In the introduction, two opening chords are followed by two quaver rests, and then the same again, and then a little flurry of staccato activity, cheeky semiquavers built into the pattern to initiate the waddle. The entry of the voice (‘Ils vont’) is followed by another rest and a crisp staccato octave in the piano (shaken off the wrists, like water off a duck’s tail) before ‘les petits canards’ lines up in a neat little scale ascending the stave. One hears in this the good order and organisation of the duck world, and how their procession is just so, like an adorable little regiment of plump feathered soldiers or Tom Thumbs. Perhaps that is why the composer dedicated it to a tiny little actress, Mily-Meyer, who was known as the Tom Thumb (‘Petit Poucet’) of the operetta world. Sadly he was disappointed with her performance of it: in April 1890 the composer confided to a friend ‘Mily chante Les petits canards, mais elle ne les chante pas comme je le voudrais; ça la change, c’est difficile. Elle serre ses petites fesses en disant ça; de plus, les accompagnateurs sabrent ça et l’on n’y comprend rien; si j’étais là, ce serait une autre affaire’. (‘Mily sings Les petits canards, but she does not sing them as I want them; she becomes different, it’s difficult. She clenches her little buttocks in the process; moreover the accompanists hack away at it and the result is incomprehensible; if I was there it would be a different matter.’)
It is clear that these performers had not cottoned on to the mixture of regimentation and affection in this piece; ducks are not real soldiers, their busy little shuffle is only a distant relation of a real march. Those ‘hacking’ pianists needed Chabrier’s warm and caressing touch at the piano, and Mily-Meyer (perhaps intimidated by a dedication from a great composer, and too dutiful as a result) needed to recapture the insouciance which had attracted Chabrier to her in the first place. The piece needs to be in strict rhythm but without that over-earnest concentration which an insecure musician needs to keep in time.
The poem is cast as a villanelle: in this form a tercet ‘ABA’ is repeated (nine times in this case) and ends with one four-line verse ABAA; throughout this poem the first and third lines of these tercets are all rhymed to words ending in ‘ards’ (with the exception of ‘épars’); moreover all the ‘B’ lines rhyme with each other throughout. The music for the poem’s first verse is the song’s real refrain. Further appearances of this are ingeniously arranged to make the best use of the interweaving rhyme scheme of the villanelle. The song’s second strophe inspires a four-bar episode in the relative minor (E minor) modulating with great wit to B major. This takes up two lines of poetry. The last line of this strophe (‘Ils vont, les petits canards’) is the same words (and music) as the opening; the music for the third strophe grows out of this, an extended variant of the refrain. It is these elisions which unify the piece and make the reappearances of the main melody seem less predictably symmetrical than they might be.
The fourth strophe begins with four bars of delightful new material – the pianist’s right hand diving beneath the surface as water currents are stirred up in the rippling left hand – but this too ends with the words ‘Ils vont, les petits canards’. The comic affect of ‘D’une allure régulière’ with a voice stuck on a low-tessitura monotone while the pianist preens his feathers high in the treble clef is delightful. So the song progresses with the material we have heard so far interleaving and alternating; the refrain (‘Ils vont, les petits canards’) appears at the end of certain strophes with the music arranged so as to spill into the beginning of the next.
The coda (the poem’s last strophe, and the only one of four lines) suddenly changes mood. The word ‘amoureux’ smoothes into longer note values; the ‘espressivo’ vocal line seems for a moment to empathise with the prospect of ducks in love. But this is really gentle mockery as is shown by Chabrier’s inspired setting of the word ‘nasillards’. The sudden unexpected excursion into F sharp – B major for ‘Chacun avec sa commère’ is a harmonic twist which makes the final sidestep back into G major all the more delectable. The closing bars have voice and piano playing tag and echoing each other’s music for a teasing succession of ‘Ils vont’ phrases. The warmth and breadth of the smiling cadence for the words ‘Comme de bons campagnards’ is evidence of Chabrier’s affection for these delightful little creatures. For them he created one of his uncontested masterpieces.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002