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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 series charting the complete songs of Francis Poulenc is performed by some of the greatest singers of the day and accompanied by the exceptional Malcolm Martineau.
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, only two of the song texts are historically distant. It has been said of the French that, the more revolutions they went through, the more they hankered after the certainties, real or imagined, of their past. The fifteenth-century poet Charles d’Orléans, who provided three texts for Debussy songs, was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and kept a prisoner in the Tower of London for 25 years. His poem Priez pour paix therefore has personal resonance, and Poulenc’s setting, in the style of his recent Litanies à la Vierge noire, is intimate in tone. Although he called it ‘a prayer at a shrine in time of war’, he wrote it on 29 September 1938; so it could more accurately be heard as a prophecy, casting reasonable doubt on the prospects of ‘peace in our time’. Hymne, written in New York in November 1948, was written for the bass Doda Conrad, who was one of singers in Nadia Boulanger’s famous Monteverdi recordings. Racine’s poem comes from a translation of the Roman breviary he made in 1680. Poulenc underlines its hymnic quality by frequent doubling of the vocal line by the piano’s right hand.
At the other extreme from these two religious offerings lie four examples of the ‘naughty’ Poulenc—a side of him that for years had the unfortunate effect of deafening critics to his more serious intentions. In Toréador, written in 1918 for a Cocteau music-hall evening, Poulenc deliberately mixes genres, producing ‘a Spanish/Italian song…that sends up the geography of the café concert songs of the time, in which a Japanese girl got bored in Peking or Sappho fired questions at the Sphinx’. The prevailing waltz rhythm is decorated with Spanish curlicues (notably on the word ‘Toréador’) and broken up at the end of each of the three verses in a way that anticipates Poulenc’s later Surrealist style.
Jean-Marie Legrand, known also as Jaboune and as Jean Nohain, had been a fellow pupil of Poulenc’s at the Lycée Condorcet and remembered the composer as no dunce, but simply uninterested in the scholarly curriculum. Since no printed edition of the verses is known, we may assume they were written specially for Poulenc, who set them in 1934. They are a perfect example of what he called ‘l’adorable mauvaise musique’, reminding us of his remark that if he hadn’t been Poulenc, he would like to have been Maurice Chevalier—a parallel further underlined by the waltz Les chemins de l’amour, which closes this recital in the same style as Toréador opens it. This ‘valse chantée’ formed the leitmotif of Anouilh’s play Léocadia, produced in Paris in November 1940, when it was sung by Yvonne Printemps, one of Poulenc’s favourite artists.
The composer joined the French army for just over six weeks in June 1940. After that, he remained in France throughout the war and, while never an active résistant, was in close touch with clandestine groups that included poets such as Louis Aragon. The two poems of his that Poulenc set in the autumn of 1943 see the war from two different perspectives. In ‘C’, where every line ends with the French sound of that letter, the composer reacts to what he called the poem’s ‘extreme melancholy’, as the Germans overran France; in ‘Fêtes galantes’, to the picture of total disorder in which marquises are reduced to riding bicycles—the title a bitterly ironical reference to the ordered life of eighteenth-century France as painted by Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher.
The notion of Poulenc as a facile composer died hard. In fact, he often thought about pieces for years before completing them, as with the song Paul et Virginie to a poem by Raymond Radiguet, first attempted in 1920 but not given a final version until 1946.The title refers to the idyllic novel of 1787 by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre that started the French rage for the exotic. Pierre Bernac says the singer should try to invest the opening line, ‘Ciel! Les colonies’ with the dreamlike atmosphere of ‘long voyages under sail, noble savages, magic islands’. Poulenc, for his part, thought it would make a perfect encore piece. He admitted that the three poems by Federico Garcia Lorca he was working on during the summer of 1947 were giving him problems, and was never entirely happy with the result—not that composers are always the best judges of their own work! After the spare opening song, ‘Adelina à la promenade’ bursts in like a whirlwind. The final song is a sarabande. Poulenc accused it of being ‘nobly French’ instead of ‘gravely Spanish’; but as Bernac pointed out, Poulenc could never be anything other than French…He also took his time over setting Laurence de Beylié’s poem ‘Nuage’: the poem was on his desk in August 1955, but he didn’t finish setting it until September 1956. With its marking ‘doucement mélancolique’, its shifting phrase lengths and vocal style somewhere between melody and recitative, it conforms to a Poulenc archetype.
He was adamant that the two formative poets for his song writing were Apollinaire and Eluard. But once more, these influences took their time to mature. After the tiny Apollinaire songs in Le bestiaire of 1919, Poulenc waited 12 years before setting the poet again. The writer of the Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne was a fictitious personage, comprising Apollinaire for the middle song and his mistress, the painter Marie Laurencin, for the outer two. According to Bernac, the Apollinaire poem is pure nonsense and no attempt should be made to instil any sort of meaning into it. ‘Le présent’ clearly echoes Verlaine’s ‘Voici les fruits’, set by Debussy and Fauré, in which the most important present is the poet’s heart. But Poulenc’s version turns rather, by his own admission, to the implacable octave writing in the finale of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata. For ‘Hier’, he thought of an interior as painted by Vuillard: it stands as one of the most sheerly beautiful of all his songs.
By common consent, his Eluard cycle Tel jour telle nuit (As the day so the night), composed in 1936–7, is one of his outright masterpieces. The emotional and stylistic range of the nine songs is immense, from the hypnotic pulsing of the first and last of them, both in C major, linking day with night, to the vividly surrealist images of the fourth and eighth songs, marked respectively ‘très lent et sinistre’ and ‘presto (très violent)’. Not only cannot any of the songs be extracted from its context within the whole, but some are even designated by Poulenc as mere interludes, preparing for the song that follows. Thus the third song prepares for the fourth, the prestissimo fifth song for the almost religious purity and calm of the sixth, which barely moves from its E minor/major tonality. Poulenc was remembering ‘that life-affirming bitterness of a flower picked and chewed long ago near La Grande Chartreuse’. The cycle concludes with a coda for piano in the manner of Schumann: Poulenc mentioned the one in Dichterliebe, but perhaps an even closer comparison is with the one that ends Frauenliebe und -leben.
In April 1939 Poulenc was about to re-orchestrate his ballet Les biches, the original autograph score of which had been buried in 1930 with his friend from childhood, Raymonde Linossier. Thinking of her, and of how much he used to rely on her taste and intelligence, he dedicated to her his short song Ce doux petit visage on another poem by Eluard. It is one of his many essays in lyrical nostalgia. According to his belief that a musical setting should mirror the layout of the poem, in the fourth line, following a space in Eluard’s text, the piano texture changes to Poulenc’s favourite repeated pairs of chords. Far more unusual is his repetition of the last line—we don’t know whether Eluard was consulted about this! Unusual too is the fact that the repetition is mezzo forte after the original piano. The effect is almost of Poulenc trying to force out a setting of a line that lies too deep even for music, evoking Linossier’s youth that did indeed ‘flee before life’.
In the early 1950s Poulenc was mainly engaged on his opera Dialogues des Carmélites, added to which various commentators were assuring the world that the era of mélodies had now come to an end. Even so, he was thinking of setting poems from Eluard’s 1948 collection Voir, devoted to contemporary artists, and he eventually finished his cycle Le travail du peintre in August 1956. His only regret was that he had been unable, before the poet’s death in 1952, to persuade him to add a poem in praise of Matisse, as Eluard did not share Poulenc’s enthusiasm for the artist. For the most part, the songs reflect the painters’ characters: ‘Picasso’ is authoritarian, ‘Chagall’ a scherzo, ‘Braque’, according to Poulenc, ‘perhaps too tasteful’, while in ‘Gris’ he was careful to bring out the rhythmic balancing of certain phrases, mirroring the painter’s exquisite eye for composition. ‘Klee’ draws the short straw, as no more than a swift transition to ‘Miro’, marked by tempo fluctuations unusual for this composer. Finally, in ‘Villon’ Poulenc is able to indulge his love for the ‘litanies’ in Eluard’s poetry, and the cycle ends triumphantly with ‘the blood of the crowd’—blood for Eluard being a positive symbol of life and energy. The composer’s final instruction? As always, ‘be careful about the pedalling’…
Roger Nichols © 2011