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Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

The Complete Songs, Vol. 1

Malcolm Martineau (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2010
St Michael's Church, Summertown, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: February 2011
Total duration: 69 minutes 32 seconds

The songs of Francis Poulenc (some 150 works composed over a period of 44 years) remain consistently popular with concert audiences the world over. Varying in their individual style and character in a way that defies generalization, Poulenc set music to a wide range of different French poetry—both ancient and modern, and from the serious to the surreal.

This release marks the first in a new series charting the complete songs of Francis Poulenc, performed by some of the greatest singers of the day and accompanied by the exceptional Malcolm Martineau. Later volumes will feature several works that have never before been recorded.


'Once the object of a cult following and otherwise treated with slight disdain, Poulenc's songs have drawn deepening responses over the years until hailed like a twentieth-century Schubert for their range, subtlety and emotional wisdom. The advocacy of Graham Johnson's Songmakers' Almanac was a prime mover, and it's fitting that for a new generation's project these fine singers should be joined by Songmaker doyenne Felicity Lott, a role model and inspiration' (BBC Music Magazine)» More
In his notorious little 1918 pamphlet Le Coq et l’Arlequin, Jean Cocteau pronounced that ‘a composer always has too many notes on his keyboard.’ This was a lesson the young Francis Poulenc took to heart and observed throughout his career; and nowhere more tellingly than in the piano parts of his songs—far better written, he thought, than his works for piano solo.

After the First World War, the ethos of French art across the board lay in the direction of clarity and simplicity. Cocteau further cried for ‘an end to clouds, waves, aquariums, water nymphs, an end to fogs’, and Erik Satie, the cultural godfather of the new French music, warned that fogs had been the death of as many composers as sailors. Another target was the ‘music one listens to head in hands’—Wagner most notably, but also Schumann. For Poulenc then, in quest of song texts, the nineteenth century was largely to be avoided and only one of his texts, Théodore de Banville’s Pierrot, was published during it, while Jean Moréas’s four poems forming the Airs chantés were printed in the first decade of the twentieth. Otherwise Poulenc sought either distancing through pre-Romantic poetry or immediacy through poetry of his own time.

In the present volume, the distancing is of three kinds. In 1923 Poulenc was working on his ballet Les biches for Diaghilev and, needing texts for three of the choral movements, dug out some anonymous seventeenth-century poems in the French National Library. As he found more of them than he could use in the ballet, in 1925 he set eight further poems as a group of Chansons gaillardes. The word ‘gaillard’ can mean simply ‘lively, vigorous’, but also ‘ribald’—a suitable epithet for both ‘L’offrande’ and ‘Sérénade’ which celebrate, in female and male terms respectively, the activity that had so shocked audiences in 1912 at the end of Nijinsky’s choreography of L’après-midi d’un faune. In both songs, Poulenc’s faux naïves harmonies and rhythms effect a different kind of distancing, so that we ask ourselves, ‘Did the singer really say that?’ The fast songs in the set (the odd-numbered ones) belong to the tradition of the old French chansons, with words tumbling out at speed, although Poulenc plays games with the phrase-lengths, so we’re never quite sure how a line will end or where a new one will begin. In the two slowest songs, Poulenc’s piano writing owes nothing to anyone: the thick chords in ‘Chanson à boire’, switching disconcertingly between minor and major, mirror the drunkards perception that embalming himself in drink before death may, perhaps, lead to just that end; and in ‘Invocation aux Parques’, a heartfelt plea for mercy, the vocal line (marked ‘tendrement’) is both simple and deeply moving, while the gritty piano chords that precede and follow it suggest that the Fates may not, after all, oblige.

A second kind of distancing can be found in the little song À sa guitare, a setting of Ronsard composed for Yvonne Printemps to sing in the last scene of a 1935 play, Margot, by Edouard Bourdet (otherwise distinguished for the first stage appearance of Charles Aznavour, aged 11).The Margot of the title is Marguerite of Valois, first wife of Henri IV, noted for ‘her beauty, learning and licentiousness’. As a player in the late-sixteenth-century wars of religion, she had reason to employ the ‘deception’ of which she sings, and Poulenc likewise ‘deceives’ through acid chromatic additions to his underlying olde-worlde harmonies. In contrast, his setting of Épitaphe is entirely sincere. Here, in a third kind of distancing, Poulenc validates his grief at the death in 1930 of his close friend Raymonde Linossier through this tiny poem by François de Malherbe (1555–1628). At the time of her death, Linossier had been in line to become the director of the Musée Guimet, devoted to the arts of Asia. Whether or not Poulenc intended his song as a homage to the quietism of Asiatic cultures, he asked that it be sung ‘without bombast [sans emphase], because bombast was what Raymonde Linossier detested most of all.’

Until her death, Poulenc presented Linossier with a copy of each of his published works, usually with charming inscriptions. On the score of his little cycle Cocardes, he wrote, ‘To Raymonde who, like me, loves French fries, player pianos, colour prints and jewelry boxes covered in shells. Her friend Francis. Summer 1921’. Cocteau’s poems consist of tiny fragments put together like collages. The only feature resembling syntax is the repetition of the final syllable of each line as the first of the next: thus ‘Caravane/Vanille’, ‘mandoline/linoléum’. The items are the bric-à-brac of suburban life that Poulenc so adored (he found the countryside boring) and originally the three songs were accompanied by a ‘street band’ of violin, trumpet, trombone, bass drum and triangle.

Poulenc did not set Cocteau’s words again until late in life, but he found the same evocative simplicity and the same lack of ‘emphase’ in the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire. Although Apollinaire died in the ’flu epidemic of 1918, Poulenc had heard him read his poetry and insisted that having the sound of ‘la voix de Guillaume’ in his head was crucial for his settings. Understatement is the order of the day. Although ‘Bleuet’ means ‘cornflower, ‘un bleu’ is an army recruit. Apollinaire wrote the poem in 1917 and Poulenc set it in October 1939, touched ‘by its human resonance’; in retrospect he felt that instead of ‘Modéré’, he might have marked it ‘Intimement’. The song builds quietly, effortlessly to its apotheosis in the final line, heard over a single chord until the last word, ‘immémoriale’, after which a final, gently dissonant, high D sharp on the piano seems to take us beyond the range of memory. In ‘Rosemonde’, composed in May 1954 and one of his last Apollinaire settings, the poet’s regular steps through the streets of Amsterdam are reflected in the piano’s pulsing quavers. Poulenc marks the song ‘Calmement’, and the restrained atmosphere is close to that found throughout most of the opera Dialogues de Carmélites on which he was working at the time.

The two songs of Parisiana date from the month before ‘Rosemonde’. Like the Chansons gaillardes, ‘Jouer du bugle’ was a ‘leftover’, in this case from Poulenc’s 1932 secular cantata Le Bal masqué, in which he had wanted to include it but realized it covered the same ground as ‘La dame aveugle’. The song is peopled with the same sort of characters as that cantata, the ones Poulenc loved reading about in the newspaper columns called ‘Faits divers’ (News items, usually of an eye-catching nature), here exemplified by the three women playing the bugle in the bathroom and the young lad catching crabs with his hand. In the last four lines the mood changes from the curious to the poetic, as the piano brings in a new right-hand melody and the bass resolves on to a G, where it will stay, with minor interruptions, until the end of the song. ‘Vous n’écrivez plus’ narrates the poet’s less-than-glorious career as newspaper seller and lavatory cleaner, ending (triumphantly?) as waiter in the Café Richelieu and the Café de la Paix (both still in business today).

Apart from the single song Mazurka, written in 1949, his other twelve settings of poems by Louise de Vilmorin all date from the years 1937–1943. He had met her in 1934, but it was two years later that he came across a poem, ‘Officiers de la garde blanche’, that she had written as a Christmas present for a friend. He promptly asked her for two more poems to go with it and, as she said, she complied, but with great misgivings: he was a name to conjure with, she was an unknown. He composed the Trois poèmes at the end of 1937, with the unusual structure of two fast songs followed by a slow one. Indeed, ‘Le garcon de Liège’ is marked ‘vertigineusement vite’, leaving performers and listeners breathless. In ‘Au-delà’, Vilmorin worried about the sexual innuendo in the lines ‘Qui sait me faire rire, D’un doigt deci, delà’ and took them out when the poems were published separately. But as in the Chansons gaillardes, Poulenc’s mastery of innocence saves the day. In setting the Christmas poem ‘Aux officiers de la garde blanche’, addressed to the angels, Poulenc was proud of the spare piano octaves at the start, and of having resisted the temptation to bring in harmony at bar 4.The repeated notes are a reminder of the guitar Vilmorin use to take with her to parties, while the whole song resounds with the Catholic faith Poulenc had found again the previous year.

Curiously, the six poems Poulenc took from Vilmorin’s 1939 volume Fiançailles pour rire contain little to laugh about, dealing as they do with the hazards of love. Will André’s lover prove faithful or will she end up as just a memory? (Georges Auric complained about the last chord, but Poulenc said it was necessary to carry the listener on to the next song). In ‘Dans l’herbe’, the lover is powerless; in ‘Il vole’ he flies away, stealing her heart (a pun on ‘vole’). Negative words abound in ‘Mon cadavre’: ‘effacées’, ‘silence’, ‘poids mort’, ‘égarés’, ‘arrêté’…All of this Poulenc treats with the simplest of means—indeed all Vilmorin’s poems led him to a renewed consonance after his more dissonant settings of the Surrealists, Eluard in particular. ‘Violon’ recalls a violinist in a café where Poulenc had met Vilmorin and her Hungarian husband (hence the gipsy swoops), and after the final A minor gesture, the D flat major of ‘Fleurs’ comes, as Poulenc said, ‘from far away’. It was one of his favourite keys of sensuality. Here the combination of tenderness and heartbreak is almost unbearable.

Poulenc wrote the three songs of Métamorphoses in 1943 for his recital partner Pierre Bernac, a great admirer of Vilmorin’s poetry. The two fast outer songs are again in Poulenc’s breathless vein, ‘Paganini’ being a mad waltz made up, like Cocteau’s Cocardes, of tiny snapshots. The central song, although the composer had nothing to say about it except that it should be sung ‘without affectation’, is one of his most beautiful. Bernac himself referred to its ‘Chopinesque lyrical flavour’. The sudden switch (‘tendrement mélancolique’) to the major on the word ‘Voilà’ never fails of its effect, nor does the pianissimo high G on the crucial word ‘croire’.

The song Dernier poème was not written for any particular singer, nor was the poet Robert Desnos one of Poulenc’s friends. We can only presume that he chose to set this poem, as he had the same writer’s Le disparu, out of fellow feeling for Desnos’s role in the Résistance, for which he was arrested by the Gestapo. He died in 1945, shortly after his release from a concentration camp. Poulenc referred to the song as ‘une nouvelle mélodie (grave) sur un poème grave.’ The poem centres round the word ‘ombre’, mirrored in the final major/minor harmonic clash.

Roger Nichols © 2011

Other albums in this series

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