The French mélodie 'Cantique à l'épouse' by Ernest Chausson, transcribed for piano left hand and performed by pianist Ivan Ilić.
Transcription, not Transgression
Ivan Ilić transcribed the song during a residency at the American Academy in Rome in April 2010. He was inspired by Léopold Godowsky's transcriptions of Chopin's études for the left hand alone, which he recently recorded for Paraty Records.
The close study of the Chopin/Godowsky engendered a desire to emulate the process of creating new versions of classic texts, in this case French song. Just as Godowsky chose Chopin's works as his compositional raw materials, Ilić chooses French songs that combine his interest in the Romantic aesthetic, the French language, and the beautifully liquid piano writing of neglected 19th century French songs.
The older works become points of departure, and the instrumentalist is free from inhibition to make changes and to tacitly re-form imperfections of the originals, while avoiding charges of transgression. Ilić is currently working on additional transcriptions, in a similar vein, of love songs by Fauré, Duparc, and Chausson part of a future album for Paraty.
The texture and contemplative mood of Chausson's song are maintained throughout Ilić's work; it is beguiling to watch the left hand negotiate the leaps and constant shifts in register while keeping the long lines of the music intact. 'Cantique' is one of Chausson's masterpieces, and along with the song 'La Chanson bien douce' proves that the renaissance of French music in the 19th century did not begin with Debussy and Ravel.
The alluring harmonic sophistication is exhibited from the outset, along with a certain ambivalence so typical of French music. The narrative trajectory is one of increasing tension towards the fervent, impassioned middle section (1:37), giving way to a reassuring confirmation of the tonality (2:24), so evasively skirted in the opening bars.
Text, Context, Subtext
In the text of the original song, by Albert Jounet, the narrator meditates on the nature of his relationship with and perennial love for his wife. There are allusions to both the couple's mortality and the transcendental nature of their bond; to say that the text is romantic is a considerable understatement. And yet there is nothing insipid about the narrator's musings, on the contrary: he remains lucid and accepting of their common fate, and his love is deepened by the acknowledgement of what awaits them.
An occultist, Jounet is concerned with the inner, spiritual nature of things, rather than their superficial characteristics. The poet’s beloved has a ‘luminous brow’; as the sun sets crimson rays of light are reflected in her eyes. The otherworldly twilight casts a pink glow around her (described as ‘fire’), and he entreats her to sing him a canticle, or, better yet, to come repose on his breast so that he can kiss her arms, which are pale like the breaking dawn. It is intriguing that the narrator implores his interlocutor to sing him a canticle, as he himself is in the process of doing just that for her.
The conflicting descriptions of the woman in the poem create a palpable ambiguity: are the intimations of fire and blood reminders of her mortality? Perhaps they are, making her all the more desirable for her ephemerality. A passage from Saul Bellow’s novel ‘Herzog’ comes to mind:
“She was in the time of life when the later action of heredity begins, the blemishes of ancestors appear-a spot, or the deepening of wrinkles, at first increasing a woman's beauty. Death, the artist, very slow, putting in his first touches.”
Or perhaps the woman is a messenger of death, a beloved companion that gives pleasure and meaning but that also acts as a harbinger of the narrator’s own demise. The ‘mystical, shimmering night in her eyes’ pulls him towards her, and she smiles at him with a mixture of happiness and melancholy. There seem to be undertones of danger in her seductive glance, as if his attraction to her and his fate are inextricably intertwined.
As she gazes at him, suddenly the immensity of the ‘depth and grandeur of their love’ leads to an epiphany: together, their minds open to ponder the void opening up before them, ‘an immense valley’ in which an overgrown forest ‘dreams in silence,’ the valley of Death. There is an important shift in this fifth paragraph of a total of six: whereas previously the narrator was facing his beloved, now he seems to invite her to share his vision of their union, and the vast landscape that awaits them. Their destiny is clear, but the language is utterly devoid of dread. Chausson seems to agree; his song ends in a pastoral mode, with all anxiety relegated to the distance.
The texture and contemplative mood of Chausson's song are maintained throughout; it is beguiling to watch the left hand negotiate the leaps and constant shifts in register while keeping the long lines of the music intact. 'Cantique' is one of Chausson's masterpieces, and along with the song 'La Chanson bien douce' proves that the renaissance of French music in the 19th century did not begin with Debussy and Ravel. The harmonic sophistication is exhibited from the outset, and the narrative trajectory of increasing tension towards the fervent, impassioned middle section (1:37) gives way to a reassuring confirmation of the tonality (2:24), so evasively skirted in the opening bars.
This video was filmed by Patrick Noël and Jean-Marie Laugery in September 2010 using two Canon 5D Mark II cameras. The stunning venue is the 'Salon Sauternes' of the Regent Grand Hotel in Bordeaux; many thanks to Laure Marasi of the Regent. Additional thanks to co-producer Keir Smart of Pollok House Arts Society in Glasgow and Luc Plissonneau.
The Text of the Original Poem
Albert Jounet (1863-1923)
Cantique à l'épouse (1896)
Épouse au front lumineux,
Voici que le soir descend
Et qu'il jette dans tes yeux
Des rayons couleur de sang.
Le crépuscule féerique
T'environne d'un feu rose.
Viens me chanter un cantique
Beau comme une sombre rose
Ou plutôt ne chante pas,
Viens te coucher sur mon coeur
Laisse moi baiser tes bras
Pâles comme l'aube en fleur;
La nuit de tes yeux m'attire,
Nuit frémissante, mystique
Douce comme ton sourire
Heureux et mélancolique.
Et soudain la profondeur
Du passé religieux,
Le mystère et la grandeur
De notre amour sérieux,
S'ouvre au fond de nos pensées
Comme une vallée immense
Où des forêts délaissées
Rêvent dans un grand silence.