'intrinsic artistic quality and fine performance … A tantalizing glimpse of a fine talent that deserves to be remembered as more than the sixth member of Les Six' (Fanfare, USA)
'Wonderfully idiomatic performances from singer and pianist alike, ideally recorded and presented' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
'A worthy and wonderful treat … a scintillating disc' (The Observer)
'A vital addition to Hyperion's French song series, beautifully sung and played' (Gramophone)
‘Johnson has done much to rehabilitate the reputations of obscure composers of French Songs’ (BBC Music Magazine)
Mon pâle visage [2'55]
Tu es telle qu'un fleur [1'11]
Veux-tu, au nom des Nymphes [1'00]
Ces roses, humides de rosée [1'30]
Daphnis à la peau blanche [0'45]
Tu dors, Daphnis [1'43]
Le perroquet C’est un autre [2'52]
'Les Six' was the appellation given to a group of young French composers circa 1920 who briefly worked together as a counter-offensive to the excesses and giganticism of 'late-Romantics' typified by such composers as Mahler and Schoenberg. But the movement didn't last long and each of the 'six' soon went his (or in one case her) own way. The most familiar names of the six today are Poulenc, Honegger, Milhaud and Auric. Also, to some extent, Germaine Tailleferre. The least remembered member of the group is undoubtedly Louis Durey, who died as recently as 1979. Like Britain's Rutland Boughton and Alan Bush, his career was seriously hampered because of his well-publicised political beliefs. He was a communist, even setting to music some of the writings of Ho Chi Minh.
Durey's turn in our French Song Edition has now come, and this disc assembles a programme of his virtually unknown songs including settings of Apollinaire's Bestiaire, the only composer to set all thirty of them.
Louis Durey, le silencieux Durey, est l’image même de la modestie et de la noblesse. (Francis Poulenc, from Entretiens avec Claude Rostand)
Louis Durey, the silent Durey, is the incarnation of modesty and nobility. (Francis Poulenc, from Entretiens avec Claude Rostand)
Of the six composers grouped together in an article by the critic Henri Collet in January 1920 and nicknamed ‘Les Six’, Francis Poulenc is now surely the best known – his music is constantly heard in recital and on disc; Darius Milhaud is perceived as a substantial composer with a vast work-list encompassing many musical forms; the orchestral and choral music of Arthur Honegger is still to be found on concert programmes with fair regularity; the film music of Georges Auric keeps the composer’s reputation alive, albeit not in the way he might have wished; Germaine Tailleferre, largely unknown (and unpublished) even in her own time, has benefited from the lively interest in music by women composers that has been a feature of musicological research in recent years.
With five names accounted for, this leaves Louis Durey. He has always seemed to be the ‘orphan’ of ‘Les Six’, although he was a proud and self-sufficient man and would have detested being the subject of pity. After those heady days of being part of a youthful phenomenon, briefly a member of a musical ‘jeunesse dorée’ with which he had little in common in terms of temperament, he continued stoically with his career, never feeling the need to belong to the musical establishment, and remaining unflinchingly true to his left-wing ideals. Durey took no part in that collaborative work Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel of 1921 – a decision which was a source of huge annoyance to Jean Cocteau. Although the date of the group’s dispersion is officially 1924, it is clear that ‘Les Six’ no longer existed as an entity as early as 1921 – if indeed it ever had.
Although Durey was a Parisian by birth, most of his music was performed outside the capital, and he came to detest the ‘smart’ society world in which most of his creative contemporaries moved. His ambition was to write music in a language that was non-elitist; most of his creative life he was a member, and later Secretary, of the Fédération Musicale Populaire, something of a French equivalent of The Workers’ Music Association to which that still underestimated English composer Alan Bush dedicated much of his creative life. Like Bush, Durey subscribed to the tenets of the Prague Manifesto of 1948 which called upon progressive musicians to democratise their compositions by abandoning individualism and writing music derived from folksong.
Such unfashionable communist sympathies were never likely to advance a composer’s career. After his break with Cocteau, Durey shrugged off the indifference of the glamorous world of the pre-war salon; then he faced the dangers of membership of the Resistance during the years of the Nazi occupation when he wrote anti-Fascist songs. Finally, the conditions of the Cold War and his hard-line political stance were hardly conducive to commissions and performances. He seems to have been impervious to all setbacks. The fame, chic and influence of French left-wing authors like Sartre seem not to have encompassed musicians like Durey. He became music critic of the Paris communist newspaper L’Humanité in 1950, but the melodically memorable music of Joseph Kosma turns out to have provided a more enduring musical portrait of the Parisian literary Left of the 1950s and ’60s.
Louis Durey was born on 27 May 1888. He came from an artistic background of sorts, a down-to-earth milieu where aesthetic sensibility was combined with pride in skilled labour and the discipline of factory production. His father was proprietor of a firm that manufactured print type, and his brother René became a painter who also played some part in the idea of combining music and painting in the early days of the concerts given by the ‘Nouveaux jeunes’. Durey was a late developer who decided on a musical career only at the age of nineteen as a result of hearing a performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (he already knew some of the Wagner operas). Debussy remained the composer’s lifelong inspiration despite the attraction he felt to such figures as Schoenberg, Satie, Ravel and Stravinsky. Years later he confessed that Debussy’s ‘suprême élégance’, his ‘tendre et pénétrante poésie’ had always been his surest musical guide. As a composer and orchestrator Durey was largely self-taught, but an important mentor in the study of harmony and counterpoint between 1910 and 1914 was Léon St Requier, a choral conductor from the Schola Cantorum. It is scarcely surprising therefore that, right from the beginning, choral music is of great importance in Durey’s output. His Opus 1 (1914) was two Chœurs a cappella to texts of Henri de Régnier and Charles d’Orléans (both poets of whom Debussy would have heartily approved – and one must remember that the great composer was still alive at this point, a remote presence hovering invisibly in the background of Durey’s work). The link with the Schola Cantorum no doubt led the young composer to the circle of Erik Satie whose famous eccentricities were later explained by Durey as ‘un caprice de la nature’. An array of small song-cycles quickly followed: settings of Paul Verlaine (Op 2), Francis Jammes (Op 3) and Rabindranath Tagore in the translation of André Gide (L’offrande lyrique, Op 4), the latter work influenced by his brief dalliance with the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg.
Durey was mobilised in August 1915 but continued to write other-worldly vocal music in defiance of the dark and miserable mood of the times. The Gide cycle Le Voyage d’Urien dates from this time, as do the choral settings of Saint-John Perse (Eloges – an important precursor to the Perse cycle Images à Crusoé). The first work to make a stir in the musical world, however, was for piano duet – a piece titled Carillons, inspired by a visit to the north of Italy, and dedicated to Satie. The work was first performed by Georges Auric and Juliette Meerovitch in June 1917. If at first this piece seemed to have been composed in the shadow of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Durey himself later avowed that this evocation of bells sounding in different tonalities was much more influenced by Debussy’s Cloches à travers les feuilles. This Carillon, and its sequel Neige, attracted the interest of Maurice Ravel at a concert in early 1918. (The other composers on the programme were Tailleferre, Honegger, Auric and Poulenc – whose Rapsodie nègre received its first performance on that occasion.) Ravel seems to have been less impressed with Poulenc; he introduced himself to Durey and immediately recommended him to his publisher, Jacques Durand. In a letter to the younger composer of the utmost friendliness and tact, Ravel also offered Durey any help in matters of orchestration that he might think necessary. Durey never forgot the kindness of Ravel; indeed this was indirectly to be the cause of his break with Cocteau and Les Six. At this time Durey also earned the approbation of one of the most fastidious of French composers, Albert Roussel, who wrote a very favourable review in The Chesterian of October 1919: works singled out for praise in this article included Le Bestiaire, the Trois Poèmes de Pétrone and the Images à Crusoé.
Durey had originally belonged to the circle of young men around Erik Satie; indeed he had been dubbed one of his ‘Nouveaux jeunes’ (together with Auric and Honegger). Durey’s new friendship with Ravel was probably one reason for Satie’s break with the group in November 1918 opening the way for a new mentor and propagandist – Jean Cocteau. All the vocal works to be heard on this disc date from this exceptionally creative period in Durey’s life, that is to say 1918/19, before the so-called ‘christening’ of Les Six in early 1920. Of course Durey was eleven years older than Poulenc (he was the oldest member of Les Six – older even than Cocteau) so it is hardly surprising that when the younger composer was piecing together his first masterpiece to texts from Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire, Durey was already a practised song-composer with many of his most important vocal works already behind him, and an impressive array of poet-collaborators. We have mentioned Saint-John Perse (an important literary figure otherwise all but ignored by composers); Durey was also attracted to translations from the classics (Epigrammes de Théocrite, Trois Poèmes de Pétrone) as well as the eighteenth-century poet Evariste Parny (Inscriptions sur un Oranger) whom Ravel was later to set in his Chansons madécasses. His shared enthusiasm with Poulenc for the texts of Le Bestiaire seems to have been a coincidence. (In the same way Debussy and Ravel, five years earlier, had alighted on the poems of Mallarmé almost at the same time.) When Poulenc heard that Durey had also set Le Bestiaire poems – and every single one of the animal poems! – he dedicated his six settings from the same textual source to Durey. Indeed, the words ‘à Louis Durey’ at the head of Poulenc’s score will have been the first and only sight of this composer’s name for many a young singer and accompanist.
In the beginning, Durey was the moving spirit, one might almost say the secretary, of the ‘Nouveaux Jeunes’. Jean Cocteau had written an article (one of several) about this group of composers in Paris-Midi in July 1919. It was Durey who sent a copy of the article to his colleague Milhaud and asked him to contribute a piano piece to a recueil to be published by Demets bringing together the names of the six composers who were soon to be dubbed ‘Les Six’. His own contribution to this collection was a Romance sans paroles which was written as a homage to Mendelssohn. (Even this unfashionable choice of role model might have sounded warning bells about Durey’s future with the group.) In the summer of 1919 Durey and his brother Pierre went on holiday with Cocteau in the Basque region of the south of France. The musical outcome of this period were the three Chansons basques where the composer’s first encounter with the poetry of the ultra-Parisian Cocteau is combined with a feeling for the more earthy idiom of folk music. Another Cocteau work by Durey, Printemps au fond de la mer – a rather laconic piece for voice and ten wind instruments which evokes an extraordinary deep-sea landscape – received its first performance on 31 January 1920 by the indefatigable Jane Bathori, the soprano who played such a large role in the propagation of new music in this period.
At first all seemed harmonious enough between Cocteau and Durey. Cocteau reviewed the simultaneous appearance of the two Bestiaire cycles by Poulenc and Durey with appropriate animal imagery: ‘Where Poulenc leaps like an ungainly young dog, Durey steps delicately like a hind. Both of them are natural’ [Là où Poulenc saute avec des pattes de jeune chien, Durey pose délicatement ses pieds de biche. L’un et l’autre naturels.] Such publicity, and the protection of a poet who was a master of public relations, might have been thought to be something invaluable for an emerging composer. But Durey had decided that he did not like Cocteau very much. He wrote to Milhaud: ‘Jean is an exquisite man with whom it is difficult to be shocked, yet his incredibly light mind and pretend baby-games annoy me often’. [Jean est un être exquis, contre qui il est dur de se choquer, mais il a une légèreté d’esprit inconcevable et il joue au bébé avec une feinte ingénuité qui me gêne bien souvent.]. This is about as damning a verdict on the narcissistic and superficial side of Cocteau’s personality as exists from a member of his own circle. Composers like Poulenc and Milhaud were capable of seeing past the irritations of the poet’s self-absorption, and both managed to conserve friendships which lasted for more than forty years. But Durey was also profoundly out of sympathy with some of Cocteau’s aesthetical dicta. In one of his articles (May 1920) in Le Coq – a tract that was the official organ of Les Six – Cocteau repeated one of Satie’s choicely savage pronouncements: ‘Ravel refuse la Légion d’honneur mais toute sa musique l’accepte’. (‘Ravel refuses the Légion d’honneur but all his music accepts it.’) Satie and Ravel had their own troubled history, but it offended Durey that Cocteau had climbed on the same bandwagon. This gratuitous discourtesy to a great French composer (especially from someone who was, in his own way, a far greater snob and socialite than Ravel ever was) enraged Durey to the point that he thought it necessary to distance himself permanently from Les Six. He withdrew from plans to write a Valse des dépêchés for Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel – a work which Cocteau had assumed would represent the definitive collaboration of the group.
Milhaud did his best to persuade Durey to change his mind, begging his friend to avoid what he called ‘une politique d’agression’ and asking him to respect what Poulenc called the ‘unité variée’ of the group: ‘You like Ravel, Arthur [Honegger] likes [Florent] Schmitt. I like [Albéric] Magnard, Francis likes [Albert] Roussel, Tailleferre everybody and Auric nobody. Liberty for all. All the better that our tastes diverge, All the more reason to be more united’. Another letter in which Cocteau attempted to persuade Durey to relent has a note of petulance and a clear sense of personal betrayal. Nothing availed, and Durey’s withdrawal from the Mariés project signalled the end of Les Six as a group. In his Plain-Chant of 1923 Cocteau included a poem about how he had fostered ‘his’ composers:
Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Honegger
Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Honegger
Durey’s absence from Cocteau’s proprietorial line-up is deafening. From then on it was a question of slightly woebegone group photographs on anniversary occasions; in pictures from 1931 and 1951 Durey’s presence is awkward: he is placed either in the background, or as far away as possible from Cocteau who dominates the assembly. Durey seems to have enjoyed the musical collaboration of his colleagues (the correspondence from 1959 with Poulenc quoted at the end of this article is a testament to this), but he felt the group’s musical activities had been hijacked by the self-serving Cocteau as a chic means to épater les bourgeois in a way that was facile and dishonest.
Durey now found himself in a self-imposed artistic isolation which was to last more or less for the rest of his life apart from the support he received from artists of a similar political persuasion. As he told his friend Milhaud, he believed in the birth of a new romanticism which was absolutely at odds with the aesthetic of Les Six. One can hear this desire to find a new romantic voice in his desire to set two poems of Heine – Deux Lieder Romantiques; the text of the second is forever associated with Schumann. (In his own way, Poulenc was also destined to write more lyrical music in the thirties than that of the twenties: his postlude to Tel jour, telle nuit is a covert tribute to Schumann’s Dichterliebe.) For the decade following the break with Cocteau, Durey withdrew to the south of France where he had a house in St Tropez. Here he worked in absolute calm on his Cantate de la Prison and on his only opera, L’Occasion, which took some years to compose. This was inspired by a play by Mérimée with a controversial subject (two young girls in a convent are tragically in love with the same priest) which made it impossible to stage; it received its first concert performance in 1974. That Durey should have lavished such a huge amount of work on a subject which any streetwise composer would know had no future in a French opera house shows either iron integrity or a blinkered view of the practicalities of life, or perhaps both.
The composer married Anne Grangeon in 1929 and moved back to Paris in 1930. In this period he composed chamber music (his third string quartet) and his Dix Inventions for piano. He also wrote incidental music for L’Intruse, a play by Maeterlinck. In the mid-thirties he joined the Communist Party and became active in the newly formed Féderation Musicale Populaire. As fellow-members of this organisation he found composer colleagues on the Left who were also far removed from the social world of Les Six – Charles Koechlin, and his old admirer Albert Roussel. Between 1937 and 1944 he had little time to compose, so involved was he in musicological tasks. He began to reconstruct the forgotten music of François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) who had attempted to compose ‘music of the people’ during the turbulent years of the French Revolution in a way that seemed exemplary for a man of Durey’s beliefs. Research into the madrigals of Marenzio and the vocal music of Josquin des Prés and Janequin showed Durey’s on-going commitment to choral music, a form which he came to believe was the most effective vehicle for music of political persuasion. In due course, particularly in the 1950s and early ’60s, he was to write many choral settings (including harmonisations of folksongs from all over France) in a desire to provide amateurs with accessible music which could be learned easily – music for the people.
During the German occupation Durey was one of the musicians who worked as part of Front National des Musiciens, an arm of the Resistance from which many a famous musical name was notably absent. Fellow militants were Désormière, Manuel Rosenthal and Roland-Manuel. After the war Durey began to compose again, and his continuing political commitment is evident from his choice of texts for his vocal music: Lorca, Langston Hughes and Ho Chi Minh, and many another minor poet associated with the class struggle. He became ever more certain that it was the obligation of the artist to embrace hard-line communism. Sadly the music from this period has neither the immediate catchy tunefulness of a Kosma, nor the sense of mystery and poetry which had pervaded his own earlier work. In the late 1950s and early ’60’s there was a re-flowering of Durey’s work where there is some sign of his re-connecting with that special, and gently exotic, voice which makes his music so easily distinguishable from his fellow members of Les Six. In the light of recent political developments one would say that these were years wasted in pursuit of the artistic ideals of Russian and Chinese communism – although it is almost certain that Durey himself, were he still alive – he died on 5 July 1979 – would merely see it all, without regrets, as part of a long and continuing struggle. His work on Vietnamese themes in the sixties, born of anger and outrage against an unjust war, seemed the outpouring of a lone musical voice, but it is a voice that in retrospect seems brave and necessary.
In 1920 Poulenc wrote to Durey telling him about his fifth Impromptu which he believed his friend would like because it was ‘excessivement triste et grave’. This tells us something about even the younger Durey’s reputation for seriousness among his colleagues, although a letter of 1933 from Durey to Poulenc admires Ninon Vallin’s performance of Poulenc’s light-hearted Airs chantés. There is a very touching last exchange of letters between Durey and his old friend in 1959. Poulenc had been sent a batch of reviews of the two ten-inch LPs of his songs recorded by him and Pierre Bernac on the Véga label (perhaps the finest collection of recordings ever made by the duo). Among these cuttings he found an article by Durey who had written that Poulenc’s mélodies were now classics and took their place besides those of Fauré and Debussy. This prompted Poulenc to write a short but affectionate letter to Durey thanking him for the praise, aware as he was that such approbation did not come easily from an man of such integrity. Bernac, soon to retire, had just sung Le Bestiaire for the last time and Poulenc’s mind went back to a time in 1918 or 1919 at Durey’s apartment in the 14th arrondissement when both cycles had been performed: ‘I suddenly saw again rue Boissonade. Happy times! I embrace you tenderly.’ [J’ai revu tout à coup la rue Boissonade. Heureux temps! Je t’embrasse tendrement.]
Durey’s reply is worth quoting at greater length because in it we can hear the true voice of the good friend and refined artist, the struggle of whose career (not least with attempting to organise musical links behind the Iron Curtain) was so different from Poulenc’s own:
Saint-Tropez, 20 June 1959
I think it would be a good thing if we could have a reunion one day, in private, during the coming autumn, to celebrate this 40-year friendship and our indestructible ties of fellowship. Although, alas, Arthur [Honegger] has already left us, his memory is always with us, and this can only bind us together even more strongly. In any event, it would be a great joy to me if we could meet again before long.
I did think of sending you a copy of the article I wrote for Europe about your songs; only my usual negligence, which led me to procrastinate day after day, has prevented me from doing so. Listening to the two records, I was really very struck by their unity and by the distinctive quality of the works, which have become true classics. Since then I have also had the opportunity of speaking about your very successful Sonata for flute and your Trio.
Unfortunately, my trip to Poland did not come off. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs had led me to expect a subsidy for the trip but at the very last minute they refused it. The Concert des Six which I had prepared took place in spite of this: it consisted of the second Sonata for violin by Darius, the Chansons françaises by Germaine, the Apollinaire settings by Arthur, the Trio for reeds by Georges, your Sonata for flute, and my Chœurs de Métiers. As for the talk 1 was due to give, it was published in a Polish literary review. I was very disappointed but perhaps there will be another opportunity some time.
In connection with Le Bestiaire, you mention the rue Boissonade. I will not be staying there much longer. We have in fact been expropriated by the Welfare Board, which adjoins our property. Our house is going to be demolished and will be replaced by the morgue for the hospitals that are being built behind us. Too many memories are attached to the place for me not to be devastated by all this. Consequently, I am more than delighted with our house in St Tropez; the spot where we are is sufficiently secluded – it is two kilometres away from the town – to be free from noise and disturbance, even in mid-summer. …
I hope that it will soon be possible for us to see each other again. My affection for you remains as much as ever alive, immediate and necessary.
I embrace you.
[Translation by Sidney Buckland from Francis Poulenc: ‘Echo and Source’]
It seems clear from listening to the vocal music of Durey that his membership of Les Six was more an accident than anything else – a result of his going along with a trend after the break with Satie in 1918, and because of his friendship and affection for his young fellow-musicians of the time. It was not a movement that could offer him a great deal aesthetically; that he was already thirty by 1918 (and not as interested in merry, shocking pranks as he might have been in his twenties) is surely part of the anomaly. The music on this disc is thus not presented chronologically; to arrive at the Cocteau settings at the end of a programme would be to misrepresent the path of Durey’s development as a writer of mélodies which tapered away towards the 1920s rather than moving forward in a crescendo of expressivity. Instead, our disc moves rather in the spirit of Apollinaire’s L’Écrevisse – ‘à reculons’. We begin with a group of three works which are settings of Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire. The first two works are like miniature fanfares – the influences here are surely Satie and Stravinksy; the third, Le Bestiaire, is the cycle which most people know about (even if they have never heard it) and which, although written before the christening of Les Six, defines Durey’s relationship with Poulenc and Poulenc’s shorter cycle. It is a very special achievement in its own right. We then hear the two Heine settings which show Durey’s interest in German romanticism, something which always made him feel closer to Honegger than to Milhaud or Auric for example. Three slender works to words of Theocritus, Petronius and Parny mirror the refined understatement of Debussy and Ravel and the musical economies of Satie. The disc ends with Durey’s masterpiece – the extraordinary cycle Images à Crusoé where we hear the power and individuality of his voice in an extended setting of an important literary text.
Durey and his poets
Cendrars’ work has not received its due from musicians on the whole, but he has also been set by Honegger – the beautiful Pâques à New York for mezzo soprano and string quartet. It was Cendrars who provided Milhaud with the scenario for his ballet La Création du Monde.
The original title of Cendrar’s poem dating from November 1916 is Le Musickissme. (François Le Roux has pointed out that the English words ‘kiss me’ are deliberately embedded in the title.) Durey began his setting with the fourth line of the poem.So much has been written elsewhere about the importance of Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) that the briefest of sketches must here suffice. Prodigiously talented and energetic, his abilities as both writer and artist ranged from poetry to novels, plays to revues; his unique line-drawings now seem one of the most exquisite by-products of the creative ferment in Paris in the years between the wars – part-serious, part-comical, gently louche, sometimes joyfully lewd, but always life-enhancing. Cocteau’s genius as a cinéaste is yet another aspect of his contribution to twentieth-century art. An important aspect of Cocteau’s success was his role as an animateur: he was an indefatigable networker with a gift for promoting himself and those loyal to him. One can scarcely think of the Paris of Diaghilev, Picasso and Stravinsky without imagining Cocteau as the self-appointed French plenipotentiary to these mighty foreign visitors – the mediating link between them and their French colleagues. It was the mondaine side of his character which obviously irritated Durey. Nevertheless, French music owes Cocteau much, if not quite as much as he himself might have looked forward to in 1920. Apart from the youthful Toréador, Poulenc chose to set only one set of poems by him (Cocardes) although he did return to Cocteau in the later part of his life for La voix humaine and La Dame de Monte-Carlo. Apart from songs by Les Six there are Cocteau settings by, among others, Lennox Berkeley, Louis Beydts, Paul Bowles, Maurice Delage, Erik Satie, Henri Sauguet and Jean Wiéner.
The first two poems of Durey’s Chansons basques do not appear in a printed Cocteau collection. They were given to the composer in manuscript during the holiday the poet spent in the south of France with the Durey brothers in the summer of 1919. Cocteau had originally planned a third new text for Durey but the composer preferred something more sombre. The third poem, Attelage, appears in Poésie (1916-1923).
Guillaume Apollinaire (the pseudonym of Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky, 1880-1918) is quite simply one of the greatest figures in French literature. English-speaking musicians and song enthusiasts are lucky to have in the many Apollinaire settings of Poulenc a ready-made and accessible entrée into the poet’s fascinating and endlessly fecund mind. If these songs – as well as those by Durey on this disc – only scratch the surface of his poet’s achievements, they make a good introduction to his work and encourage further exploration. It might be said that the Catalan Picasso and the Russian Stravinsky dragged French painting and music kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. Apollinaire, an art critic and joyful pornographer as well as a poet, was the first person to use the term ‘surrealism’; he persuaded French literature into the twentieth century with infinite grace and aplomb, his iron will disguised by charm and verbal magic which gracefully broke all the rules and remained a touchstone for the creative use of language. His advent spelled the end of the ‘Belle époque’ in literature, but he replaced symbolism with something more human and real, even if sometimes sur-real and puzzlingly allusive. It is little wonder that the young composers of the post-war years were at his feet. Sadly, his early death meant they could not get to know him, although Poulenc treasured memories of hearing the poet read his poems aloud at Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in the Rue de l’Odéon.
The background to the story of how Apollinaire came to publish his Bestiaire perfectly illustrates the astonishing artistic milieu in which he lived and worked.
As one of Picasso’s best friends he was a frequent guest at the ‘Bateau Lavoir’ – the tenement studio on the Rue Ravignan where the great painter lived and entertained such colleagues as Derain, Braque and Gris. Apollinaire had seen some woodcuts depicting animals in Picasso’s studio. His voracious reading (his interests included magic, theosophy and medieval history) encompassed the bestiaries of the middle ages with their elaborately illuminated manuscripts. Why not, he thought, make a bestiary for modern times? As it turned out, Picasso was too busy to take part in the project so Apollinaire selected the painter Raoul Dufy who had been introduced to him by Derain.
Dufy was enthusiastic about the task. Woodcuts had suddenly become fashionable again. Gauguin had illustrated his South Seas journal Noa Noa with woodcuts, and Apollinaire’s first book L’enchanteur pourrissant had been given a haunting presence by the woodcuts of Derain. As it turned out, these animal illustrations, painstakingly printed by hand-press, were so perfect for Apollinaire’s succession of quatrains that it is difficult to tell which came first, poem or picture. The book, a veritable work of art, was expensive to produce, and it was not the hoped-for financial success. Of the 120 copies printed only fifty were sold at a hundred francs apiece before the book was remaindered. Those who bought it for forty francs acquired a stunning bargain – a bibliophilic treasure that was (as Apollinaire himself put it on the prospectus) ‘one of the most varied, seductive, and accomplished poetical works of the new generation’.
Poulenc, on the advice of Auric, suppressed six of his Bestiaire settings, but he had only composed twelve in all (there are four others – La Souris, Le Serpent, La Colombe and La Puce – which emerged at a later date). Durey determined to set all the animal poems, leaving out only those devoted to Orpheus. Apollinaire’s work is divided into four sections: eleven poems are devoted to creatures who tread the earth; then follow four insect poems; after this, five quatrains for the inhabitants of the sea; and then six concluding poems about mystical or magical creatures who symbolise both heaven and earth. Each of these four sections is introduced by a different ‘Orphée’ poem (the work is subtitled ‘Cortège d’Orphée’) which Durey did not set. On this disc these four extra items are read by François Le Roux so that we are able to present a complete version of Apollinaire’s great sequence.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is the poet of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Schwanengesang (among many others) but he was also an adopted Parisian and important figure linking German and French romanticism. The two poems selected by Durey are both from the ‘Die Heimkehr’ section of Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827). This signifies a sympathy for ‘heavier’ German culture typical of Durey’s serious temperament – only Honegger among Les Six was similarly drawn to this tradition. It is true that Heine was also a celebrated radical and a hero of the Left – a fact no doubt known to Durey but not discernible from these texts. The first poem is No 53 of Die Heimkehr (‘Verriet mein blasses Angesicht’) and the second is the celebrated ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (No 47) which Schumann set in 1840 as part of his Myrthen and which was also set by Liszt, Ives and Lord Berners (at about the same time as Durey). Of other musical settings of the first song – Durey’s title is Mon pâle visage – I can only trace one, by Schumann’s contemporary Stephen Heller. Durey’s decision to set Heine in French translation (his own?) makes him the successor of such an unfashionable composer as Guy Ropartz who had set translations of poems from the Lyrisches Intermezzo in 1899.
Petronius (died AD 66) was the ancient Roman author of the episodic and inventive Satyricon, said to be the first European novel. His real name was probably Titus Petronius Niger and he held the title of ‘Arbiter’ – the ultimate aesthetic adviser and judge of taste, a post to which he was appointed by the Emperor Nero. This shows some artistic discrimination on Nero’s part, for Petronius was without doubt a talented man; but the enmity of Seneca marked him out as an upper-class wastrel. His reputation for decadence and facile indolence has come down to us through the Annals of Tacitus. When he was falsely implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor, Petronius committed suicide by slitting his veins, entertaining his friends the while with witty conversation. Durey used the Œuvres complètes de Pétrone in the translation of Héguin de Guerle. At the end of this book, in a section titled ‘Fragments attribués à Pétrone’, the cycle’s three poems are to be found in prose translations, freely re-worked by the composer. The second song La Métempsychose is marked as an ‘imitation of Plato’, and Guerle notes that Clément Marot (1496-1544) in his ‘D’Anne qui me jecta de la neige’ (set by Ravel) was influenced by the Petronius poem which gives us La Boule de Neige. (Was this a covert hommage à Ravel on Durey’s part?). More recent research (Jean-Claude Margolin, 1980) has revealed that this poem was not by Petronius at all, but was rather one of several sixteenth-century Latin lyrics on this theme written in the wake of the first appearance of Marot’s poem in 1534. This genre of lyric was part of a Petrarchan revival in Europe which influenced Spenser and Shakespeare among others.
Theocritus (c310BC-c250BC) was an ancient Greek poet who lived and worked for most of his life in Sicily. He was said to be the creator of the idea of pastoral poetry and wrote in various forms. The bucolics and mimes are thought mostly to be authentic, but the twenty-four epigrams are less certainly ascribable to Theocritus. Durey used the translations of François Barbier. The mood of the poetry, whether authentic in this case or not, derives from real life – a Mediterranean background of sun and sea and flowers. There is a certain earthiness which appealed to Durey combined with the other-worldliness of the ancient world, an Attic simplicity which acknowledges the limpidity of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Satie’s Socrate.
Evariste Parny (1751-1814) was born to a rich Creole family on the island of Réunion, a French overseas colony in the western Indian Ocean. He was thus France’s first poet of colour and the precursor of Leconte de Lisle (also born in Réunion) in this and also stylistic respects. Parny’s masterpiece is Poésies érotiques (1778), a sequence of love poems in four sections which charts the course of his passion for Esther Trousaille whom he hymned under the name of Eléonore. For his miniature cycle of two songs Durey encapsulates the whole relationship by selecting a poem from Livre I (‘Vers gravé sur un oranger’) and one from Livre IV (‘Elégie III’) in which the poet wishes to efface the inscription carved on the tree in the first song. The ups and downs of love are perfectly reflected in these two slender pieces which are cleverly conceived as mirror-images in a type of musical and emotional contrary motion. Perhaps it was Durey’s interest in Parny which drew the attention of his friend Ravel to the Chansons madécasses? Those island evocations are, in turn, a sort of Ravellian Images à Crusoé.Saint-John Perse, pseudonym of Alexis Saintléger Léger, also known as Alexis Léger (1887-1975) is one of the most important and yet mysterious figures in French literature. His different names betoken a man with double or triple lives. He was born on Saint-Léger-les-Feuilles, a small coral island off Guadeloupe, studied medicine in Paris, and the very un-French ‘Saint-John’ seems an indication of certain transatlantic affiliations. His poetry is highly valued in France but he has remained almost unknown to English-speaking readers despite translations by T S Eliot and others. He became a career diplomat who held senior postings in China, explored the South Seas, and eventually became an outspokenly anti-Fascist ‘secrétaire général des affaires étrangères’ in the French government toppled by Hitler. He was exiled by the Vichy régime (his unpublished work was destroyed during the German looting of Paris) and lived in America between 1940 and 1957, working as a consultant on French literature to the Library of Congress. His nine volumes of poetry (published between 1911 and 1971) are milestones in a career of voluntary anonymity. He wanted his work to speak for itself and, even if he chose to hide himself from the public’s gaze, his poetry had a glorious career. In the early days it was immediately hailed by Gide, Proust, Apollinaire and Breton, and the universal admiration of the French literary world continued in like fashion. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960 seemed a natural culmination of a lifetime of achievement for a poet whom many had compared to Rimbaud.
Thanks to Durey’s perspicacity, he discovered Saint-John Perse’s work right at the beginning of the poet’s career. Perhaps he had heard about him from their mutual friend Satie; in any case Saint-John Perse was in China at the time of the cycle’s composition. The first collection of poetry Eloges (which includes the Images à Crusoé) was published in 1911, but Durey found the text in an earlier version (where the author is named as ‘Saintléger Léger’) in a copy of La Nouvelle Revue Française of August 1909. (This accounts for the differences in the text between the songs and the published version of the poems.) This is symbolist poetry based not on the ivory tower of fantasy and disdain but on the sordid facts of daily existence and survival. For this Robinson Crusoe his island is only a memory; he is a dispossessed savage, urbanised against his will. In returning to the world of men, bringing his Man Friday with him, he is forced to encounter the squalors of town life. Crusoe has been brutalised physically by the hardships of his island, and is now mentally tortured by being away from it. The various scenes are permeated by memory and regret as if a grubby child had been abandoned in a hostile world. This puts us in mind of one of Berlioz’s phrases describing his adolescence: ‘Life was evidently outside me, far away, very far’. If the descriptions of plant and animal life in the South Seas seem too exotic to be true there is also an exactness in images which Saint-John Perse drew directly from his childhood in the Antilles (W H Hudson recalls his childhood spent in Argentina in a similarly accurate yet poetic way in Tippett’s Boyhood’s End). Saint-John Perse is always able to produce rich, almost untranslatable, pictures that are simultaneously exotic and banal, even vulgar: and yet the harsh aspects of day-to-day living (whether on the island or in the city) are described in a language that is powerfully nostalgic. Crusoe has lost his Eden, but he has also lost his ability to survive in the real world. But which of the two worlds is real? The distance between the ‘rescued’ Robinson Crusoe and his island is a metaphor for the gulf between childhood and the adult state, between the present and the past. The resulting poetry seems at time to have been produced in an intoxication of reverence for nature in all its brutal glory – one is carried away by the sweep of the descriptions which seem comparable at times to the earthy hymns to Welsh life by Dylan Thomas – earthy yet also high-flown, the product of a rare learning and mastery of language. Of Thomas’s humour there is less sign; Crusoe’s plight is dark and irremediable.
Durey, in some ways a musical Gauguin whose instincts were to withdraw from the glamour of urban life into his own island, must have felt a sympathy with these texts: the struggles to adjust to city life of Robinson and Friday (once a dignified savage, now grotesquely attired in a cast-off red coat) must have struck a chord with Durey as he himself attempted to fit in with the snobberies of le Tout-Paris. At least Friday and Crusoe are workers and survivors, they have a strength and integrity which shames the dandy or aesthete. This abrasiveness, a directness that is mirrored in these settings, is combined with a rare and poetic atmosphere which unobtrusively, and almost unexpectedly, pervades both text and music. Little wonder that Durey also allows himself to acknowledge Debussy and Ravel and the ‘calme’, ‘luxe’ and controlled ‘volupté’ which lies at the heart of the French creative spirit. Durey’s is not the glorious dream of Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage: his Images à Crusoé was written in the wake of a terrible war, and for a crueller and less forgiving century.
Graham Johnson © 2002
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