Chanson d’avril and La coccinelle
February 16, 2020: Ying Fang, soprano; Ken Noda, piano
Despite Bizet’s primary preoccupation with composing opera, he also wrote more than fifty songs for voice and piano, many of which have stood the test of time because of their fresh contribution to the genre of French mélodie (art song). He built on the style of his teacher, Charles Gounod, but he managed to imbue his songs with more scenic flair and more unusual harmonies and textures. One imagines that if Bizet’s life had not been cut tragically short, he could have produced a body of songs that rivaled those of Fauré, Duparc, and Chabrier, all of whose best songs date from after Bizet’s death.
Bizet’s most well-known songs appear in the 1873 collection Vingt (20) mélodies, though most of them had been published before. His somewhat lesser-known but equally great collection, Feuilles d’album (Album leaves), contains six songs all composed in 1866 and published the following year. His final collection (Seize  mélodies), published posthumously in 1883, contains mostly adaptions he made between 1873 and 1875 from unfinished and unperformed operas. His choice of poets demonstrates his amazingly wide-ranging literary tastes, and his dedications include a large circle of friends and colleagues—mainly singers, both professional and amateur. Even when writing in a virtuosic vein his songs are grateful to sing.
Bizet composed the charming, graceful “Chanson d’avril” (April song) by 1871 for mezzo-soprano Anna Banderali, wife of composer Grat-Norbert (Adrien) Barth, who a dozen years earlier had beaten out Bizet for the Prix Edouard Rodrigues. Like many of Bizet songs it is strophic, this time in two verses, with a constantly rustling piano part that suggests the stirring of spring and provides a perfect foil for the smoother vocal lines.
“La coccinelle” (The ladybug) dates from June of 1868, written for amateur singer Fanny Bouchet. Bizet’s setting provides a perfect example of his ability to create an entire scene within a song. He carefully delineates three characters—in the opening recitative we meet the girl who is the object of the boy’s affection, then for most of the narrative he recounts his missed opportunity for a kiss in a lighthearted waltz as if they are at a dance, and finally the ladybug teases him in her own little song. He concludes with soaring regret and a rueful “I should have.”
© Jane Vial Jaffe
Texts and Translations
Lève-toi! lève-toi! le printemps vient de naître.
Là-bas, sur les vallons, flotte un réseau vermeil.
Tout frissonne au jardin, tout chante, et ta fenêtre,
Comme un regard joyeux, est pleine de soleil.
Du côté des lilas aux touffes violettes,
Mouches et papillons bruïssent à la fois;
Et le muguet sauvage, ébranlant ses clochettes,
A réveillé l’amour endormi dans les bois.
Puisque avril a semé ses marguerites blanches,
Laisse ta mante lourde et ton manchon frileux;
Déja l’oiseau t’appelle, et tes sœurs les pervenches
Te souriront dans l’herbe en voyant tes yeux bleus.
Viens partons! Au matin la source est plus limpide;
N’attendons pas du jour les brûlantes chaleurs,
Je veux mouiller mes pieds dans la rosée humide,
Et te parler d’amour sous les poiriers en fleurs!
Get up! Get up! Spring is just born.
Yonder above the valleys floats a vermilion space.
Everything quivers in the garden, everything sings, and your window,
like a joyful glance, is full of sun.
Beside the lilacs with their purple clusters,
flies and butterflies buzz together;
and the wild lily-of-the-valley, ringing its bells,
has awakened love asleep in the woods.
Since April has sown its white daisies,
leave aside your heavy coat and your cosy muff;
already the bird is calling you, and your sisters the periwinkles
will smile in the grass at you on seeing your blue eyes.
Come, lets go! In the morning the spring is more limpid;
let us not wait for the burning heats of the day,
I want to wet my feet in the damp dew,
and to talk to you of love beneath the flowering pear trees!
Elle me dit: “Quelque chose
“Me tourmente.” Et j’aperçus
Son cou de neige, et, dessus,
Un petit insecte rose.
J’aurais dû,—mais, sage ou fou,
A seize ans, on est farouche,—
Voir le baiser sur sa bouche
Plus que l’insecte à son cou.
On eût dit un coquillage;
Dos rose et taché de noir.
Les fauvettes pour nous voir
Se penchaient dans le feuillage.
Sa bouche fraîche était là;
Hélas! Je me penchai sur la belle,
Et je pris la coccinelle;
Mais le baiser s’envola.
“Fils, apprends comme on me nomme,”
Dit l’insecte du ciel bleu,
“Les bêtes sont au bon Dieu;
“Mais la bêtise est à l’homme.”
She told me: “Something
torments me.” And I saw
her snow-white neck, and, on it,
A small rose-colored insect.
I should,—but wise or mad,
at sixteen, one is shy,—
have seen the kiss on her mouth
more than the insect on her neck.
It looked like a shell,
rosy back and spotted with black.
The warblers to see us better
stretched out their necks in the foliage.
Her fresh mouth was there;
alas! I leaned over the beautiful girl,
and I removed the ladybug,
but the kiss flew away.
“Son, learn what they call me,”
said the insect from the blue sky,
“Creatures belong to the good Lord,
but foolishness belongs to man.”