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Why the Ronsard cycle should be so seldom performed, and this collection of scabrous seventeenth-century poems should have remained ceaselessly popular is scarcely a mystery. The poetry is far less good than Ronsard, but this is precisely what appeals to Poulenc—and the result is a much more characteristic piece of music. The texts have a chic literary pedigree of course—they appear in the third and supplementary fourth volume (‘Choix de chansons joyeuses’) of Chevalier Monet’s Anthologie françoise [sic], 1765 (the first volume of which is the source for Mozart’s two songs in French, Oiseaux, si tous les ans and Dans un bois solitaire). The tradition of Chansons gaillardes of this outrageous kind is a time-honoured one in French literature. Singing them on the recital platform is another matter. What seemed deliciously ‘osé’ when I first performed these songs in 1975 is now far less hilarious; ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ was much more fun for Poulenc in 1926 than if he had lived, as we do, in an age of pornographic surfeit. The songs are good despite, rather than on account of, their obscenities. The composer counsels against the smuttiness of ‘knowing winks’ in performance, but those songs in implacable tempi are impossible to distort in such a manner, and it would take an exceptionally bold and vulgar singer to act out the slow ones. What makes this cycle effective in performance is the rhythmic drive of the music, the virtuosic pianism and the welcome fact that the web of motifs of the Ronsard has been replaced by a stream of vocal melody. Poulenc is now writing his own folksongs, as Ravel remarked. The poems, incidentally, are all parodies of contemporary seventeenth-century airs where well-known words were ousted by these suggestive replacements. Although Poulenc pays no attention to the original tunes given in the anthology, his musical means throughout are simple and direct while remaining challenging, especially so far as the accompaniments are concerned.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013
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