About this work
"For the first three performances I'll have a reasonable little theatre orchestra. But from the fourth night onwards the Odéon's economic cutbacks begin to take effect: several of the good players are being dropped and instead they're hiring all the useless, feeble and superannuated hacks they can scrape together from the Luxembourg quarter. I can see there's a bumpy ride ahead." Thus said Fauré to his friend and patroness, Countess Elisabeth Greffulhe, before conducting Shylock's premiere on December 17, 1889. As things turned out, Edmond Haraucourt's facile adaptation of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice ran for a respectable 56 performances, drawing critical praise for the sets, but only occasional perfunctory notice for one of Fauré's most exquisite scores. No doubt, the stage business rendered this urbane music -- much of it employed to accompany dialogue -- truly incidental. For the suite, Fauré dropped several numbers, composed a brief introduction to the "Chanson," expanded the "Epithalame," and augmented the orchestration. In this recension -- the form in which the music was published and is invariably performed -- Shylock was heard to better advantage at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique on May 17, 1890, conducted by Gabriel Marie, with one M. Lepestre taking the tenor numbers.
Shylock is contemporary with Fauré's discovery of Verlaine -- he had already set Spleen in 1888, while the Cinq Mélodies "de Venise" were to follow in 1891 -- and anticipates his gallant "Venetian" style, particularly in the two tenor mélodies. Indeed, as he was composing, he wrote to Countess Greffulhe in October 1889 that "I had to find for Shylock a musical phrase with a certain penetration, like Venetian moonlight, and now I've got it!" This is the ethereal violin melody that floats aloft through the Nocturne, suggesting Shakespeare's "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank...." Opening the suite, on the other hand, the Chanson lavishes a disarmingly sanguine charm upon Haraucourt's interpolated verse fluff -- "Oh! The girls! Come you sweet-voiced girls/'Tis time to forget your pride and virtue...." The tenor's so-called Madrigal is, by comparison, primly and archaically suggestive, matching Haraucourt's invocations of Flora, Pomona, and Astarte, to convey the beauty of "she whom I love." Coming between them, the misleadingly titled Entr'acte -- with fanfares heralding the entrance of Portia's suitors -- is a velvety, gracious bit of pomp and circumstance. The few evocative phrases accompanying Bassanio in the play, as he chooses the casket containing Portia's portrait, have been worked into a substantial, moving "Epithalame" for the suite. The Nocturne follows, with its lunar magic. And a surprisingly breezy Finale, adorned with pizzicato scintillations, offers suave assurance that matters of great pith, moment, and romance have ended well. Fauré has rendered the poetry of the piece splendidly and perhaps too ideally -- in Paris, even Shakespeare becomes Parisian, or, more precisely, Fauréen. Or, perhaps it is better said that in Fauré's Shylock music, the spirits of Shakespeare and Verlaine mingle in urbane incandescence.