Wednesday, 21 January 2009

To Chloris

Reynaldo Hahn, photo by Félix Nadar.

Image via Wikipedia

My breath was taken away today by this song from a CD of songs of the French Belle Epoque, composed by Reynaldo Hahn, who was German-Venezuelan, born in Caracas, but worked in France. He was a great friend of Proust, studied under Massenet and Gounod, made Verlaine weep, and was immortalised in verse by Mallarmé. However his work is strangely old-fashioned, firmly from the school of mélodie at a time when people like Ravel (who was a fellow student) were breaking new ground.

Still, that’s neither here nor there, because what struck me about the song À Chloris were the words. The song has the structure of three statements, each consisting of three lines (the first makes space for a clarification) and all three affirm the wonderful sense that comes of being loved.

The words are not Hahn’s own (he set the words of many poets, among them Hugo and Verlaine, as well as RL Stevenson) but those of Théophile Viau, who lived from 1590-1626. That’s right in the middle of the time when melancholy was all the rage among Europe’s poets and songwriters, if we can imagine such a thing. The great John Dowland, for example, lived from 1563-1626, and is the supreme example of melancholy songs.

Viau’s lyric, however, speaks in another tone entirely. Here’s the French:

S'il est vrai, Chloris, que tu m'aimes,
Mais j'entends, que tu m'aimes bien,
Je ne crois point que les rois mêmes
Aient un bonheur pareil au mien.
Que la mort serait importune
De venir changer ma fortune
A la félicité des cieux!
Tout ce qu'on dit de l'ambroisie
Ne touche point ma fantaisie
Au prix des grâces de tes yeux.

And in English:

If it be true, Chloris, that you love me,
By which I mean, that you like me,
I don't believe even kings
Could know such happiness as mine.
How unwelcome if death
Were to change my current lot
For the joys of heaven!
Whatever they say of ambrosia
It's nothing to the favour
Bestowed by your eyes.

That’s far from melancholia, just a short poem on the joy of being in love. As such, it’s a rarity. As I point it out to you, you’ll think the idea challenging. But try it out for yourself: try to find a poem where the poet is happy about being in love.

There are far fewer than you’d think.