Hellenism and eroticism in the French mélodie


“Chloris and Zephyr” by Jacopo Amigoni

The mélodie, the French art song that flourished between 1880-1920, deserves a very special place among the Hellenisms of classical music. The exquisite songs of Chabrier, Chausson, Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Hahn, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie and others often drew poetically and musically on Greek sources, themes, and codes to stage an ethereal, rococo or symbolist antiquity, full of elegiac romance, melancholic pleasure, limpid elegance, and incandescent colorism.

An outstanding and famous example is “À Chloris” (1916), whose 2015 recording by soprano Véronique Gens and pianist Susan Manoff has been garnering much well-deserved praise.  The Modernist aesthete composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) took an archaic Greek idyll by Baroque libertine poet Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) and set it to music by drawing on the striding bass line of the “Air on the G-string” by Baroque religious composer J. S. Bach (1685-1750). In this song the collaborative piano, articulating with seductive grace, does not accompany the half-speaking, half-singing voice but converses with it on love making while also its melody converses with Bach’s basso continuo on music making. I am listening with rapt attention to Zephyr (the god of the west wind) whispering his love to Chloris (the nymph of flowers), guided by my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, a consummate collaborative pianist who points out to me in every song what the voice of the piano spells.

A wonderful post by pianist Albert Combrink has placed “À Chloris” in a most evocative synaesthetic and intermedial context, including some of its numerous adaptations for different instruments.

October 8, 2016

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