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Verlaine, Rimbaud, Fauré and La Bonne Chanson

verlaine.jpgSome compulsory biography. Three months after the publication of the Fêtes galantes, Verlaine visited the composer, Charles de Sivry, in Montmartre. They were old friends, and two years previously Verlaine had sung a tenor role in a musical comedy that Sivry had written with Lepelletier - a performance that had been attended by Sivry’s fourteen-year-old half-sister Mathilde Mauté. She began to read Verlaine’s poetry, and it was probably more than mere interest in his verse that led her to Sivry’s house on the day of Verlaine’s visit. Sivry introduced his half-sister to the twenty-five-year-old poet and Verlaine, tired perhaps of a life of debauchery and flattered that his ugliness had not repulsed the young girl, saw in her a heaven-sent opportunity to exorcize his homosexuality. He disappeared to Fampoux, gave up absinthe and wrote to Sivry, asking him for Mathilde’s hand. His reply gave Verlaine hope, and from that moment the idea of La Bonne Chanson, which was to become his wedding gift to her, was born. The poems were written between the engagement (October 1869), when Mathilde was still only sixteen, and the wedding.

Verlaine returned to Paris, only to find that Mathilde had left the capital. She asked him to be patient, and finally, after two months and a flurry of letters, returned to Montmartre. Verlaine was overjoyed, but her family now procrastinated, not convinced that a civil servant and poet, with a history of drink-related violence, who published verse at his own expense, was the ideal match for their sixteen-year-old daughter. They became engaged, however, and the wedding was fixed for the following June. As the day approached and La Bonne Chanson, now complete, was with the printers, calamity struck. Mathilde contracted smallpox, infected her mother, and the marriage was postponed. The Franco-Prussian War was now looming, and since an outbreak of hostilities would have meant conscription for all unmarried men, the marriage was finally celebrated on 11 August 1870. It was, of course, a disaster.

Another disaster was looming. The seventeen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud, having read Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, wrote a letter of admiration to the older poet, whose verse was so unlike that of the effete and orthodox Parnassiens. With the letter Rimbaud enclosed a few of his own poems. To his former teacher Georges Izambard the sixteen-year-old Rimbaud wrote of the Fêtes galantes: ‘C’est fort bizarre, très drôle, et vraiment c’est adorable’. Verlaine invited him from Charleville to Paris, and sent him a postal order to help with the expenses: ‘Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend...’ Verlaine at the time was staying with Mathilde’s parents in a small flat in rue Nicolet, and it was there that Rimbaud turned up in September 1871. He brought with him that astonishing poem ‘Le bâteau ivre’.

mathilde.jpgIn 1872, infatuated by Rimbaud, Verlaine abandoned Mathilde and their infant son Georges, and accompanied the young poet to Belgium and London, staying at 34 Howland Street (the site of the Post Office Tower) where Rimbaud began Les Illuminations, and Verlaine wrote some of Romances sans paroles. After a short visit to France, they returned to London, where they stayed at 8 Royal College Street, Camden Town. The life they lived together was punctuated by drunken quarrels, in the last of which, at Brussels, Verlaine fired at Rimbaud, wounding him twice in the arm. Two years of imprisonment followed, during which time Verlaine turned to religion and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

Back to La Bonne Chanson. As always with Verlaine, every attempt to seek refuge in respectability and bourgeois values was accompanied by a decline in poetic inspiration. ‘Oui, je veux marcher droit et calme dans la Vie’ runs a jejune line, not set by Fauré, from ‘Puisque l’aube grandit’, and such banality - with two exceptions of wonderfully impressionistic verse (‘Avant que tu ne t’en ailles’ and ‘La lune blanche’) that foreshadow the Romance sans paroles - is the hallmark of the twenty-one poems of La Bonne Chanson which was first published by Lemerre in 1870 - a slim volume now as rare as hens’ teeth. Fauré chose nine of them and set the first eight poems in 1892-3; it was not until a year later, however, that he finished the final song, ‘L’hiver a cessé’, which acts as a sort of recapitulation and incorporates many of the significant motifs, including as its main theme the bird-calls from ‘Avant que tu ne t’en ailles’. The work was premiered on 20 April 1895 by Jeanne Remacle and Fauré, and was received with bewilderment by the critics, who complained especially about the difficulty of the music and the endless modulations. Saint-Saëns was shocked by the formal and harmonic novelty of the cycle, and according to Proust, Debussy did not care for it either. Proust himself, however, adored the work and considered it infinitely superior to the earlier songs.

faure.jpgFor Fauré, Verlaine’s poems were an inspiration; he probably saw in them an expression of his own love for Emma Bardac, later to become the second wife of Claude Debussy. She, like Fauré, was already married, but that did not prevent them meeting and forming a passionate attachment to each other. La Bonne Chanson was actually written in a house on the Bardac estate, and Emma, who was not only a gifted singer but an excellent sight-reader, was greatly prized by Fauré as a most accomplished interpreter of the cycle. As he told Roger-Ducasse:

I never wrote anything more spontaneously than La Bonne 
Chanson, and I was aided by the spontaneity of the singer
who remained its most moving interpreter - a spontaneity
at least the equal of my own. I have never known any
pleasure to equal what I felt as I heard these pages
coming to life, one after the other, as I brought them to her.

(Quoted in ‘Memories of Debussy and his Circle’, by Mme Gaston de Tinan, Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound).

Richard Stokes © 2020 

Richard’s new book, The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf, to be published by Faber in the autumn of next year, will be launched at Wigmore Hall on 2 October 2021.

Posted on:Monday 20th April, 2020