PROGRAM NOTE by D. Kern Holoman
Les Nuits d'été was born quietly in 1840-41, in the months following Roméo et Juliette. Berlioz's supreme gift to the repertoire of song was composed originally for voice and piano; the orchestra version, for the most part, came much later. The poems are from a collection of 1838 by Berlioz's friend and fellow critic Théophile Gautier (1811-72) titled La Comédie de la mort. From the poésies diverses in the second half of the volume Berlioz selected two light poems and four sultry ones for setting to music. The title is Berlioz's own, another mark of his ongoing infatuation with Shakespeare.
So far as we know the piano-vocal version was not performed in public concert. When Berlioz left Paris for his journeys of 1842-43 he was accompanied by his mistress, the singer Marie Recio. Partly to legitimize her presence, I think, he asked Marie to participate in his concerts by offering a pair of songs, one of which was Absence. After a lovers' misunderstanding in Frankfurt, he took the piano-vocal Absence and scored it for orchestra. This she sang for the first time in Leipzig on 23 February 1843.
In early 1856, Berlioz returned to the Nuits d'été to orchestrate the ravishing Spectre de 1a rose, with its new introduction, for the mezzo-soprano Anna Bockholtz-Falconi to sing at his forthcoming concert in Gotha. The Swiss publisher Rieter-Biedermann was present at the performance that February; delighted by what he heard, he approached Berlioz with the idea of orchestrating the remaining four of the Nuits d'été for publication. Berlioz needed little convincing.
The texts are among the best Berlioz ever set, resplendent with the characteristic imagery of the French lyric of the 1830s: young lovers culling wild strawberries in spring, the aroma of a faded rose blossom, a grey tomb in the shadow of a yew tree, distance from a rose-colored smile. It is Romantic poetry of far-off places and climes, the final barcarole, for example, alluding to Java and Scandinavia, the Baltic and the Pacific in one of the best of Berlioz's many armchair voyages. Here Berlioz is at the pinnacle of his powers of orchestration, as can be heard in the opening cello arpeggio of Le Spectre de la rose and the languid pairing of flute and clarinet in octaves in the tune that follows. The ostinati in Sur les lagunes undulate in suggestion of a barque afloat; at the swooning phrase "Ah! sans amour, s'en aller sur la mer," even the alliterative sibilants inform the orchestral texture. The end of Au cimetière is made exquisitely tragic by the dissonant clarinet clashes against the tonic triad, persistently delaying resolution. Note also the nod to Beethoven's Eighth in the rhythmic structure of the Villanelle, and in Le Spectre de la rose and Absence the dissolves into revery-induced parlando declamation. All these represent stages in the maturation of the French mélodie, a genre that went on to attract Berlioz's spiritual descendants for the remainder of the century.