Chansons de Don Quichotte
May 15, 2016: James Morris, bass-baritone; Ken Noda, piano
In 1932 film director Georg Pabst decided to make a film about Don Quixote starring the great Russian bass Chaliapin, who had created Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Though certain mystery surrounds the history of the film, it appears that the film company organized a kind of competition—unbeknownst to the composers involved—to write songs for it. Five composers—Marcel Delannoy, Manuel de Falla, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, and Maurice Ravel—were asked, though only Ravel and Ibert set to work. Ibert’s four settings, one of a Ronsard poem and three of Alexandre Arnoux, were chosen; he dedicated them to Chaliapin. Ravel, who was late submitting his three wonderful settings of Morand poems, considered bringing action against the company but gave up when the producers (not Pabst) absconded with the money for the film.
Ibert was embarrassed when he learned his songs had been chosen over Ravel’s, but their friendship was not in the least impaired. The film was finally made with newly raised money, but seems to have had little success due to Chaliapin’s inability to adjust his theater technique to the medium of film. It is curious that Chaliapin’s recording of the songs, made on March 13, 1933, diverges in many ways from the letter of the score, particularly as Ibert was conducting.
Ibert was drawn not only to films—he composed 63 film scores in all—but also to the Don Quixote story. In 1935 he wrote one of his most important works Chevalier errant (Knight Errant), a choreographic epic based on Don Quixote; he also orchestrated his Chansons de Don Quichotte. He said, “Indeed, the character of Don Quichotte has never ceased to follow me, or perhaps I am the one who has been looking for him all the time. Yet one should not conclude from this that I like to struggle against mills or that I am someone who can restore justice. Don Quichotte, to me, is a man in search of an ideal that he never finds.”
The vocal melismas and guitar-like accompaniment of “Chanson du départ” (Song of Parting) immediately impart the Spanish flavor of Don Quixote’s country—Spanish impressions were immensely popular with French composers of the time. “Chanson à Dulcinée” (Song to Dulcinea) alternates a quick refrain with two slower verses, the second a variant of the first. Its sustained, quiet ending in fairly high register was meant to show off Chaliapin’s great control. “Chanson du duc” (The Duke’s Song) consists of three short energetic verses, each slowing to a crawl; the modal style suggests times of old. In “Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte” (Song of Don Quixote’s Death) the dying Don bids farewell to Sancho Panza to a simple accompaniment. His sustained dying note is set yet a half step higher than the ending of “Dulcinea’s Song.”
© Jane Vial Jaffe