1) “Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!”
3) “Il est doux…”
The Chansons madécasses were commissioned by the American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (to whom they are dedicated) who also commissioned music by Bartók, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Stravinksy and Britten, among others. She left the choice of text up to Ravel but did suggest “if possible” adding flute and cello to the piano accompaniment.
Ravel chose to set three poems by Evariste-Désiré de Parny, whose Chansons madécasses, traduites en françois appeared in 1787. In his music, Ravel dives headlong into the unabashed emotional realm the poet creates. In each of the three songs, Ravel so totally depicts a new world that is it hard to believe he uses only voice, piano, flute and cello. “It is a sort of quartet in which the singing voice plays the role of principal instrument,” Ravel wrote of the cycle. “Simplicity reigns, [as does] the independence of the voices.”
The first song, “Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!” is the longest of the cycle. The intensely erotic mood of the song begins with a descending phrase in the cello, to which Ravel adds only the voice for the first two verses. It is only as the lover hears Nahandove approaching that Ravel quickens the tempo and adds piano and flute. Throughout, the song juxtaposes erotic languor with fevered anticipation and lovemaking, ending, as it began, with the cello alone.
Ravel took the warning cry “Aoua!” from Parny’s poem “Méfiez-vous des Blancs” and used it as the title of his second song, a harsh, angry denunciation of the white man. Even the quiet sections of the song have a nightmarish, disturbing quality, perfectly in keeping with the poet’s anguished words.
In the last song, “Il est doux…,” Ravel conjures a languid, heat-drenched world in which even the talk of dancing evokes a lazy, sensual rhythm. When the singer calls for supper to be prepared, Ravel stops the music abruptly, and the exotic worlds he so deftly created simply vanish.
The Chansons madécasses were premiered at the American Academy in Rome on May 8, 1926 by singer Jane Bathori, with Alfredo Casella, piano; Louis Fleury, flute; and Hans Kindler, cello. The composer himself later transcribed them for voice and piano alone.
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here by permission.