What could be more chic, more Parisian, more Cocteau-like, than to mock literary icons of the past, and trample on the reputation of a deceased poet, once famous, and now very much out of fashion? This was entirely Poulenc’s aim with Airs chantés
, a cycle, or perhaps anti-cycle of songs, during the composition of which he promised himself, as he put it, ‘every possible sacrilege’. It was also partly a game to tease a friend, François Hepp, who genuinely admired the poet. Jean Moréas was the pseudonym of the Greek-born poet Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos (1856–1910). Having already published a collection of Greek poetry in Athens, Moréas came to Paris and made the acquaintance of Verlaine and Mallarmé. He was a man of formidable culture and technical gifts, but the neoclassical purity of his style (he belonged to the so-called ‘École romane’) laid him open to charges of being a latter-day Leconte de Lisle and an emotionless pasticheur. He also took himself very seriously indeed. Poulenc certainly felt that Moréas’s verse was ‘suitable for mutilation’; for the only time in his songs he writes that the work is ‘after’ (‘d’après’) the poems—as if to distance himself from the writer, and from the responsibility of deliberately misrepresenting him. The composer then proceeded to write a set of songs ‘against’ the texts that was an unexpected ‘hit’ with singers and the public. What the poet might have thought of it is another matter.
The poems are taken from different books of Moréas’s Stances (1899–1901). The fact that Poulenc’s four songs were chosen from Stances Books 3–7 suggests that the composer used a collection, published in 1901 (belonging to his parents perhaps), that prints only the last five of those once-celebrated seven books. Air romantique is Book 7 No 4; Air champêtre is Book 6 No 1; Air grave is Book 3 No 8; Air vif is Book 5 No 1. Poulenc clearly hunted assiduously for his prey.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013