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|Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)|
|Robert Murray (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)|
In Il y a the poem is printed as something of a calligramme—reminiscent of Aussi bien que les cigales in the Poulenc cycle of 1948. The verse beginning ‘Tu as vu la mort’ is printed diagonally across the page and the rest of the poem is ranged on either side, like opposing sides facing each other in battle. Apollinaire was witness to the war of attrition which sent young men over the top at a certain time of day, in this case five o’clock in the afternoon, to face almost certain death as they struggled to storm the enemy position and take a few yards of muddy terrain. When composing this song Poulenc heard that André Bonnélie, a young soldier from Amboise (whom the composer had known since André was a child) had been killed in action; after he had finished the song Poulenc discovered this was not the case, but he dedicated the song to Bonnélie nevertheless.
As a gay man Poulenc had two ‘types’: masculine and stocky (like his long-time companion Raymond Destouches, a professional chauffeur), and the other, younger and more dependent, like Lucien Roubert with whom the composer was in love during the composition of Dialogues des Carmélites and who died as Poulenc kept vigil by his bedside while completing the moving final scene of this opera. The unknown soldier of this song clearly falls into this second category, a hero who might also have been one of the composer’s fallen angels. Like some of the greatest war poems of Wilfred Owen, Bleuet is a subtly homoerotic work—it achieves its lyricism via the composer’s tender engagement, only at a distance of course, with the young solider—‘bleuet’ being a diminutive of ‘bleu’, the nickname of an enlisted man due to the blue-grey colour of his uniform. Poulenc wrote a number of Éluard settings that pay tribute to the strength and poetry of heterosexual relationships; it would have been extraordinary if his output had not included at least one song addressed to a ‘Jeune homme’—and this is the only one. Of course it is possible for a heterosexual man to write tenderly of the pity of war and the senseless loss of young men (Apollinaire’s poem is proof enough of this) but Poulenc’s music, uniquely conceived for tenor (all the others for male voice are written for high baritone) employs an ethereal, youthful tessitura which seems to come from another world where the lover’s caress and the comrade’s salute are interchangeable. In this miniature war-requiem there are moments of determination and manliness (although the composer never forgets the soldier is seventeen and not thirty), but it is the sweetness, the humble readiness to die, the yielding to fate, all conveyed in the music, that break the heart. The final section, a kind of hushed starlit epilogue, is one of the miracles of French song. Poulenc writes movingly of ‘the mysterious moment when leaving the mortal remains in the vestiary the soul flies away after a long, last look at the “douceur d’autrefois”’. It is of course Poulenc himself who glances back at this young man, a hero of ‘la patrie’, a martyr for his loved ones, and the ghost of all the young men the composer has loved and lost—some, like this, in an imagined time and place, and others in real life.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013
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