Éluard’s title for this poem in La vie immédiate
(1932) was Peu de vertu
, which was discarded by Poulenc who clearly searched Éluard’s work for a poem that he could set in memory of Nusch Éluard (he always misspells her name ‘Nush’) who had died suddenly in 1946. Poulenc was no doubt acutely aware of the fact that his old friend Paul Éluard was in a dire emotional state on account of this loss; indeed the composer may have seen the composition of … mais mourir
as expressing his condolences to the poet whose work had done so much to shape his own. Poulenc remembered that Nusch had beautiful hands and alighted on this poem—although whether or not she herself inspired it fifteen years earlier is not clear. The song begins in E minor and ends in E major; the vocal line ranges unusually far and wide for an Éluard setting at this speed. There is a real independence between voice and piano; melodic shapes traced in the accompaniment have a life and eloquence of their own, as if the composer were thinking of hand movements at the piano as he wrote the music. In the last five bars (for the phrase ‘mais mourir’) it is the pianist who plays the final melody against a held vocal note, an effect that is suffused with tender melancholy.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013