RC 40 Écoutez la chanson bien douce

  • Verlaine, Paul
  • mezzo soprano (or contralto) and piano // soprano and piano
  • January 5, 1898
  • duration 4:40

Écoutez la chanson bien douce (Hear the Sweetest Song) was the first French text Diepenbrock set to music. When he was working on it at the beginning of January 1898, he had problems ‘translating’ the French prosody into melody and rhythm. Therefore he asked his French-speaking friend, the Belgian composer Charles Smulders (1863-1934) for advice. Two months later he sent him manuscript A-93(2) with the revisions of 20 February. Based on Smulders’ advice, recorded in a letter of 28 March 1898 and most likely discussed further during Diepenbrock’s visit to Liege the following August,1 several corrections were made. Thus Diepenbrock soon made progress with setting French texts to music.

Meanwhile, the first performance by the soprano Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius and the pianist Anton Tierie had taken place in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 30 April 1898. At this soirée actress Josephine Spoor recited poems by Willem Kloos, H.J. Boeken, Bredero and Vondel, and six more songs by Diepenbrock were premiered (see RC 20, 23, 29, 37, 41 and 42).

Stylistically Écoutez la chanson bien douce does not have any typically French characteristics. Its texture is in keeping with the German songs Diepenbrock wrote around 1900. In particular there are strong resemblances between Écoutez and Kann ich im Busen heisse Wünsche tragen (Can I Carry Hot Desires in My Heart, 1902, RC 55). However, all his later French songs clearly differ from the German ones.

Écoutez la chanson bien douce opens with a softly pulsating major chord in the treble of the piano. Under this a melody starts in the middle register, forming a counterpoint to the soprano, who as it were ponders over the text. This combination (repeated chords in the treble, songlike melody in the left hand of the piano, syllabicity with repeated notes in the voice) occurs, each time subtly varied, four more times, corresponding with the structure of the verse. The last time is when Verlaine concludes the poem with the words “Écoutez la chanson bien sage” (Listen to the very wise song) – a variation on the opening line. Diepenbrock emphasises the cyclic form by holding back the voice for a moment just before the final line with a fermata (the only one in the song) on the subdominant chord. The final measures of the piano can be seen as an example of the four-part approach that is so very often a characteristic of the ‘accompaniment’ of Diepenbrock’s songs.

Initially, Diepenbrock did not include the third strophe of Verlaine’s poem in his composition. In 1903 he wrote to a friend: “Do you not think that the strophe that I did not set to music interrupts the symmetry of the poem? For the music it is utterly barren and useless.” (BD IV:93) However, for the edition by Noske of 1905 Diepenbrock set this strophe to music after all. Unfortunately, there are no clues as to why he did this in Diepenbrock’s correspondence from that period. Did he come back on his decision after 1903, or did Noske object to publishing an incomplete setting? In Noske’s edition (in E major) the song is dedicated to the mezzo-soprano Cato Loman.

Ton Braas

1 See BD III:29-30. Diepenbrock wrote his reply the very same day (p. 33). On 26 October he brought up the issue again (pp. 73-74), Smulders answered on 3 November (p. 80).