Claire de Lune (Menuet) Op. 46 No 2 (1887) – Gabriel Fauré
"Even while singing, in a minor key,
of victorious love and fortunate living,
they do not seem to believe in their happiness"
Regarded by many as the quintessential French Melodié, it is hard to imagine the tempestuous relationships led by its creators. The poet attempted to kill his lover in a jealous rage, and the composer, slipping into depression in an unsatisfying marriage, was extremely attractive to women and “his conquests were legion in the Paris salons.” [Duchen, Jessica. “A still, small voice”, The Guardian, 24 November 1995, p. A12]
Fauré married Marie Fremiet, the daughter of a leading sculptor, Emmanuel Fremiet. The marriage was affectionate, but Marie became resentful of Fauré’s frequent absences, his dislike of domestic life – “horreur du domicile” – and his increasingly public love affairs, while she remained at home raising their two sons. Though Fauré valued Marie as a friend and confidante, writing to her often – sometimes daily – when away from home, she did not share his passionate nature, which found frequent fulfillment elsewhere.
Claire de Lune was written 4 years into their marriage. To support his family, Fauré spent most of his time in running the daily services at the Madeleine Church and giving piano and harmony lessons. His compositions earned him a negligible amount, because his publisher bought them outright, paying him an average of 60 francs for a song, and Fauré received no royalties. Claire de Lune was one of the shamefully under-remunerated fruits of this period. Despite his unhappiness at home and the tempestuous love-affairs, always one step away from public disgrace and even danger from jealous husbands, the music he created at this time reflect mostly his sunny nature and only hint at the depression which would develop more seriously in his thirties. It seems the more desperate he was to flee home for amorous distractions, he was increasingly frustrated at the built-in limited shelf-life of his affairs. For all his infidelities, he remained loyal to his family and worked hard to provide for them. It was only in his late forties that Fauré’s more serious and long-lasting liaison with Emma Bardac would lead to a new burst of creative energy and relative happiness for the mature composer.
Unfortunately Mrs Fauré’s side of the story is not as well documented. It is interesting that a man could get away with such shenanigans and still remain respectfully married, with housekeeping and child-care taken care of, leaving him free to explore his creative – and sexual – impulses.
Similar drama beset the personal life of the poet of this magical song. Paul-Marie Verlaine (30 March 1844 – 8 January 1896) was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement. He is considered one of the greatest representatives of the fin de siècle in international and French poetry. Much of the French poetry produced during the fin de siècle was characterized as “decadent” for its lurid content or moral vision. In a similar vein, Verlaine used the expression poète maudit (“cursed poet”) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Aloysius Bertrand, Comte de Lautréamont or Alice de Chambrier, who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke or were ignored by the critics.
But with the publication of Jean Moréas’ Symbolist Manifesto in 1886, it was the term symbolism which was most often applied to the new literary environment. Along with Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Albert Samain and many others began to be referred to as “Symbolists.” These poets would often share themes that parallel Schopenhauer’s aesthetics and notions of will, fatality and unconscious forces, and used themes of sex (such as prostitutes), the city, irrational phenomena (delirium, dreams, narcotics, alcohol), and sometimes a vaguely medieval setting. In poetry, the symbolist procedure—as typified by Verlaine—was to use subtle suggestion instead of precise statement (rhetoric was banned) and to evoke moods and feelings through the magic of words and repeated sounds and the cadence of verse (musicality) and metrical innovation.
Verlaine’s last years saw his descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. He lived in slums and public hospitals, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafes. Fortunately, the French people’s love of the arts was able to resurrect support and bring in an income for Verlaine: his early poetry was rediscovered, his lifestyle and strange behavior in front of crowds attracted admiration, and in 1894 he was elected France’s “Prince of Poets” by his peers.
His poetry was admired and recognized as ground-breaking, and served as a source of inspiration to composers. Gabriel Fauré composed many mélodies, such as the song cycles Cinq mélodies “de Venise” and La bonne chanson, which were settings of Verlaine’s poems. Claude Debussy set to music Clair de lune and six of the Fêtes galantes poems, forming part of the mélodie collection known as the Recueil Vasnier, and the Belgian-British composer Poldowski (daughter of Henryk Wieniawski) set 21 of Verlaine’s poems to music.
A rather tempestuous love life left its mark on his work. Marriage to Mathilde Mauté was abandoned for the “young Shakespeare” Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891), whom he attempted to shoot in a jealous rage. During their time together they led a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish. His drug dependence and alcoholism later caught up with him and took a toll on his life. Paul Verlaine died in Paris at the age of 51 on 8 January 1896; he was buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles (he was first buried in the 20th division, but his grave was moved to the 11th division – on the round about, a much better location – when the Boulevard Périphérique was built).
A discussion of the song: Clair de Lune (Menuet) Op. 46 No 2
Without an introduction or fanfare, the curtain goes up, the lights simply go on, and the work instantly in full flight.
It could easily be a solo piano piece, an unassuming Nocturne – a genre in which the composer excelled. There is something “pastoral” about it; melancholic and yet not morbid. It captures a moment and seems to have no desire to get anywhere, no grand statements are anticipated, no drama is promised. The song recalls the famous Mandoline in it’s courtly restraint accompanied on a gently plucked lute or mandolin. This gives it the feel of a Madrigal, recalling a courtly past, recent enough to be a vivid memory, but definitively over enough to inspire great melancholy.
Over this gently undulating canvass, a vocal obbligato enters without disturbing the peace. A figure describes the scene, nocturnal masqueraders at court, while the piano bathes them in a “calm moonlight, sad and beautiful.”
As Graham Johnson describes so beautifully:
“the singer enacts the delicate ballet of courtship weaving in and out of the moonlight.”
[Johnson, Graham & Stokes, Richard: “A French Song Companion”, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, P.165]
There is no victorious or ecstatic happiness. As the text states, “Even while singing … of victorious love and fortunate living, they do not seem to believe in their happiness”. It has a formal quality in that the piano seems to be slightly detached from the voice, and the voice seems to be observing the action rather than being an active participant.
A glorious modulation to the Mediant Major Key describes the perfection of the moonlit evening. “The calm moonlight, sad and beautiful, which sets the birds in the trees dreaming.”
Continues Johnson: “Was it in this muted tone of gentle ennui that Fauré wooed his mistresses, aware that loyalty to his wife and family prevented the fruitful flowering of any new relationship?” [Ibid. p165]
The following illuminating section is quoted from Bonne Chanson’s website.
“Fauré’s Clair de lune is not at all the same kind of piece as Debussy’s setting of the same poem (even less his famous piano arabesque of that name). Fauré prefers in this song to pick out the baroque elements of the scene rather than dwell on the impressionistic moonlight (whose short appearance is made all the more magical). The subtitle of the song, “Menuet”, gives us the clue, as do the lutes played by the musicians in the poem and featured in the Watteau paintings to which the poem refers. The strummed arpeggiated chords don’t sound lute-like if taken too slow, and the elegant upward scale at “déguisements fantasques” sounds ponderous and contrived if it is not allowed to be tossed up into the air with a flick of the hand. Fauré’s music always has energy, forward momentum and drive. It should not sound mechanical, but nor should it ever overindulge or wallow.
Playfulness characterizes much of Fauré’s music. Here he finds a way of being wistful and playful at the same time, thus capturing the subtle threads of irony that run through the verse. Why otherwise would he have switched temporarily, but very deliberately, to a major key for the words “mode mineur”? The poem and the music are studies in the contradictions of life, exposing a world of subterfuge and etiquette in which figures act out stylized moves, conceal their inner selves behind masks and disguise their outer selves in fanciful costumes. The somewhat sardonic humour is lost if the pointed gaiety of the dance steps is slowed to such an extent that they fade into the background colourwash.”
Clair de Lune (Menuet) Op. 46 No 2 (Words: Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) /Music: Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924):
“Clair de lune”, from Fêtes galantes, no. 1, published 1869
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques, Jouant du luth et dansant, et quasi Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques! Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune. Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur, Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune, Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, Qui fait rêver, les oiseaux [dans]1 les arbres, Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau, Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
Clair de Lune (Menuet) Op. 46 No 2 (Words: Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) /Music: Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924):
Your soul is a chosen landscape charmed by masquers and revellers playing the lute and dancing and almost sad beneath their fanciful disguises! Even while singing, in a minor key, of victorious love and fortunate living they do not seem to believe in their happiness, and their song mingles with the moonlight, the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful, which sets the birds in the trees dreaming, and makes the fountains sob with ecstasy, the tall slender fountains among the marble statues!
Listen to a reading of this poem here – While it is not a great reading of the poem, it is useful to listen to some of the variation in translation:
Download Free Sheetmusic of “Clair de Lune” (Menuet) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924):
Clair de Lune (Menuet) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Régine Crespin and John Wustman (recorded 1966)
One of the greatest French Chanson interpreters, a voice to melt all hearts. An exquisitely unhurried reflection.
Clair de Lune (Menuet) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Irène Joachim and uncredited pianist (recorded early 1950’s)
Clair de Lune (Menuet) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Gérard Souzay, Jacqueline Bonneau
Souzay is regarded as one of the greatest interpreters of this repertoire, a worthy inheritor of the Pierre Bernac legacy.