top of page

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Les nuits d’été, op. 7

April 23, 2017: Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Warren Jones, piano

The origins and inspirations for some of the most ravishing songs in the repertory are somewhat obscure. Berlioz composed Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights)—originally for voice with piano—in 1840–41 following his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette. The date March 23, 1840, appears on a manuscript copy of “Villanelle” and the cycle of six songs was published in the summer of 1841, but Berlioz never mentions them in his letters around this time. These are love songs of the highest Romantic order—Romantic referring to the period that saw the rise of lieder, or mélodie in France, as the ideal genre to express the countless images of buoyant hope, insatiable longing, and heartbreak that permeated Romantic poetry. Were Les nuits d’été really inspired by Berlioz’s mistress, Marie Martin (stage name Recio), as many have claimed?

Berlioz began seeing Marie around this time and she accompanied him on his travels of 1842–43. Well aware of her limitations as a singer—she lasted only one season at the Paris Opéra—he still wrote vaguely positive reviews of several of her performances. She was the most frequent performer of “Absence,” the fourth song in the cycle, which he orchestrated specifically for her. Yet the many references to past love affairs and separations in the cycle make it difficult to link the settings too specifically with Marie. And, one would almost rather attribute these gorgeous outpourings to any other inspiration, in view of his unhappiness under her tenacious, jealous hold and her insistence on performing on his concerts over his opposition.

Perhaps it was simple admiration for the poems of his friend and fellow critic Théophile Gautier that inspired Berlioz to such heights. He selected six poems from Gautier’s La comédie de la mort (The comedy of death)—two of a lighthearted nature, which he positioned first and last, and four in a more melancholy vein. The composer provided his own title, drawn from the poet’s images of night. The first song, “Villanelle,” is clearly a “daylight” song, but it sets up the happiness that will later turn to despair. Images of night appear repeatedly in the interior songs, even though “summer nights” are not specifically mentioned. In “La spectre de la rose” the ghost of a rose returns nightly to haunt the dreams of a young woman who wore the flower to a ball. In “Sur les lagunes” (On the lagoons), night envelops the lamenting lover. “Au cimitière: Clair de lune” (At the cemetery: moonlight) explicitly occurs at night, but also includes lovely images of shade and sunset.

In 1843 Berlioz orchestrated “Absence” as a kind of appeasement offering to Marie, and she performed this version several times. It was not until 1856, however, that he orchestrated another of the songs, choosing “Spectre de la rose” for a February engagement with mezzo-soprano Anna Bockholtz-Falconi. Ecstatic over the performance, publisher Jakob Rieter-Biedermann asked Berlioz to orchestrate the remaining songs. The new versions were published later that year, each dedicated to a different singer who had impressed him in roles he had written. One wonders how it struck Marie (whom he had married in 1854) to learn that her “Absence” had been dedicated to Madeleine Nottès, his Marguerite in Faust. The songs have been performed countless times since and have long since been considered among Berlioz’s finest creations.

“Villanelle” owes its infectious merriment to the simplicity of its melody and to the lightly repeated chords in the winds—an effect Berlioz had commented on in the second movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Especially effective are the ends of the second and third verses (the first contains the same musical phrase, but without tempo fluctuations.) In the second the music slows at “et dis moi de ta voix si doux” (and say to me in your soft voice), then resumes in a rush with “toujours” (always). The third verse’s lovely image of returning with strawberries picked in the wood doesn’t really warrant the slowing and speeding up, but we are happy to hear the device again.

The atmosphere changes immediately for “Spectre de la rose,” which employs longer spun-out phrases and a delicate orchestral texture of solo muted cello, paired flute and clarinet, and muted violin and viola background. The haunting images of the poem are made more poignant by Berlioz’s touches of nostalgic sweetness. Leaps are employed with tender expressiveness, and he finds just the right orchestral touches, as in the string tremolos at “Ce léger parfum est mon âme” (This faint perfume is my soul). He ends ingeniously in simple recitative as the poet bestows his epitaph with a kiss.

“Sur les lagunes,” the only minor-mode setting, presents a dark mood with its mournful half-step motive and repetitive accompaniment figure, which suggests the undulating of a boat on water. The grief-stricken lover cries out in a dramatic descent at the end of each verse: “Ah, sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!” (Ah, without love to depart on the sea!) The song ends on an unresolved harmony—at sea, as it were.

“Absence” also dwells on bereavement, that of separation, with the most exquisite lingering over the opening phrase. This phrase, which opens the refrain and therefore returns twice, is haunting in its unusual harmonization and its straining upward. The refrain also contains one of the most agonizingly beautiful peaks anywhere, leading to and attaining the word “loin” (far). The intervening episodes contribute to the drama by building in a chanting style, the second at a higher pitch level than the first.

Gentle pulsation characterizes the opening and closing sections of “Au cimitière,” with subtle harmonic shifts between major and minor. The middle section becomes more agitated (verses 3 and 4), and Berlioz makes a fitting response to the poet’s words about music bringing back a memory. The ending contains some gently clashing dissonances to reflect the “chant plaintif” (plaintive song).

Berlioz exuberantly portrays the high spirits and exoticism of the poet’s “L’île inconnue” (Unknown isle). We also hear undulating waves and the breeze whipping up. A hint of reflection follows the sailor’s admission to his fair companion that the faithful shore of eternal love is little known. Anywhere else is fair game, suggests the cheerful conclusion as the wind picks up and the waves are set in motion again.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

Texts and Translations

Les nuits d’été


Quand viendra la saison nouvelle,
Quand auront disparu les froids,
Tous les deux nous irons, ma belle,
Pour cueillir le muguet aux bois.
Sous nos pieds égrenant les perles,
Que l’on voit au matin trembler,
Nous irons écouter les merles

Le printemps est venu, ma belle,
C’est le mois des amants béni;
Et l’oiseau, satinant son aile,
Dit des vers au rebord du nid.
Oh, viens donc, sur ce banc de mousse
Pour parler de nos beaux amours,
Et dis-moi de ta voix si douce

Loin, bien loin, égarant nos courses,
Faisons fuir le lapin caché,
Et le daim au miroir des sources,
Admirant son grand bois penché,
Puis chez nous, tout heureux, tout aises,
En paniers enlaçant nos doigts,
Revenons, rapportant des fraises
Des bois.

Le spectre de la rose

Soulève ta paupière close
Qu’effleure un songe virginal
Je sais le spectre d’une rose
Que tu portais hier au bal.
Tu me pris encor emperlée
Des pleurs d=argent de l’arrosoir,
Et parmi la fête étoilée
Tu me promenas tout le soir.

O toi, qui de ma mort fut cause,
Sans que tu puisses le chasser,
Toutes les nuits mon spectre rose
À ton chevet viendra danser.
Mais ne crains rien, je ne réclame
Ni messe ni De Profundis.
Ce léger parfum est mon âme
Et j’arrive du paradis.

Mon destin fut digne d’envie,
Et pour avoir un sort si beau
Plus d’un aurait donné sa vie.
Car sur ton sein j’ai mon tombeau,
Et sur l’albâtre où je repose
Un poète avec un baiser
Écrivit “Ci-gît une rose
Que tous les rois vont jalouser.”

Sur les lagunes: Lamento

Ma belle amie est morte.
Je pleurerai toujours;
Sous la tombe elle emporte
Mon âme et mes amours.
Dans le ciel sans m’attendre
Elle s’en retourna;
L’ange qui l’emmena
Ne voulut pas me prendre.
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah, sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!

La blanche créature
Est couchée au cercueil.
Comme dans la nature
Tout me paraît en deuil!
La colombe oubliée
Pleure et songe à l’absent;
Mon âme pleure et sent
Qu’elle est dépareillée.
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah, sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!

Sur moi la nuit immense
S’étend comme un linceul.
Je chante ma romance
Que le ciel entend seul.
Ah, comme elle était belle,
Et comme je l’aimais!
Je n’aimerai jamais
Une femme autant qu’elle.
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah, sans amour s’en aller sur la mer


Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!
Comme une fleur loin du soleil
La fleur de ma vie est fermée
Loin de ton sourire vermeil.
Entre nos coeurs quelle distance!
Tant d’espace entre nos baisers!
O sort amer! O dure absence!
O grands désirs inapaisés!

Reviens, reviens, etc.
D’ici lâ-bas que de campagnes,
Que de villes et de hameaux,
Que de vallons et de montagnes,
À lasser le pied des chevaux!

Reviens, reviens, etc.

Au cimitière: Clair de lune

Connaissez-vous la blanche tombe
Où flotte avec un son plaintif
L’ombre d’un if?
Sur l’if une pâle colombe,
Triste et seule au soleil couchant,
Chante son chant:

Un air maladivement tendre,
À la fois charmant et fatal
Qui vous fait mal
Et qu’on voudrait toujours entendre;
Un air comme en soupire aux cieux
L’ange amoureux.

On dirait que l’âme éveillée
Pleure sous terre à l’unisson
De la chanson
Et du malheur d’être oubliée
Se plaint dans un roucoulement
Bien doucement.

Sur les ailes de la musique
On sent lentement revenir
Un souvenir
Une ombre, une forme angélique
Passe dans un rayon tremblant
En voile blanc.

Les belles de nuit demi-closes
Jettent leur parfum faible et doux
Autour de vous,
Et le fantôme aux molles poses
Murmure en vous tendant les bras:
Tu reviendras!

Oh jamais plus, près de la tombe
Je n’irai, quand descend le soir
Au manteau noir,
Écouter le pâle colombe
Chanter sur la pointe de l’if
Son chant plantif.

L’île inconnue

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.
L’aviron est d=ivoire,
La pavillon de moire,
Le gouvernail d’or fin.
J=ai pour lest une orange,
Pour voile une aile d=ange,
Pour mousse un séraphin.

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.

Est-ce dans la Baltique?
Dans la mer Pacifique?
Dans l’île de Java?
Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,
Cueillir la fleur de neige,
Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?

Menez-moi, dit la belle,
À la rive fidèle
Où l’on aime toujours!
Cette rive, ma chère,
On ne la connaît guère
Au pays des amours.

Où voulez-vous aller?
La brise va souffler.
—Théophile Gautier

Summer Nights


When the new season comes
And the cold weather has gone,
We will go together, my love,
To pick lily-of-the-valley in the woods;
Our feet scattering the pearls
That we see trembling as morning dew,
We will go and hear the blackbirds

The spring has come, my love,
It is the blessed season for lovers;
And the bird, preening its wings,
Sings songs from the edge of its nest.
Oh come and sit on this mossy bank
And talk of our happy love,
And say to me in your soft voice:

Far, far away, our footsteps wandering,
We’ll startle the rabbit from its hiding,
And the deer, mirrored in the stream,
Admiring its great antlers;
Then back home, completely happy, content,
Our fingers entwined, return
Carrying baskets of wild

The Specter of the Rose

Lift up your eyelids
That glow with a maiden dream.
I am the specter of a rose
Which you wore last night to the ball.
You took me still moist
From the silver tears of the watering can.
And through the starry festivities
You walked me with you all evening.

Oh you who was cause of my death,
Without your being able to escape it,
Every night my pink specter
Will come to dance at the head of your bed.
But do not fear anything, I don’t ask
for Mass or De profundis.
This faint perfume is my soul
And it is from paradise that I come.

My destiny was one to be coveted;
To have a fate so beautiful,
Many would have given their lives.
For my tomb is on your breast,
And on the alabaster where I rest
A poet with his kiss
Writes: “Here lies a rose
That all kings will envy.”

On the Lagoons: Lament

My fair one is dead.
I will weep always.
She has taken with her into the tomb
My whole being and all my love.
To heaven, without waiting for me
She returned.
The angel who drew her back
Would not take me with her.
How bitter is my fate.
Ah, without love to depart on the sea!

The white creature
Sleeps in the coffin;
And now all nature
Seems to me in mourning.
The forsaken dove
Cries and dreams of the departed;
My soul cries and feels
As if cut in two.
How bitter is my fate.
Ah, without love to depart on the sea!

All about me, the vast night
Spreads like a shroud.
I sing my song,
And the sky alone hears it.
Ah, how beautiful she was,
And how I loved her!
Never will I love
A woman as much as she.
How bitter is my fate!
Ah, without love to depart on the sea!


Come back, come back my beloved.
Like a flower away from the sun
The flower of my life is closed up
Away from your warm smile.
What distance lies between our hearts;
So great a gulf between our kisses;
O bitter fate! O cruel absence!
Mighty desires unsatisfied.

Come back, etc.

From here to there what plains lie between,
What towns and villages.
What valleys and hills,
To tire the horses’ hooves.

At the Cemetery: Moonlight

Do you know the white gravestone
Where floats with a plaintive song
The shade of a yew tree?
On the yew a solitary white dove,
Sad and alone as the sun sets,
Sings its song:

A sickly sweet air
At once enchanting and fatal,
Which affects you unpleasantly
And which one would like to hear always;
Like a song sighed to heaven
By an angel in love.

One would say the awakened soul
Weeps under the earth in unison
With the song,
And from grief at being forgotten
Complains in a cooing
Very softly.

On the wings of music
One feels slowly returning
A memory
A shade, an angelic form
Passes in a shimmering ray,
Shrouded in white.

The beauties of the night, half-closed,
Throw their weak and soft perfume
Around you
And the phantom in mellow poses,
Whispers while stretching its arms toward you:
You will come back!

Oh never again, near the tomb
Will I go, when evening descends
In its black coat,
To hear the pale dove
Sing from the top of the yew
Its plaintive song.

The Unknown Isle

Tell me, young beauty,
Where do you want to go?
The sails are set,
The breeze is getting up.
The oar is ivory,
The flag of silk,
The helm of fine gold.
For ballast I have an orange,
For sail, an angel’s wing,
For ship’s boy a seraph.

Tell me, young beauty,
Where do you want to go?
The sails are set,
The breeze is getting up.

Is it to the Baltic?
To the Pacific Ocean?
To the Island of Java?
Or is it to Norway,
To pick the snowflowers,
Or the flowers of Angsoka?

Tell me, young beauty,
Where do you want to go?

Take me, the fair one replies,
To the faithful shore
Where love lasts forever.
That shore, my dear,
Is little known
In the country of love.

Where do you want to go?
The breeze is getting up.

bottom of page