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Le portrait, FP92

First line:
Belle, méchante, menteuse, injuste
March 1938
author of text

The famously bi-sexual novelist Colette (1873–1954) was known for most of her life simply by her surname—her full name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. She also wrote the occasional poem-in-prose and it was one of these, printed on a handkerchief in facsimile, that she gave Poulenc when he visited her in hospital and asked her for something to set to music. Colette was bedridden and in great pain for the final years of her life, but she was a woman of enormous spirit, an undoubted national treasure, and Poulenc was an admirer without being a close friend.

Bernac points out that this is ‘not one of Poulenc’s most beautiful works’, but he would also have to agree that it is a fine setting of the poem that is vicious and tender by turns, unsurprisingly feline in view of the writer’s celebrated passion for cats. As a complete one-off the composer felt free to make a musical portrait of Colette, someone both imperiously demanding and insecure, adorable, but dangerous when crossed. It was Bernac who gave the song’s first performance in 1939, but despite ‘quand je suis bon’ (signalling a male narrator) the poem seems written in Colette’s voice—a woman writing of another woman in a mood of passionate and love-stricken exasperation. The marking Très violent et emporté conveys the intensity of the song, which hurtles forward in a musical tidal-wave of passion and jealousy. The text describes the paradoxical behaviour of the beloved in a similar way to the (very different) hymn to Nusch Éluard, Nous avons fait la nuit from Tel jour telle nuit. One song is a mirror image of the other: the Éluard, with enormous lyrical calm, describes the love of soul mates, in this case heterosexual; Le portrait reflects the emotional turbulence and tension of a homosexual relationship teetering on the edge. The composer understood both states of mind as part of his own experience.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013


Poulenc: The Complete Songs
CDA68021/44CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Poulenc: The Complete Songs, Vol. 3
Studio Master: SIGCD272Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 11 on CDA68021/4 CD1 [1'52] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Track 12 on SIGCD272 [1'52] Download only

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