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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 19th 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 20th. Otherwise Poulenc sought either distancing through pre-Romantic poetry or immediacy through poetry of his own time. The present volume begins with the Airs chantés and continues with settings of poems entirely by Poulenc’s contemporaries.
It is not always wise to take composers at their word. Poulenc was not alone in occasionally liking to tease his readers, so his claim, that he loathed the poetry of Jean Moréas (Yannis Papadiamantopoulos, 1856–1910) and chose these poems as being suitable for mutilation, should probably be taken with a slight pinch of salt, as should his condemnation of ‘Air grave’ as ‘certainly my worst song’, though it may be true that he was more successful elsewhere in imitating ‘ancient’ textures. He professed to be annoyed by the success of the second and last songs of the set, and the only one to escape censure was the opening ‘Air romantique’, where he concentrates the music around the tonic E minor, in parallel with the unvarying tempo.
‘Colloque’, composed in 1940,was Poulenc’s only setting of words by Paul Valéry. After the plain opening in octaves the piano, as often in Poulenc’s love songs, then proceeds largely in pairs of pulsing chords, leading to one of his favourite descending sequences on the words ‘Si ton désir…’. ‘Mazurka’, his last setting of words by Louise de Vilmorin, was commissioned by the bass Doda Conrad in 1949 as one of a set of seven songs entitled Mouvements de coeur to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Chopin. Poulenc felt his song might have accompanied the ball in the novel Le grand Meaulnes, and was pleased to have negotiated the tricky ‘font, font, font’ passages to his own satisfaction.
He once said that he would be happy to have inscribed on his tombstone: ‘Here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire and Eluard’. The order there is not just alphabetical but, in Poulenc’s life, chronological. Starting with the tiny poems of Le bestiaire (to follow in the two final volumes of this series), he employed his own technique, essentially traditional but also flexible, to mirror the apparent simplicities of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry, beneath which flow powerful currents of humour and nostalgia. He had had in mind to set La grenouillère for years before finally turning to it in 1938, reminding him as it did of happy childhood hours spent on the banks of the Marne and of the paintings by Monet and Renoir depicting boatmen and lazy Sunday afternoons (he admitted that the piano’s floating, undirected thirds on the line ‘Petits bateaux vous me faites bien de la peine’ were borrowed from Mussorgsky).With Apollinaire, he wrote, ‘irony is always veiled by tenderness and melancholy’, and this song must be delivered straight, without knowing winks.
The more he read Apollinaire, the more he realised the poetic importance of Paris in his work and in Montparnasse the composer looks back to the ‘discovery’ of the Left Bank 30 years earlier by Picasso, Braque, Modigliani… and Apollinaire. Hyde Park, in contrast, is nostalgia-free—one of Poulenc’s scatty, fast numbers. Le pont, like Montparnasse and many others of his songs, was written piecemeal: the line ‘qui va de loin qui va si loin’ in 1944, the next line in 1945, and the whole put together in May and July 1946. He hoped, even so, that the song flowed in one long wave, and insisted it should catch the burbling of the water and of the conversation going on above it. In ‘the postage stamp’ of Un poème, he admired Apollinaire’s ability to ‘suggest silence and emptiness in so few words’ and his music, balanced on the edge of atonality, is the soul of emptiness, redeemed (or is it?) by a final, unforeseen major chord.
The novelist Colette was a friend of Poulenc’s from the early 1930s until her death in 1954 but, despite his frequent entreaties, she gave him only one poem—inscribed on a large gauze handkerchief and handed to him from her hospital bed in 1938. In Le portrait Colette paints a version, perhaps, of herself—‘beautiful, unkind, deceitful, unfair’, she was certainly the first and could, at times, be the rest—and Poulenc responds with a song of wilful eccentricity, beginning ‘very violent and impassioned’ and only at the end finding resolution, as the hankerchief reveals ‘the very portrait of your heart’. Its own qualities aside, the composer felt that this song, to his own surprise, constitutes the perfect lead-in to…
… ‘Tu vois le feu du soir’, the first of the pair of Miroirs brûlants, composed in 1938-9 to poems by Paul Eluard. Poulenc had first met the poet in Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop at the end of the First World War, but did not set any of his poetry until 1935. Of the two songs making up Miroirs brûlants, he was severe on the second, but reckoned that ‘Tu vois…’ might well be the one song of his that he would take to his desert island. It is not hard to see why. There are the usual pulsing chords, some on, some off the beat; a predominance of minor chords, with or without attendant 7ths and 9ths; a wonderful lightening of the mood (major chords) at ‘Tu vois un bel enfant…’; and in the voice a line that seems utterly natural and yet utterly individual.
The two settings of the poet he made just after the war are barely less impressive. He dedicated … mais mourir to the memory of Nusch, Eluard’s second wife, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1946 at the age of just 40. Here the piano chords pulse in groups of three rather than two, but the elegance and suppleness of the vocal line remain. Referring to the ‘mains lasses retournant leurs gants’, Poulenc remembered that ‘Nusch’s hands were so beautiful, this poem seemed to me especially made to evoke them’ (they can be seen and admired in Francis Poulenc, Music, Art and Literature, ed. Sidney Buckland and Myriam Chimènes, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1999, Plate 12). In Main dominée par le coeur, the composer admitted a further borrowing, this time from himself in ‘Plume d’eau claire’ from his 1935 Eluard set, but was proud of the song’s tonal construction: C major – D major (‘… habite…’) – C major – D major (‘… rien…’) – C major, mirroring the double wave of the poem.
Poulenc’s next settings of Eluard were the seven short songs of La fraîcheur et le feu, composed in 1950. He described these as ‘mes mélodies les plus concertées’, using that last word in the sense of ‘unified’. The seven poems were published in Eluard’s 1940 volume Le Livre ouvert I as a group entitled ‘Vue donne vie’, and Poulenc saw them as essentially making up a single work, ‘progressing wonderfully with the feeling of a crescendo’. His unified structure rests on the two distinct tempi, fast and slow, with nothing in between. As already mentioned in the opening paragraph, his piano writing is typically sparse, although in this case he was thinking specifically of Matisse’s sketches of a swan to illustrate a volume of Mallarmé’s sonnets, where the lines are gradually reduced in number and complexity to form the final published drawings. The set is dedicated to Stravinsky and the third song quotes from the latter’s neoclassical Serenade in A for piano. The climax comes, after a ‘très long silence’, in the penultimate song where Poulenc responds once more to Eluard’s ‘côté litanies’, as he had so memorably at the end of his choral work Figure humaine.
Even if the songs in La fraîcheur et le feu were ‘ses plus concertées’, his concern for structure had also been evident in the Calligrammes of two years earlier, again a group of seven songs, this time by Apollinaire. From early in their gestation Poulenc settled on an overall tonal scheme: F minor – E flat major – E major – B major, then back through E major – E flat major – F minor. In the event F minor became F sharp minor, and what he called ‘the hinge of B major’ for ‘Il pleut’ became B flat minor, but the to-and-fro principle remained. The poems took him back to his youth and he dedicated each song to a friend from those years. In ‘L’espionne’, we hear again the syncopated chords that run through so many of his Eluard settings, but here the tone is ‘more sensual than lyrical’. ‘Mutation’ and ‘Aussi bien que les cigales’ are what he called ‘soldiers’ songs’, on the cusp between ditties and melodies proper, although at the end of the latter he turns on the dramatics for the final line, in capitals in the original poem. Finally, ‘Voyage’, ‘certainly one of the two or three songs I value most… It goes from emotion to silence, passing through melancholy and love.’ The spare octaves of the piano epilogue, ‘very blurred and far away in a fog of pedals’, conjure up the noise of the trains Poulenc used to hear as a boy in July, taking people away on holiday. But surely not that alone: how better to paint ‘your face that I no longer see’…
The bass Doda Conrad was again the moving spirit behind La souris, one of 80 compositions, dedications and letters he commissioned in 1956 for the 80th birthday of his mother, the soprano Marya Freund, the original wood dove in Schönberg’s Gurrelieder and the speaker in the French premiere of Pierrot lunaire. Going back to Apollinaire’s Le bestiaire, Poulenc chose ‘La souris’ to mark the passing of time, gradually nibbled away by the mouse. His dedication though is tactful: ‘Dear Marya Freund, your heart will always be 20 years old! Alas! The composer of Le bestiaire is a lot more than 28!’
Finally, the two Chansons pour enfants of 1934 (for their companions, see volume 2) again find Francis Poulenc, alias Maurice Chevalier, on sparkling form.
Roger Nichols © 2011