The first time I performed Fauré’s cycle, La bonne chanson, was at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute in 2005, as part of the now-defunct vocal chamber music program. It was a luxurious way to get to know the cycle in its complete form for the first time, as we spent two entire weeks rehearsing and coaching the piece before performing it. Despite having spent so much time with the piece over years and having had such an immersive experience when I learned it, revisiting it is always a fresh challenge, because of its quick and unexpected harmonic turns. The piece represents a new phase in Fauré’s writing, one in which he was beginning to explore new harmonic horizons. There is a funny anecdote that upon hearing Fauré’s fast and furious harmonic shifts and bold tonal choices at the cycle’s premiere, his former teacher, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, was concerned that his dear friend had gone insane.
Much of the reason for these speedy and shocking shifts of harmony is the nature of the poetry itself. La bonne chanson is a selection of 9 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection of the same name, which he wrote for his 16-year-old fiancée, Mathilde Mauté, in the months before their marriage in 1870.
In his book Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, Edmund White describes Verlaine as: “…a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality. These two aspects of his character set up a pitched battle over his anguished destiny; he would always be susceptible to one impulse or another.”
In the years before he met Mathilde, Verlaine was a familiar face in Paris’ bars and brothels, where he quickly developed an unquenchable thirst for absinthe. When he met Mathilde, he saw in her a ray of hope for his own salvation from his vices. He viewed her as the angel who would lift him from the gutters of his bohemian lifestyle, which he felt was debased and amoral.
Verlaine’s marriage to Mathilde proved to be a temporary bandage for his reprobate behavior: soon after their marriage, he began drinking again. His inability to hold a job and provide income meant that the newlywed couple needed to move in with Mathilde’s parents, in whose house he would drunkenly abuse their daughter. Shortly after the birth of their son, Verlaine would begin a tumultuous affair with the 17 year-old Arthur Rimbaud that would take them on a inebriated rampage all over Northern Europe.
This pattern of vacillating between “good” behavior and absinthe and opium-fueled binges was one that would repeat throughout Verlaine’s life: he continued to waver between devout Catholicism and relapses into drunkenness and compulsive sexuality, eventually dying in abject poverty. I would imagine that if Verlaine were alive today, he might have been diagnosed with some sort of bi-polar disorder, which would perhaps explain the extremes of his blindingly bright highs and his dark lows.
In his biography of Verlaine, Stefan Zweig describes Verlaine’s state of mind around the time he wrote La bonne chanson: “For a moment it seemed as if everything were to come to a good end. He fell in love with the explosive vehemence and despairing persistence with which the weak are accustomed to cling to an idea.” Verlaine’s poetry reflects this “explosive vehemence” – it is overflowing with ideas and imagery. The joy he describes is almost maniacal. Reading the poems, it’s not hard to see why Fauré was similarly excitable in his composition. The poems ride a high that is completely ungrounded. His music reflects the extreme heights of Verlaine’s own frenzied high.
When learning the cycle at Ravinia, there was a lot of critical discussion about this poetry, focused largely on Verlaine’s story after he wrote La bonne chanson. Some of the coaches seemed quite hung up on Verlaine’s homosexual history, and as a result were quite critical of the poems. This was something that did not sit well with me at the time, and it continues to feel uncomfortable. It was almost as if Verlaine’s poems were being viewed through the lens of “he was gay”, and therefore his intentions were not earnest nor true. On the surface, as a performer, I found this perspective completely useless: as the person delivering the text, I have no choice but to lean into the verisimilitude of what the author is writing. It also raised an unsettling question for me: if Verlaine didn’t really mean any of this and was just a lost soul, why perform this music? Why not just let these poems linger in a purgatory of lesser works?
On a personal level, I also found this focus borderline offensive: at the time I was in a long-term relationship with someone who identified as “historically bisexual”. He had come out of the closet late in his twenties, years after he had married a woman. He continued to have relationships with both men and women after coming out, eventually settling down in a long-term relationship with a man. It was difficult to watch him struggle with people’s constant perception that his exploration of bisexuality was just a denial of the fact that he was gay. The reductive stereotype that “bi’ really means “by the way, I’m gay” completely invalidated the emotional reality of the love he felt for his ex-wife and any other women he had been involved with.
I was recently having a conversation with a couple of women who are currently in long term relationships with women and who bristle a bit when people refer to them as lesbians. Their own histories have involved relationships with trans men, and as I was listening to them describe how those experiences informed the evolution of their identities and the complexity of their paths, I was reminded of my ex and his own struggles with having the outside world recognize his experiences for what he felt they were. Thinking about all of this in the context of revisiting Fauré’s cycle in preparation for my performance of the piece with the Seattle Chamber Music Society this coming Monday, it reminds me how reductive it is to think of sexuality in binary terms.
Sexuality is a spectrum, and navigating it can be a messy thing, especially for those of us who do not reside on the heteronormative extremes. Yes, there is something deeply unsettled about Verlaine’s poetry that makes engaging with it slightly uncomfortable. But that is also the nature of what it is to navigate the spectrum of sexuality: replete with shame and self-hatred, as well as deep love for people who don’t end up being the right matches. I would argue that it’s this precise in-the-cracks-ness that makes the poetry so real, and why it can be so deeply uncomfortable to engage with it. It refuses to be put in a box, because that is just not how humans really are. It is that commitment to his own truth of that moment in his life which makes the poetry so compelling, and so moving. It’s no wonder it’s been set to music so many times by so many different composers, and that it inspired Fauré to write something so bizarrely beautiful.
I perform Fauré’s La bonne chanson on Monday evening with the Seattle Chamber Music Society at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Tickets and full info are HERE. For a $25 discount on tickets, enter the code TENOR at checkout.