“Les Roses d’Ispahan” Op.39 No.4 (Gabriel Fauré /Leconte de Lisle) – A love affair in the Capital of Persia

Oh, if only your youthful love, that light butterfly,

would return to my heart

and perfume once more the orange blossom

and the roses of Ispahan in their sheath of moss.

One of Fauré’s most-loved and most-performed songs, even the title conjures up expectation of something exotic, fragrant and special. The ‘Rosa Ispahan’, also known as ‘Pompon des Princes’, is a clear pink, half-open kind of Damask rose (an early type, introduced from the Middle East in European breeding during the crusading 13th century). Generous and free flowering, it is among the first “Old Roses” to start blooming and the last to continue, and is also known for its fine Damask fragrance. mosque,dome,art,iran,mosaic,pattern
The name Ispahan is from the name of city of Isfahan in Iran, where it had functioned as the “Capital of Persia”  in the 11th century and from 1598 to 1722. “The Rose” is a term used to depict the apex of the Dome Mosaics in some of the most elaborate mosques and palaces, as much for the circular shape and the “petal” patterning, as for the colours associated with this ancient artform.

However, Fauré’s “Rose” is even more exquisitely imagined than any real artifact. Leila, or Leyla (Arabic: ليلى‎) is an internationally-used Arabic feminine name which means “Night“; over time it has been taken to mean “Born at Night,” “Dark-haired Beauty” or “Dark Beauty.”

The 7th century Arab poet Imru` al-Qais bin Hujr al-Kindi (sometimes published as Qays or Imru’ al-Qays) addressed romantic poems to a woman called Layla. The story of Qays and Layla or Layla and Majnun became a popular romance in the medieval Arab World and Persia and use of the name spread accordingly; it gained popularity further afield in the Muslim World, among the Turkic peoples and in the Balkans and India. [Behind the Name].

And has her name suggests, the mythical magical Leila created here by “Fauré & de Lisle” indeed has superpowers. Her absence causes the orange trees and the roses to lose their fragrance. Fauré was not influenced by “Orientalism” to the degree that Debussy, Ravel, or later, Poulenc were.But he was definitely attracted to poems that were brushed by Oriental spice.

“Orientalists” and “Arabists” in Europe were already familiar with some snippets of the vast Arabic literature though determined French translations of varying degrees of success. As early as 1847, Caussin de Perceval had published a French translation of the enormous Mu’allaqāt. (Anon.]
Composed in 1884, it received its official premiere at a Société Nationale concert on December 27 that year, with Le Pays des rêves, sung by Thérèse Guyon

The Poet:
This poem by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) was written in 1863 and published in “Poèmes tragiques” 1884.

Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894)

Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894)

“In Leconte de Lisle the Parnassian movement seems to crystallize. His verse is clear, sonorous, dignified, deliberate in movement, classically correct in rhythm, full of exotic local colour, of savage names, of realistic rhetoric. It has its own kind of romance, in its “legend of the ages,” so different from Hugo’s, so much fuller of scholarship and the historic sense, yet with far less of human pity. Coldness cultivated as a kind of artistic distinction seems to turn all his poetry to marble, in spite of the fire at its heart. Most of Leconte de Lisle’s poems are little chill epics, in which legend is fossilized. They have the lofty monotony of a single conception of life and of the universe. He sees the world as what Byron called it, “a glorious blunder”, and desires only to stand a little apart from the throng, meditating scornfully.” [Anon.]

Parnassianism was a literary style characteristic of certain French poetry during the late19th century, forming a link between romanticism and symbolism. The name is derived from the original Parnassian poets’ journal, Le Parnasse contemporain. The naming of their publication after Mount Parnassus, suggests it’s a pre-occupation with the Muses of Greek mythology. It was published by a group of poets including Charles Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, François Coppée and José María de Heredia.

“The Parnassians were influenced by Théophile Gautier and his doctrine of “art for art’s sake”. As a reaction to the less disciplined types of romantic poetry, and what they considered the excessive sentimentality and undue social and political activism of Romantic works, the Parnassians strove for exact and faultless workmanship, selecting exotic and classical subjects which they treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment. Elements of this detachment were derived from the philosophical work of Arthur Schopenhauer.” [Adolphe Racot, Les Parnassiens, introduction and commentaries by M. Pakenham, presented by Louis Forestier, Aux Lettres modernes: collection avant-siècle, 1967.]

“Better understood as sharing an artistic attitude rather than a specific technique, the poets of the Parnassian movement rejected the emphasis on subjective expression and unrestrained imagination which characterized the Romantic period. Disenchanted with the values which dominated mid-century France, the Parnassians conceived their poetry as a way to divorce themselves from social context. Instead of concerning themselves with social or political considerations, they advocated perfection of form, language, and pictorial imagery. Eschewing all which fell outside the “art for art’s sake” ideal inherited from Gautier, the Parnassians attempted to create a lasting art which transcended both the attitudes and predispositions of the artist as well as the reality of the times in which it was produced” [Gale Cengage 199]

Leconte de Lisle was born on the island of Réunion. His father, an army surgeon, who brought him up with great severity, sent him to travel in the East Indies with a view to preparing him for a commercial life. After this voyage he went to Rennes to complete his education, studying especially Greek, Italian and history.He became a highly regarded literary figure numbering important writers and critics amongst his admirers. He also was adopted in the circle of Victor Hugo in 1874 after having translated the Illiad and the Odyssey in the 1860s as well as many other Greek classics. He became Officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1883 and was awarded a further prize from l’Académie Française in 1884 for his Poèmes Tragiques. “Les Roses d’Ispahan” comes from this work.

The poem has been judged quite harshly by posterity:It would have sunk into oblivion as just another formal exercise in versification and orientalia if it had not been noticed and redeemed by Gabriel Fauré” [Alain Marie Jacques]

And yet he creates an exotic and sensual atmosphere within quite a formal structure, making it very attractive to an imaginative Song Composer. “This combination of the formalistic and the exotic is echoed in Fauré ‘s setting. The opening melodic line provides the first example, for the first three notes are a standard tonic triad … but the following notes which ascend to the dominant jump from II to IV, creating a one-and-a-half step interval which sounds exotic in the context'” [Meister, Barbara, Nineteenth Century French Song: Fauré, Chausson, Duparc, and Debussy, Indiana University Press, USA, 1980, P.62] Meister goes on to describe specific chords and melodic twists and turns which create a “cumulative, almost hypnotic effect which is undeniable”. [Ibid. P.63]

faure: Les Roses d'Ispahan Page 1 op39n4

The composer is the absolute master of instantly setting the scene. Graham Johnson describes it beautifully: “…as in Chausson’s La Caravane we are made to feel the sway of the camels as we ride across the desert sands; we also feel the heat and the lassitude  and smouldering longing – always moderated by Fauréan courtesy of coiurse. The apostrophized Leilah is Bizet’s Arab hostess come of age, for here oriental evocation is thoroughly assimilated, deep in the heart of the mélodie.” [Johnson, Graham & Stokes, Richard: “A French Song Companion”, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, P.164] See soundclips below of these song examples.


“Les Roses d’Ispahan” Op.39 No.4, (from Poèmes tragiques published 1884) by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)/ Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894)

Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse,
Les jasmins de Mossoul, les fleurs de l’oranger,
Ont un parfum moins frais, ont une odeur moins douce,
Ô blanche Léïlah! que ton souffle léger.

Ta lèvre est de corail et ton rire léger
Sonne mieux que l’eau vive et d’une voix plus douce.
Mieux que le vent joyeux qui berce l’oranger,
Mieux que l’oiseau qui chante au bord d’un nid de mousse.

Ô Leïlah! depuis que de leur vol léger
Tous les baisers ont fui de ta lèvre si douce
Il n’est plus de parfum dans le pâle oranger,
Ni de céleste arome aux roses dans leur mousse.

Oh! que ton jeune amour, ce papillon léger,
Revienne vers mon coeur d’une aile prompte et douce.
Et qu’il parfume encor [les fleurs]1 de l’oranger,
Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse.

“The Roses of Ispahan” Op.39 No.4 (“Les Roses d’Ispahan”), from Poèmes tragiques, published 1884, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)/ Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894)

The roses of Ispahan in their sheath of moss,
the jasmines of Mosul, the orange blossoms,
have a fragrance less fresh, an aroma less sweet,
O pale Leila, than your light breath!

Your lips are coral and your light laughter
has a softer and lovelier sound than rippling water,
lovelier than the joyous breeze that rocks the orange-tree,
lovelier than the bird that sings near its nest of moss.

O Leila, ever since in their airy flight
all the kisses have fled from your lips so sweet,
there is no longer any fragrance from the pale orange-tree,
no heavenly aroma from the roses in the moss.

Oh, if only your youthful love, that light butterfly,
would return to my heart on swift and gentle wings,
and perfume once more the orange blossom
and the roses of Ispahan in their sheath of moss.

Download Free Sheet Music of “Le roses d’Ispahan” Op.39 No.4 by Gabriel Fauré

Fauré: Les roses d’Ispahan C major

Fauré: Les roses d’Ispahan D Maj Original key

Fauré: Les roses d’Ispahan E major


Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Some YOUTUBE Videos:

Le roses d’Ispahan (Gabriel Fauré) performed by Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin


La Caravane (Ernest Chausson), performed by Mirko Guadagnini (Tenor) & Luca Ciammarughi (Piano)

Adieux de l’Hotesse Arabe (George Bizet, Text: Victor Hugo) sung in in a 1930 recording by the great Spanish Catalan mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia (1895-1936) – a real rarity – is available on Youtube.

Adieux de l’Hotesse Arabe (George Bizet, Text: Victor Hugo) with American Mezzo-Soprano Joyce Didonato and Julius Drak, Live at Wigmore Hall, 2007

Adieux de l’Hotesse Arabe (George Bizet arranged for SOLO PIANO by Peson)- Piano: Cyprien Katsaris