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Tu me dirais (1891)

Tu me dirais

Tu me dirais que l'on entend le souffle,
Qu'au sein des fleurs exhale un papillon,
Et que l'on a retrouvé la pantoufle
Qu'en s'enfuyant laissa choir Cendrillon.
Tu me dirais que ces vers sont en prose,
Et qu'une femme a gardé des secrets,
Que le lys parle et que l'azur est rose,
Vois ma folie, ami, je te croirais.
Tu me dirais que l'astre qui scintille,
Au ver luisant doit son éclat joyeux,
Et que la nuit accroche à sa mantille
Comme un bijou le soleil radieux;
Tu me dirais qu'il n'est plus une fraise
Dans les recoins tout moussus des forêts,
Et qu'une plume de bengali pèse
Plus qu'un chagrin au coeur, je te croirais.
En t'écoutant tous mes doutes d'eux-mêmes
Tombent soudain, vaincus; tu me dirais
Que le bonheur existe et que tu m'aimes,
Vois ma folie, ami, je te croirais!

Were you to tell me

Were you to tell me one can hear a butterfly
Breathe at the heart of a flower,
And that the slipper had been found
That Cinderella dropped as she fled;
Were you to tell me that this poem was prose,
And that a woman could keep a secret,
That a lily could speak and that blue was pink –
I would believe you, I love you so insanely.
Were you to tell me that the glittering star
Owes its joyous light to the glow-worm,
And that night attaches to its veil
The radiant sun as a jewel;
Were you to tell me that no strawberries were left
In the moss-covered recesses of the forests,
And that a Bengali feather weighs more
Than a heavy heart – I would believe you.
Listening to you, all my doubts suddenly disperse
Of their own accord; were you to tell me
That happiness exists and that you love me –
See how madly I love you, I’d believe you!
Translation © Richard Stokes, author of A French Song Companion (Oxford, 2000)

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Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was one of the most successful female professional musicians of the 19th century, specialising in piano and vocal works and amassing a fortune during her lifetime. Born in Paris, she had an initially prosperous background; her father, who played the violin, worked in insurance, and her mother was a competent pianist and singer who energetically supported her gifted daughter’s career. Although her father would not permit her to study at the Conservatoire, she had private instruction and began composing by the mid-1860s.

Chaminade made her professional debut in 1877 at the Salle Pleyel. She gave the first recital of her own works the following year, and successfully performed her own music for the rest of her life. During the 1880s she ventured into the large forms of opera, symphony and chamber music but her father’s death and the associated loss of family income pushed her towards the more marketable genres of vocal and keyboard music. Frank about the obstacles women musicians faced, she pragmatically built a dazzling career on these genres. Only her Concertino for flute and orchestra is regularly performed.

Between 1892 to 1924, Chaminade regularly toured England, gaining enormous popularity and counting Queen Victoria among her fans. She also toured in Belgian, German and Austrian cities, as well as Eastern Europe and the Balkans. By the end of the century, she had amassed countless admirers in the USA, resulting in the unique phenomenon of the women-only Chaminade Clubs, which were being established as late as 1940.

Chaminade made a marriage of convenience in 1901 with the Marseille-based music publisher Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, more than twenty years her senior. This resolved the perceived problem of her unmarried status without greatly restricting her professional activities. They lived separately and he died in 1907. Altogether, Chaminade remained private, maintaining a place outside mainstream French musical circles, unlike her contemporary Augusta Holmès, who managed to gain acceptance as a composer of large genres. Nevertheless, she was the first female composer to be awarded the French Legion of Honour.

Chaminade had a brilliant understanding of the music market. She embraced technology, recording piano rolls for the Aeolian Company from 1908 at the latest, and performing concert duets with her own recordings on pianola. However, both her activity and reputation declined in the 1920s. Suffering from ill-health, she moved to Monte Carlo in 1936, where she died in 1944. 

Chaminade wrote approximately 400 works, of which at least 130 are songs, mostly from 1890s-1910s, and many of which were published successfully. In common with the music of contemporaries like Viardot, Bizet, Chabrier and Debussy, her music often has a Spanish flavouring. She wrote many duets, reflecting the sociability and accessibility of her musical world; similarly, her music was transcribed countless times for other forces, such as her Sérénade espagnole Op. 150 which Fritz Kreisler popularised in an arrangement for violin and piano.

In her songs, Chaminade favoured lyrical, appealing melodies and transparent phrase structures, often in a ternary form, and couched in functional tonal harmony. She set texts by many contemporary poets including Théophile Gautier, Sully Prudhomme, Edouard Guinand, Armand Silvestre, Jules Verne, Pierre de Ronsard and Alfred de Musset.

During her lifetime, Chaminade’s music was regularly praised for the perceived feminine qualities of ‘charm and grace’. Her Concertstück for piano and orchestra was criticised for being too ‘strong and virile’ but equally, her ‘daintiness’ was equated with superficiality. She allied herself with the stylistic world of the late 19th century in all its expressive and harmonic richness.

Songs like ‘L’anneau d’argent’ (1891) are exquisitely crafted and were justifiably famous (the text is by Rosemond Gérard, the wife of the writer Edmond Rostand). ‘Viens, mon bien-aimé’ (1892) deserves to be a recital staple, given its perfectly shaped melody. ‘Si j’etais jardinier’ (1893) is playful and light-hearted. The songs are generally short and easy to combine into appealing groups. Above all, Chaminade’s music deserves to be rid of its reputation for superficial charm; its quality matches, and can surpass, much of that of her contemporaries.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

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