Part 1: Allegro con anima
Part 2: Con brio 'Au moins sera de moy memoire'
Part 3: Più lento 'Où s'en va tout?'
Part 4: Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis
Part 5: Ballade pour prier Nôtre Dame
Part 6: Allegro
Part 7: Allegretto 'Il n'est bon bec que de Paris'
Part 8: Largo 'Je plaings le temps de ma jeunesse'
Wallace, a caustic yet sympathetic observer of humanity, has created here a brilliant psychological, but deeply affecting portrait, based on carefully chosen and beautifully ordered quotations from Villon’s Grand Testament which are printed in the score. Himself a remarkable scholar, he has perfectly judged the self-pitying pleading of the opening: ‘Ung pouvre petit escollier qui fut nommé Françoys Villon’. We know we are being manipulated by the twists of these musical gestures, including their occasionally ironic largesse; and with jaunty interpolations, Wallace hints at the mischief to come: ‘Au moins sera de moy memoire tel qu’il est d’ung bon folastre’. The bassoon leads us off to the pub and the brothel (‘Où s’en va tout? Or escoute: Tout aux tavernes et aux filles’) but the consequences of this momentarily riotous behaviour are only disappointment and poverty again. The opening penurious phrase returns, this time more reflectively as Wallace draws us towards Villon’s immortal lines on mortality from the Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis: ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ At first the Ballade asks what has become of the great courtesans of the past, Flora and Thaïs, and the Queen of Burgundy who threw her discarded lovers, often students, into the Seine. Wallace evokes the nostalgic grandeur with richly orchestrated lyricism, and briefly we relive those days of beauty and passion, gaining from stately crotchet motion to expansive sensual folds of quavers. But the Ballade ends with France’s virgin martyr, Joan of Arc, as vulnerable to time as the rest of them: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ demands Villon.
Here Wallace performs a magical transformation. The material of lust, the flowing sensual folds of quavers, becomes simple medieval prayer for the Ballade que Villon feit à la requeste de sa mère pour prier Nôtre Dame. There is no mockery here. Wallace can be genuine, as could Villon in his reverence for the supreme virgin. It is this moving prayer which will briefly haunt the end of the work, but just now it has done its filial duty and we are off into the streets of Paris again and the chatter of its women: ‘Il n’est bon bec que de Paris’. But is is Wallace who cuts short the gossip with the grandest section of all, reserved for that moment when Villon applies all his regrets at the passing of time, not to other, but to himself:
Je plaings le temps de ma jeunesse,
Ouquel j’ay plus qu’autre galle,
Il ne s’en a pied alle,
N’a cheval; las! et comment donc?
Et ne m’a laisse quelque don.
Wallace celebrates the glorious folly of Villon’s expenditure of his youth with music rich and generous. But, as with Villon, so it must be with this work. There is a quixotic heart to it. There follows, quite unprepared, a little medieval dance for pipe and tabor. It is perfectly scored, its appealing simplicity as pleading and poverty-stricken as Villon, now stripped to the bone. The story of rags and riches is left only with echoes. The clock of the Sorbonne strikes the angelus:
Je ouyz la cloche de Sorbonne,
Qui toujours a neuf heures sonne
Le salut que l’Ange predit.
The prayer to the virgin is reduced to a brief line of penitence: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ There is no answer: only a hushed whisper from the bass clarinet and a wisp of a padded stick on a tamtam, scarcely audible, so that we do not even know when precisely is the moment of death.
from notes by John Purser © 1996