When Ravel came to set his Histoires Naturelles he found in the exquisite prose poems of Jules Renard a similar (if more modern) mixture of humour and affection as Rostand and Gérard provided for Chabrier. These turkeys are very stupid animals (as is Ravel’s pompous peacock) but the composer loves them at the same time as laughing at them. Turkeys have a right to go about their business as nature dictates; it is only the human beings whom they call to mind who are the butt of the poets’ jokes. Rostand sees in the turkeys’ processional a whole world of bourgeois functionaries, smugly triumphant in the pettiness of their grand status, chins quivering with righteous self-importance. (One thinks of characters from Dickens illustrated by George Cruickshank.) Whether bringing to mind overweight English beadles or enraged French magistrates, the red gorge of the turkey somehow seems an ideal badge for florid flunkeys solemnly masquerading as leaders of society.
Rostand makes a point of their lack of both sensitivity and musicality. Thus Chabrier begins his song with tonic chords of almost brutal simplicity. These have to be played heavily, as if by an untalented beginner. The lack of real melody, and the tiny range of its compass, signify severe constrictions of both imagination and talent. Or perhaps Chabrier equates these musical characteristics with the old melodies – ‘les vieux fredons’ – hummed by the shepherdess. In any case there cannot surely be any more comically ponderous music than this in all French song. Even the way the composer asks the pianist to double the vocal line by stretching left hand over right to the top of the keyboard is thoroughly awkward. In playing it the pianist somehow feels tied up in knots and as stupid as a trussed turkey. How Chabrier manages to make something as harmonically uneventful as this song alluring is his special gift. Just when we imagine that the vocal line is impossibly dull there is a wonderful leap of an octave and a half between the two syllables of the word ‘do-cile’ and we suddenly glimpse Chabrier as commentator finding the sight of these turkeys deliciously funny.
And then a masterstroke: in a piano interlude of surreal charm (its effect is like the best Walt Disney cartoons) the turkeys begin to waltz! It is as if these solemn creatures were suddenly bewitched by the sound of Orpheus’s lyre or Tamino’s flute. And this is not the only Mozartian resonance: the resemblance to Don Giovanni’s mandolin-accompanied serenade ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’ is unmistakable. Under a strumming plucked bass the right hand of the pianist circles in semiquaver patterns of inappropriate delicacy until accented quavers, descending in the left hand like trombones, break the spell and remind us of the lugubrious pomposity of our subjects. There could not of course be a character less committed to bourgeois values than Don Giovanni, and the only plucking with which the turkeys might be acquainted would be the stuff – or stuffing – of their Christmas nightmares.
This is music made for movement (Chabrier was very good at dance music in his operas) and one wonders whether some of the song’s early performers allowed themselves a brief spin around the stage at this point. The song’s dedicatee was Jeanne Granier who was a queen of operetta rather than a concert singer. And we know the song was performed successfully by Coquelin cadet, the younger brother of Coquelin aîné who was Rostand’s first Cyrano de Bergerac (both brothers were at the Comédie Française). He was a specialist in monologues, had had a success with ‘the turkeys’ and wrote to Chabrier in June 1890 asking for a new animal song – La ballade des veaux – which the composer seems to have promised him. It seems that at some point Chabrier had planned to offer veal as an added attraction at his poultry stall.
As usual in Chabrier this is a strophic song. The third verse contains a pun that has accorded many a singer a moment of winking complicity with the public: the chiming sound of the angelus (‘din! dons!’) signals the return of the turkeys (‘dindons’) to their domicile. Like the tone-deaf donkey in Mahler’s Lob des hohen Verstands they find the song of the nightingale unappealing (Mahler was to write his scathing song only six years later). Rostand’s comic ingenuity makes a real contribution to the success of the piece, not least in the pinched effect of high pianissimo notes on the ‘ee’ vowel at the end of each verse: ‘docile’, concile’, domicile’ and – perhaps best of all – ‘idylle’. And at the end of the day we realise that Chabrier really loves these turkeys and enjoys their company more than that of many a Parisian. After all, the turkeys, like the composer, were good country-folk or ‘bons campagnards’, an expression we will hear in the next song.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002
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