The Music Major Minute: Unexpected Vocal Repertoire, Part Four: French Mélodie

The Music Major Minute: Unexpected Vocal Repertoire, Part Four: French Mélodie

In this column, we will sojourn through some less performed French art songs in the fourth part of a series on unexpected vocal repertoire.


Welcome to Part Four of Unexpected Vocal Repertoire exploration. Carol Kimball writes in her book, Song, that the history of French mélodie spans 130 years from Berlioz (1803–1869) to Poulenc (1899–1963). Berlioz cultivated the classical French mélodie and Poulenc perfected it. As I wrote in Part One of this series, the songs you sing in lessons will be some of the most memorable studies of your college years. Learning to research music that suits your voice type will help you level up as a singer. Your voice teacher will probably assign songs by Fauré, Debussy or Hahn to teach you French style. 

Roger Nichols, editor of The Art of French Song, summarizes an important interpretive direction by composer Reynaldo Hahn: “Hahn recommended that singers, while performing, should visualize the thoughts and actions of the song the tiniest bit ahead of what they were singing. In this way, he claimed, the surprise of the new thought would show up in the voice, helping the singer to articulate, through vocal colour, timing and pronunciation, the underlying structure and drama of the story.” Once you fall in love with French mélodie, the following playlist will give you even more to sing about.


Jean-Philippe Rameau “Viens, Hymen” from Les Indes galantes (1735)

Before mélodie existed as a form, there was French baroque opera. Rameau’s second opera, Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies) premiered at the Paris opera, and this air is a stunning recital opener that your professors might not recognize. Soprano Sabine Devieilhe and pianist Alexandre Tharaud recorded a perfect performance of this for his album Versailles, available to view on YouTube. C’est magnifique!


Franz Liszt “S’il est un charmant gazon” (1844)

This song is not entirely unexpected, but Liszt might be an unexpected composer of art songs. Most music history courses introduce students to Liszt’s astonishing piano compositions, but he also composed 80 art songs in French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, and English. “S’il est un charmant gazon” is a delicately textured display of melody and colorful flourishes in the piano. Liszt directed the pianist to play both stanzas evenly stating, “The whole song must proceed on the lightest of wings.” This song has been recorded by Kathleen Battle and a host of other famous sopranos, but it is also a wonderful choice for lower voices looking for an “up tempo” song with graceful movement.


Victor Massé “Consolation” (1849)

Massé was a prestigious Parisian composer of opera, but this song is so unexpected that a recording is nowhere to be found. This gorgeous song sets poetry of Renaissance poet de Malherbe that offers consolation for the misfortune of a daughter being laid in the tomb. The music is included in the Edition Peters anthology The Art of French Song, volume 1. This mélodie begs to be researched and performed. Lecture recital, anyone?


Pauline Viardot-Garcia “Seize ans!” (1864)

Viardot is a fabulous programming choice when you are looking for women composers, and this piece is a memorable tune and lovely French repertoire. Particularly delightful for audiences and pianists are her adaptions of Chopin’s mazurkas. Pay your pianist double, s’il vous plaît, as they must learn Chopin’s Mazurka No.31 in Ab Major and follow your French lead. Isabel Bayrakdarian and Serouj Kradjian recorded an astonishing version of this on their album Pauline Viardot-Garcia: Lieder, Chansons, Canzoni, Mazurkas. 


Emmanuel Chabrier “L’Invitation au voyage” (1870) for voice, bassoon and piano

Chabrier composed music for “L’Invitation au voyage” the same year his friend Henri Duparc set his masterful mélodie of the same poem. Only one performance of the song was recorded in Chabrier’s lifetime. This unique blending of sonorities and exotic poetry makes this a wonderful chamber music voyage in La Belle Époque (the beautiful age of French music). The low tones of the bassoon serve as a luxurious conversation on the voyage of Baudelaire’s poem and Chabrier’s strophic melody. 

Émile Paladilhe “Psyché” (1887)

This stunning song tells the tale of Cupid and Psyche from Metamorphoses with simultaneous simplicity and decadence. Paladilhe was a contemporary of Fauré and Debussy, composing two volumes of songs—but “Psyché” was his greatest hit. The languid nature of the piano part and the hesitant, almost parlando nature of the vocal line makes this a marvelous choice for student or professional alike. Susan Graham recorded this mélodie on her album Un frisson franҫais/A Century of French Song.


Édouard Lalo “Oh! quand je dors” (1882)

Lalo set this Victor Hugo poem with divine music sensibility. The Liszt setting is a popular recital choice, but Lalo’s mélodie (available in the Alfred anthology Gateway to French Mélodies) is a perfect choice for the undergraduate student. The melodic voice part with graceful and urgent piano accompaniment paints the picture of the “dream.” Listen to Bruno Laplante sing this on YouTube.


Saint-Saëns “Le rossignol et la rose” (1892)

Saint-Saëns crafted a sensational vocalise for the advanced high soprano/nightingale. Singers looking for less text to memorize be warned: a vocalise is every bit as tricky, if not more so, to memorize as are songs with words. Lisette Oropesa recorded a stellar interpretation that is sure to inspire, and a video of her recording session is available on YouTube.


Déodat de Séverac “Ma poupée chérie” (1914)

Séverac was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel. His songs are enchanting and melodic and feature whimsical poetry. If this song leaves you wanting more, baritone François Le Roux and pianist Graham Johnson recorded an entire album for you: Songs by Déodat de Séverac on Hyperion records. “Ma poupée chérie” is achievable for undergraduates with a repeated melody and just the right amount of poetry for the novice ear.


Kurt Weill “Youkali” (1934)

Like most humans with a beating heart, I love a Kurt Weill song with his intoxicating harmonic soundprint, especially when he conjurs a tango. I’ve found that his French cabaret-style songs are a great introduction to singing in French for undergraduates. With more popular/cabaret style melodies, students worry less about the “difficulty” of French diction and can invest their energy into interpretation. Listen to the Teresa Stratas recording; she was entrusted with the Weill unknown songs by Weill’s wife and muse, Lotte Lenya, and features them on her album The Unknown Kurt Weill


Darius Milhaud Chansons de Ronsard (1941)

Sales pitch: If you have a high E natural, this is the song cycle for you! High coloraturas with solid French diction facility will delight in these sweet, showstopper songs. Milhaud was one of “Les Six” (the French composers resisting the symbolist movement and impressionist style) and he composed these songs for Lily Pons and orchestra. Coloratura sopranos will wow the panel for a concerto competition with this set, but they also work beautifully with piano. I adore the recording of Judith Blegen and Martin Katz, available on YouTube.


Georges Auric Quatre Chansons de la France malheureuse (1958)

Georges Auric was also associated with “Les Six.” He was something of a political activist, writing clandestine articles opposing the Nazi occupation of France and the ideology of universal music. He composed this haunting set of four songs on texts by Resistance poets for rockstar-level-baritones (i.e., graduate students). I was introduced to these songs through the Facebook group “A New Song Each Day,” with the fabulous video of Simon Barrad & Ahyoung Jung—bravi!


Erik Satie “Je te veux” (“I want you”) (1903)

“Je te veux” is the most delicious waltz, evoking Parisian nightlife with its sensual text. This song is so loved that in addition to its piano and voice composition, Satie also orchestrated it for brass orchestra, full orchestra, and solo piano. I include it in on my list of unexpected songs because I have never heard it at NATS, so clearly it is my duty to remind young singers to learn more Satie, host your own Chat Noir parties, and sing French cabaret to your heart’s content! I want you to listen to Elly Ameling or Jessye Norman sing “Je te veux.” Both are queens of art song and have gifted us with gorgeous renditions of this waltz.

Christi Amonson

Christi Amonson is a soprano, a stage director, a curious reader/writer, a professor of voice and opera at The College of Idaho, and a curator of food, hugs, and good times for her family.