Poulenc found this poem reprinted in Le Figaro
of 29 September 1938, thus exactly at the time of the Munich crisis when the whole world was on tenterhooks, fearing imminent war with Germany. In fact, the poem as quoted in the newspaper was only the first ten lines of a fifty-line Ballade with a five-line envoi, but it was sufficient for the composer’s purposes. Poulenc wrote a song, fervent and grave, inspired by his own Litanies à la vierge noire
. It was a prayer that worked at the time, but sadly only temporarily. In JdmM Poulenc confessed that it was the faith on his father’s side of the family that had inspired him: ‘All my religious music sits back on the style that is inspired in me by Paris and its outskirts. When I pray it is the native of Aveyron who reawakens in me. This is evidence of heredity. Faith is strong in all the Poulencs … it is a prayer to be spoken in a country church.’ The hieratic song in 6/4 has an introduction in stately crotchets, a pulse continued throughout the song which seems much slower than the metronome marking. The music transcends pastiche, although the musical rigours of the poet’s own epoch are not lost on the composer. There was a perfect reason for writing this song, and this was a perfect poem by a medieval prisoner of war that utterly reflected the concerns of the contemporary world in 1938. Perhaps it is no surprise therefore that this is a work that achieves a perfection of its own. Composer and poet make time stand still in every way; one cannot imagine a single note different.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013