you return?

Ah! nevermore shall I approach that tomb,
When evening descends
In its black cloak,
To listen to the pale dove
From the top of a yew
Sing its plaintive song!

VI. The unknowable isle

Tell me, pretty young maid,
Where is it you would go?
The sail is billowing,
The breeze about to blow!

The oar is of ivory,
The pennant of watered silk,
The rudder of finest gold;
For ballast I’ve an orange,
For sail an angel’s wing,
For cabin-boy a seraph.

Tell me, pretty young maid,
Where is it you would go?
The sail is billowing,
The breeze about to blow!

Perhaps the Baltic,
Or the Pacific
Or the Isle of Java?
Or else to Norway,
To pluck the snow flower
Or the flower of Angsoka?

Tell me, pretty young maid,
Where is it you would go?

Take me, said the pretty maid,
To the shore of faithfulness
Where love endures forever.
– That shore, my sweet,
Is scarce known
In the realm of love.

Where is it you would go?
The breeze is about to blow!

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