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Hyperion Records

CDH55179 - Poulenc: Secular choral music
Le Pont d'Argenteuil (1874) by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Recording details: May 1995
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Gary Cole
Engineered by Gary Cole
Release date: September 2004
Total duration: 67 minutes 14 seconds

'Un muy bonito disco' (Ritmo, Spain)

'Strongly recommended!' (Fanfare, USA)

Secular choral music
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
During his lifetime Poulenc was probably best known for his frivolous piano pieces. His fondness for writing such light-hearted and inconsequential music no doubt stemmed from the incident which he claimed first inspired him to embark on a career as a composer: as a young boy he had put a handful of centimes into a pianola and was utterly captivated by the charms of a piece of typical salon music (by Chabrier) which emanated from the machine. His father, a devout Catholic and wealthy businessman (the family firm of pharmaceutical manufacturers exists today as the massive Rhône-Poulenc corporation), wished his son to pursue a traditional musical education but with his own death in 1917 and François’s rejection from the Paris Conservatoire the same year the eighteen-year-old Poulenc began to rebel against both the French musical establishment and, to a lesser extent, the Catholic faith. In this he was certainly not dissuaded by his mother, herself an accomplished pianist and an eager Paris socialite. Indeed it was his mother who gave him his earliest music lessons and, apart from some further piano tuition from Ricardo Viñes, he received no real formal musical education until, on completing his period of obligatory military service, he was taken on as a composition pupil by Charles Koechlin, with whom he studied from 1921 to 1924. It was Koechlin who instructed him on writing for voices and enabled him in 1922 to compose his first choral piece Chanson à boire, a setting of an anonymous seventeenth-century text in praise of drink. Scored for four-part male choir this is typical of what might be described as Poulenc’s ‘hooligan’ tendency, degenerating in the final bars into an outrageous imitation of drunkenness. It was rather unfortunate that he chose this particular text since the Harvard Glee Club, for whom it was written, were banned from performing it during the period of Prohibition then sweeping America.

Poulenc would doubtless have continued to revel in musical hedonism and frivolity had it not been for the death in the summer of 1936 of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Ferroud was not only a close friend but, through the twice-monthly concerts he arranged in Paris, an active promoter of Poulenc’s music. The horrific nature of Ferroud’s death (he was decapitated in a car crash) and the fact that he was actually a year younger (almost to the day) came as a bitter shock to Poulenc. A couple of days later he set out to visit the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, a village in that mountainous region between the Auvergne and the Mediterranean: the area, incidentally, from which his father’s family originated. Abruptly faced with the reality of immortality and searching for some deeper purpose in life Poulenc found it at Rocamadour in the re-awakening of his Catholic faith, so studiously ignored since the death of his father. His immediate response was to write a sacred choral work (Litanies à la Vierge Noir) and from then on choral music formed a central part of his compositional output. Indeed he was to say shortly before his death in 1963: ‘I think I’ve put the best and most genuine part of myself into my choral music. If anyone is still interested in my music in fifty years’ time, it will be for my choral rather than my piano music.’ Immediately following his visit to Rocamadour Poulenc wrote two further choral works in quick succession, Petites voix, a setting of verses by Madeleine Ley for three-part children’s voices (sung on this recording by women’s voices) and Sept chansons to surrealist texts by Apollinaire, Éluard and Legrand (whose one text, ‘La Reine de Saba’ was rejected in favour of Apollinaire’s ‘La blanche neige’ after the work’s first performance). Here is the darker, more serious side of Poulenc with a musical language which at times seems to delve into the depths of desolation. (Surely when setting the final lines of ‘A peine défigurée’ Poulenc must have been continually reminded of the manner of Ferroud’s death.) But he was never able fully to shake off the frivolity of his youth, and while there is a much deeper, more serious vein in the music written after 1936, the two very contrasting sides of his personality (a contemporary described him as ‘part monk, part hooligan’) coexist in all his music to a greater or lesser extent.

The dark years of the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation of Paris had, naturally, a profound effect on Poulenc. He remained in Paris but found his own means of resistance through the poems of Paul Éluard whom he had first met in 1917. Throughout the early years of the occupation Poulenc received hand-printed copies of the poems which make up the Figure humaine. These (in particular the final climactic ‘Liberté’ which had been smuggled into Algeria to be printed, the copies then dropped in their thousands over France by the RAF) became something of an anthem for the Resistance movement. Poulenc was so fired with enthusiasm by Éluard’s poetry that he stopped work on everything else (including a violin concerto which was never to see the light of day) to compose a setting which could be performed as soon as France was liberated. He wrote Figure humaine in six weeks during the summer of 1943, had it printed in secret, and is said to have taken great pride in displaying a copy of it in his window as the allied troops marched through the streets of Paris. However, its first performance took place in London in January 1945, sung in English by the BBC Chorus conducted by Leslie Woodgate; it had to wait until 1947 for its French première under the conductor and musicologist Paul Collaer. Before that, though, Poulenc had set more of Éluard’s texts, Un soir de neige, as a chamber cantata for six-part choir. Written mostly on Christmas Day 1944 it reflects what the American scholar Keith Daniel describes as ‘both the inner feeling of peace generated by Christmas and the bleak solitude of another winter of occupation in France’. The text may be secular, but for Poulenc there was no sense of division between secular and sacred; everything he did was an expression of religious faith and in his eyes being a Frenchman and being a Catholic were virtually synonymous – his fervent Frenchness and his by now unshakeable faith were one and the same thing.

Poulenc celebrated the end of the war in 1945 with the Chansons françaises, settings of eight short and cheerful French folk-songs. Like one of his musical idols, Stravinsky, Poulenc’s arrangements of early music may preserve the original melodies, but have a uniquely individual harmonic language and musical character. The sheer energy and joie de vivre of such earthy songs as ‘Clic, clac, dansez sabots’ and ‘Pilons l’orge’ are examples of ‘Poulenc the hooligan’ – albeit in a far more discreet manner than the Chanson à boire – while ‘Poulenc the monk’ sits quite happily alongside in songs such as ‘C’est la petit’ fill’ du Prince’ which narrowly avoid the kind of cheap sentimentality which, in his late teens, Poulenc would probably have been only too eager to exploit.

Marc Rochester © 1995

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