For a composer who was such a distinguished man of letters, we know remarkably little about the background to Hector Berlioz’ song cycle Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights). It’s never mentioned in his letters nor in his volume of memoirs. We cannot even be sure for whom it was written. The songs seem personal, private… a musical secret diary, perhaps.

Hector Berlioz by Émile Signol (1832)
© Public domain

For Susan Graham, one of the cycle’s finest exponents, Berlioz’ word-setting is what stands out: “It’s almost microscopic in its detail and so intimate that it feels like you’re telling secrets.” Nuits d’été is considered the first orchestral song cycle and it remains hugely popular with singers and audiences alike.

Throughout his life, Berlioz was a composer of songs, writing around fifty in total. The six songs of Les Nuits d’été are based on the poetry of his friend Théophile Gautier from his collection La Comédie de la mort. Berlioz slightly modified the texts and changed some of the titles. Perhaps the lack of correspondence about their composition could be due to the fact that Berlioz and Gautier both lived in the same district of Paris. Both were music critics and they would see each other often, removing the need to write letters to each other.

Théophile Gautier
© Public domain

But what – or who – was Berlioz’ inspiration? The songs were composed around 1840-41, during the time when his marriage to Irish actress Harriet Smithson (the idée fixe of his Symphonie fantastique) was falling apart. He had embarked on an affair with mezzo-soprano Marie Recio who would, after Harriet’s death in 1854, become his second wife. Was Marie his inspiration? It was certainly for her that Berlioz orchestrated the fourth song, Absence, in 1843, but Berlioz never intended these six songs to be sung as a cycle. They were published together “for tenor or mezzo voice and piano” merely for the sake of convenience under the title Les Nuits d’été, a reference perhaps to his beloved Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Berlioz never heard them performed as a cycle. The piano version was dedicated to Louise Bertin, whose father Louis-François Bertin, edited the Journal des débats, for which Berlioz penned music reviews.

That Berlioz never intended the songs to be sung by a single singer can be inferred from his orchestrations. Despite the success of his orchestral version of Absence, it didn’t spur Berlioz on to scoring the others until 1856. Each of the six orchestral songs were then dedicated to a different German singer – Berlioz’ music was always better received in Germany than France, so this was a little thank you to the Germans. The voice types of the dedicatees ranged from mezzo to contralto, tenor and baritone, forcing Berlioz to change some of the keys.

Marie Recio
© Musée Hector-Berlioz | Département de l’Isère – France

Despite this, these six songs make for such a well-balanced – even if an unintentional – cycle, dealing with love and desire, switching between feelings of guilt and loss towards flirtation and heaving passion. There’s even a symmetrical feel to the collection, with two sunny songs framing four serious, introspective ones. It has a shape to it and is an emotional cycle even if there is no narrative running through it.

For me, it’s the orchestrations that have guaranteed the cycle’s lasting success. The Berlioz of Nuits d’été is very different to the wild brigand of Le Corsaire or the delirium of the Symphonie fantastique. Yes, there’s a hint of opium wafting in Le Spectre de la rose, but the restraint in his orchestral writing is remarkable. Each of the videos below features a favourite singer in this most wonderful of song cycles.

Villanelle is written in simple strophes, almost in a folk style, and is impulsive and carefree. Woodwinds chirrup, and the bassoon provides a note of mischief as the poet invites his lover to go into the meadows to gather strawberries. It sounds so uncomplicated, yet the harmony shifts in every verse.

Le Spectre de la rose is the masterpiece of the cycle. A rose has died so that his spirit can adorn the dress of a young lady as she attends her first ball. The long, slow flute and clarinet melismas in the introduction plunge us into a heady, perfumed atmosphere. Berlioz writes in long, voluptuous arcs of melody, full of sensual ardour. Mention of “de profundis” prompts him to imitate plainchant with a plagal cadence. Harp tremolos – the only time the instrument features in the cycle – represent the rose’s fragrance, tingling, anticipating the erotic rapture of the declaration “J’arrive du Paradis” as the rose is resigned to its fate.

Sur les lagunes sees our poet heading out to sea on a voyage. But he is alone. His lover is dead. Tormented by love, this is a funereal barcarolle across a foggy lagoon, melodic sighing conjuring up the image of a rocking boat. But the song is unanswered, Berlioz ending with a dominant chord which never resolves.

Absence is a heartrending plaint, the poet pleading for the return of his beloved. Berlioz originally intended to set the opening line as “Reviens, reviens, sublime Orphée”.

Au cimetière is a ghostly vision of the poet’s beloved, full of graveside melancholy. The vocal line seems trapped, frozen within a narrow range with many repeated notes. It is sparsely scored, muted strings shooting nocturnal moonbeams while numb, ghostly flute and clarinet cut across the beat.

L’Île inconnue is a delicious cocktail of flirtation and bitter irony as a sailor invites a young beauty to set out on a voyage on his ship where the rudder is made of fine gold, the sails of angels’ wings. You can hear the breeze ruffle the strings (“La brise va souffler”) and the woodwinds chuckle an amused response. The sailor offers the Baltic, the Pacific, Java or Norway. The girl asks to be taken to a “faithful shore where one loves forever” only to be told that such a land doesn’t exist. But they set sail together anyway.