"Les nuits d'été" (Summer Nights), Op. 7, a song cycle

The vocal cycle LES NUITS D’ÉTÉ (“SUMMER NIGHTS”), OP. 7 reveals another layer in Hector Berlioz’s passionate and fiery nature – that of the quiet innovator. The master of large forms had already written the first romantic programme symphony – Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy, Romeo and Juliet, Symphonie triumphant, Requiem, the opera Benvenuto Cellini. Struggling to earn his living as a music critic, his marriage to the English actress Harriet Smithson, his great love, was about to break up. And around 1840, inspired by Théophile Gautier’s poetry collection La comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death) (1838), he selected six poems and composed the songs that came together to form the Summer Nights cycle.

Published in September 1841, it was originally written for Mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano, and was dedicated to Louise Bertin (a composer and poet, daughter of the editor of the Journal des debates, to which Berlioz collaborated). The music critic noted the arrival of the new songs: ‘It can be said that no other composer works with more independent ideas and more noble disinterestedness. In fact, nothing is easier for Berlioz than to write those tender and fragrant melodies that fashionable singers and their clientele seek. But he never wanted to disgrace his art.” And further, “They are sweet, pure, subtle, proud or melancholy songs, nobly and truthfully expressing a certain state of mind.”

In 1843 the composer orchestrated the fourth song Absence for his lover, the singer Marie Recio, for a tour in Germany. In 1856 – the second Le spectre de la rose for performance in Gotha, encouraged by the composer Peter Cornelius, who persuaded the Swiss publisher Jacob Ritter-Biedermann to commission Berlioz to orchestrate the entire cycle. He completed it in a month and it was published at the end of the same year, 1856. After this version was published, Hector revealed his idea of having different voices perform each of the songs – Mezzo-soprano, tenor or contralto. Nowadays, however, Summer Nights is usually performed by a single soloist, usually a Mezzo-soprano.

Some scholars suggest that the title of the work is an allusion to Shakespeare. Others believe it was invented for its resonance with the melancholy verses and is rooted in Berlioz’s own words from a review of his concerto: that delightful harmony, pure, calm and serene, like a summer night. Each of the vocal miniatures is a complete piece, telling its own story of love, but when performed in sequence as a cycle they form a hidden lyrical narrative about the collapse of feelings and hopes, the dualism of love and death.

The first song, Villanelle, conveys the springtime longings of lovers wandering together in the woods (Berlioz wrote dedications to singers he worked with in the orchestral version of Summer Nights, “Villanelle” being dedicated to Luise Wolff). The expressive Le spectre de la rose (The Ghost of the Rose) reveals a young girl’s dream of the ghost of the flower she draped over her gown at the ball. The rose does not regret her death; to die on her breast is a fate to be envied by kings… (dedicated to Anna Bockholz-Falconi). In the sombre Sur les lagunes: Lamento (Over the Lagoons: Lamento), a sailor mourns his dead beloved, who will never see him go to sea again (dedicated to Hans Feodor von Milde). In Absence, the lovers are far apart, metaphorically between life and the afterlife (dedicated to Madelaine Kratochvil-Notes). In the second lamento, Au cimetière: Clair de lune (In the Cemetery: Moonlight), the bereaved protagonist is disturbed by the ghostly vision of his deceased beloved and frees himself from the dark memory (dedicated to Friedrich Kaspari). The last song L’île inconnue (The Unknown Island) hints at the unattainable – the place where love can endure forever (dedicated to Rosa von Milde).

In Summer Nights Berlioz achieved a new, previously unheard equivalence of voice and orchestra in his multidimensional musical interpretation of Gautier’s poems. The chamber orchestral line-up varies flexibly according to the imagery of each song. The composer masterfully used different timbres to build a subtle and rich amalgam of texture and color.

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