Fauré and Debussy: Two Charming Settings of Paul Verlaine’s “Mandoline”

Gabriel Fauré’s 1891 song cycle, Cinq mélodies “de Venise”, Op. 58, begins with music which is as charming and infectious as it is brief.

Mandoline is a setting of a poem from the 1869 collection, Fêtes galantes, by the French Symbolist, Paul Verlaine. The poem was inspired by a series of paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicting (as Robert Gartside writes) “18th century nobility in their fêtes champètres, those elegant picnics redolent of a mixture of gaiety, sensuousness, melancholy, world-weariness and wealth.” A narrator tells of “gallant serenaders” exchanging “sweet nothings beneath singing boughs.” Fauré wrote the song during a summer stay at the Palazzo Barbaro-Wolkoff on Venice’s Grand Canal.

The piano accompaniment sparkles with the sunny staccatos which evoke a mandolin or lute. The melody floats into an endless expanse, taking surprising turns on a whim. Listen to the way a new voice emerges in the piano, entering into an ebullient dialogue with the vocal line.

Here is Kathleen Battle’s performance with James Levine at the 1984 Salzburg Festival:

The young Claude Debussy created a song setting for Mandoline around 1883. It gives us a glimpse of a carefree and playful side of Debussy. The work may have been written more for the personal amusement of his wealthy Russian patron, Nadezhda von Meck (who also supported Tchaikovsky), as for posterity. Another inspiration could have been Marie Vasnier, a singer for whom Debussy developed an infatuation. Regardless, Debussy’s setting swirls with a dizzying sense of frivolity, beginning and ending with a single, enigmatic tone.

Here is Véronique Dietschy’s 1995 recording with pianist Philippe Cassard:

Recordings

  • Fauré: Mandoline, Kathleen Battle, James Levine (Kathleen Battle: Salzburg Recital) Amazon
  • Debussy: Mandoline, L. 29, Véronique Dietschy, Philippe Cassard Amazon

Photograph: “Dahlias and Mandolin” by Paul Gauguin, 1883

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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