Both Renoir and Monet painted the Grenouillère—a resort on the Seine in the western suburbs of Paris, popular in the late 1860s, where working-class Parisians (the women ‘à grosses poitrines / Et bêtes comme chou’) could swim in a spa, boat on the river, and eat and drink in a floating café—‘Sundays of ease and contentment’ as Poulenc put it in JdmM. In 1904 Apollinaire visited the painters Derain and Vlaminck who lived in the area; he passed by the Grenouillère, and saluted, in passing, a once-celebrated watering-hole frequented by the Impressionists and literati more than thirty years earlier. More than thirty years after the poem was written, Poulenc, now at his height as a song composer, captures the poem’s atmosphere with relaxed insouciance—four imperturbable crotchets per bar somehow convey movement within stasis: the gentle undulations of the Seine cradle the bumping and bobbing of empty boats (as depicted—shaded by trees—in the foreground of Monet’s Les baigneurs de la Grenouillère
in London’s National Gallery). The vocal line unfurls, molto legato, gently resigned to the transitory nature of life, a sadness momentarily enlivened by musings about the Renoiresque clientele (bare arms, décolleté plongeant, Maupassant) in the late heyday of the second Empire. This is all quintessential Parisian nostalgia. Poulenc admitted borrowing the musical language of Musorgsky (the ‘Nursery’ cycle) for the bars beginning ‘Petits bateaux vous me faites bien de la peine’ but this detracts not in the least from two pages of perfection, an out-and-out masterpiece, and a supremely simple one.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013