These songs, harmonizations and arrangements of Polish melodies, were made by Poulenc at the request of the Polish soprano Maria Modrakowska (1896–1965) with whom the composer-pianist toured Morocco in 1935. It was Modrakowska who chose the songs and provided the notes on their historical background. Poulenc thought her ‘incomparably gifted’ and that she ‘sang divinely’. To his consternation and disappointment, the singer disappeared inexplicably from his musical horizons after this collaboration. Poulenc compared this work with Ravel’s arrangement of Greek folksongs (Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
). When writing those arrangements Ravel had a free hand, largely because, as Poulenc put it, he had no ‘ghost of an Athenian Chopin’ to haunt him. The work as a whole is, almost inevitably, a homage to the Polish composer whose music Poulenc so loved. The poems come from the period when Poland was occupied by Russia, Germany and Austria, a baleful state of affairs that gave rise to the Polish insurrection that began on 29 November 1830 (known as the November Uprising) and continued into the autumn of 1831. This was a valiant revolution of patriotic combat and fervour, but it was eventually crushed by Russia because none of the big powers came to the aid of the Poles. It made a difference of course to both Modrakowska and Poulenc that the outcome of this struggle was of crucial importance to the expatriate Chopin; he had left Poland to begin his European career shortly before the November Uprising, and his heart was entirely with his countrymen. His angry disappointment and fury at the eventual victory of the Russians knew no bounds. Poulenc dedicated each song in the set to an important female member of the expatriate Polish community in Paris—including Ida Godebska, Misia Sert, Marya Freund and Wanda Landowska.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013