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William Yeoman on Nuit Persane
The cantata Nuit Persane is one of Saint-Saëns’ numerous exercises in exotisme, and comes from the pen of a confirmed orientalist who, since 1873, had been a frequent visitor to Algeria and had always maintained more than a passing interest in non-Western modes and rhythms. Five of the songs originate in Saint-Saëns’ 1870 settings of six poems from poet Armand Renaud’s Mélodies persanes. Nuit Persane is organised into four sections, each with its own prelude. Saint-Saëns dropped one of the original songs, La splendour vide, but added two new ones: La fuite and Les cygnes. Spoken text was also added (La voix du rêve) in order to link the songs and form a narrative. Edouard Colonne, for whom the work was written, conducted the premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 14 February 1892.
This is the world of Ingres and Delacroix, filled with voluptuous odalisques, brazen lovers and fearless warriors. The Prelude to Part 1 (La solitaire – The Lonely Woman) fills the night air with muted strings delicately coloured by flute, clarinet and timpani while the Voix du rêve offers a glimpse of the adventures to come. The triplet scale of the Prelude opens La brise (The Breeze), this time played by the winds, before the choir sings of the breeze that dares to caress the women of the harem amid sensuous rhythms and tambourines. As the song rushes towards a climax, La solitaire calls for her lover. Her prayers are answered in La fuite (‘The Flight’), the galloping figure in the strings balanced by the gentle female chorus depicting nightingales and roses before another large crescendo ensues like a wave to carry the lovers into the night.
Cellos introduce a darker, Baudelairean tone in Part 3 (Fleurs de Sang – Flowers of Blood) as the narrator describes how the woman dies and her lover subsequently throws himself into savage self-destructive combat. Strident horns, quickly joined by winds and other brass establish the martial atmosphere of Sabre en main (Sabre in hand) as the tenor’s sabre cuts a swathe through the ‘human throng’ of the world before a male chorus brings the song to an impressive finish.
In Part 4, Songe d’Opium (Opium Dream), a beautiful horn solo enlivens another gentle Prelude before winds bring extra colouring and a change of mode. The lover’s dead sweetheart sings from beyond the grave accompanied by harp and solo violin. The narrator tells of the lover breaking his sword and taking to the road with the dervishes, lost in an opium-induced haze. A bassoon ostinato and obsessive semiquaver violins in Tournoiement (Whirling) drives tenor and tenor chorus towards an impassioned crescendo before a subdued ending brings blissful oblivion.