The aim of Maurice Fombeure (1906–1981) was to ‘refresh’ poetry and give it a ‘new virginity’. He wanted to ‘wash it, brush it up, take it for a walk in the grass, in the wind and the woods. Let’s listen to our hearts—the head has played its part and failed—we now need a little freshness on earth, poetry made of drops of water.’ In order to achieve this Fombeure invested his work with the wit and energy of popular music and old folksongs. In his nautically titled Chansons de la grande hune
(‘Songs of the maintop’, 1942) Poulenc found poems ideal for his purposes. The poems are divided into two sections: the first, Chansons de la grande mer
, is concerned with sailors and life on the ocean wave; the second is Chansons de la petite terre
, eleven poems in the style of country folksongs on dry land, six of which Poulenc set to music. In JdmM he writes: ‘The texts by Fombeure evoke the Morvan where I have spent such wonderful summers! It is through nostalgia for the surroundings of Autun that I have composed this collection.’ This music comes across as a defiant celebration of the French way of life impervious to the German occupation.
Poulenc conceived Chansons villageoises as an orchestral cycle with quite a large percussion section, and it was first sung by Roger Bourdin in 1943 rather than by Pierre Bernac. The composer had envisaged a ‘heavy Verdi baritone (Iago)’ but later admitted that this momentary ‘infidelity’ to his favourite singer had been a mistake. Bernac recorded the piano-accompanied version of the cycle with the composer, perhaps because the vocal requirements of the set—subtlety of colour and diction, the ability to negotiate piano singing in the heights of the passaggio—are hardly associated with a heavy operatic voice. These mélodies, clever stylizations of chansons, are among Poulenc’s most diverting pieces of musical conjuring.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013