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Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Figure humaine & other choral works

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2009
St Bartholomew The Great, West Smithfield, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & Alex Foster
Release date: March 2010
Total duration: 63 minutes 31 seconds

Francis Poulenc is now considered to be among the most important composers of choral music of the twentieth century. Yet his early career reveals no trace of the dazzling and idiosyncratic unaccompanied choral textures so abundantly produced in the second half of his life.

This new collection of Poulenc's choral works is centered on his masterwork, the Figure humaine. Even though it is only 20 minutes in length, the work is a supreme test of stamina, technical agility, range, aural skill and musicianship. The professional chamber choir Tenebrae (directed by former King's Singer Nigel Short) are more than capable of tackling this repertoire, and this album promises to provide a new benchmark in interpretations of the work.


'The awards jury says … Poulenc's Figure Humaine makes extreme demands on ensemble and intonation, as plenty of commercial recordings can prove. Nigel Short's Tenebrae is astonishing, and instead of being diverted by the musical struggle, you're free to focus on Eluard's texts. The sense of liberation at the end is no less powerfully expressed, and as a showcase for Poulenc's choral writing, I'm finding it hard to imagine this recital being bettered' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Poulenc rediscovered the Roman Catholicism of his childhood when a close friend was killed in a road accident in 1936. A pilgrimage to Rocamadour in the Pyrenees led to his composing the Litanies à la Vierge Noire and other choral works. The masterpiece here is the double-choir Figure Humaine, a wartime setting of poems by Paul Eluard that culminates in a great cry of 'Liberté'; but the other pieces, too, are all marvellous. It's hard to imagine them being done better: Tenebrae's tone, balance and intonation are superb. All but one are unaccompanied—the organist in the Litanies should have been credited' (Classic FM)
“With a courtyard in front, pink with oleanders in tubs, next to a simple chapel hollowed into the rock, shelters a miraculous figure of the Virgin, carved, according to tradition, in black wood by Saint Amadour, the little Zacchaeus of the gospel who had to climb a tree to see the Christ. That same evening I began my Litanies à la Vierge Noire…”

Francis Poulenc is now considered to be among the most important composers of choral music of the 20th Century. Yet his early career reveals no trace of the dazzling and idiosyncratic unaccompanied choral textures so abundantly produced in the second half of his life. Poulenc’s Parisian forebears were often reluctant choralists, and his contemporaries in the modernist world were disinclined to explore an antiquated and even discredited form associated most recently with the German Romantics. Up until 1936, Poulenc wrote only one piece of choral music, and even that is a slight and whimsical offering for male voices—the Chanson à boire of 1922. Yet by the end of his life Poulenc had so fully embraced the idiom that he felt able to assert: “I think I’ve put the best and most genuine part of myself into my choral music…If people are still interested in my music fifty years from now it will be more in the Stabat Mater than in the Mouvements Perpétuels”.

A gradual reawakening of Poulenc’s dormant Catholicism (handed down by his father but neglected in the Parisian social whirl of the 1920s) was suddenly intensified after one of his closest friends, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, was killed in a road accident in 1936. Poulenc was devastated, the more so after the gruesome details of the accident were disclosed (Ferroud was apparently decapitated), and he travelled to the great Catholic pilgrimage site of Rocamadour in the Pyrénées in search of consolation. At the foot of the famous statue of the black virgin he found it, and from this point embarked on a decade-long period of almost exclusive choral and vocal writing. Appropriately given the source of his inspiration, this period began with the Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936) originally composed for female voices and organ and later adapted for female voices and orchestra, and followed soon after with his first works for full SATB chorus—the Sept Chansons, and the Mass in G (1937), composed in memory of his father now 20 years deceased, but exerting renewed spiritual influence over his son. Here we experience for the first time that fusion of playfulness and devotion which characterizes Poulenc’s sacred music. Listening to the juxtaposition of the comically marcato bass part in the “qui tollis peccata mundi” section of the Gloria, alongside the chant-like three-part setting of “qui sedes ad dexteram patris” which immediately follows, it is hard to imagine the composer writing without a little smirk on his face.

Poulenc’s awakening to choral music (and to Catholicism) naturally brought with it new explorations in the world of sacred and secular literature and poetry. For his sacred music, he was drawn to poetic non-biblical texts (the words of St Francis inspired his setting for mens’ voices of the Quatre petits prières de Saint François d’Assise in 1948), as well as liturgical texts which reflected his continued devotion to the statue of the black virgin, as with the marian motet Salve Regina (1941). Amongst the secular French poets, Poulenc explored Charles d’Orléans, and the naturalist works of Maurice Fombeure, but he found most inspiration in the surrealist works of contemporary writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Eluard, discovering that their synthesis of levity and profundity matched his compositional style perfectly. Sadly, Apollinaire died too young to have a meaningful influence on Poulenc during his lifetime, but with Eluard the relationship was more organic, and yielded much more choral music. Poulenc was one of a select few who received the works of Eluard under plain cover during the Second World War, including the collection Poésie et Vérité 42. One of the poems from this collection, Liberté, was dropped in leaflet form over occupied France by the British Royal Air Force so as to boost morale among the civilian population and within the French Resistance. Poulenc was so captivated by this particular volume, and so intent on setting it to music right away, that he abandoned (and never revisited) the violin concerto he was working on, and instead set about composing his great choral cantata Figure Humaine in 1943.

Poulenc’s social and creative circle was destroyed by the war. The status of Paris as the cultural capital of the world had been rudely revoked, so Poulenc retreated to his country residence at Noizay. He grew paranoid about what was happening to Paris in his absence, and fell victim to every rumour going. In his search to find a good creative outlet for his feelings, these years became fruitful ones for composition. He revealed something of his motives in a letter sent after the armistice: “When I think that Noizay is so completely untouched I almost feel ashamed. I trust that Figure Humaine will be a sufficient tribute from a Frenchman”. With the statue of the black virgin continuing to exert a powerful influence over his conscience, he visited Rocamadour again before beginning work on the piece (even though the subject matter is earthly, he saw Figure Humaine as the fulfilment of a sacred duty as well as a patriotic one). His initial plan was for the work to be clandestinely rehearsed and premiered on the day of liberation in Paris. However, Parisian liberation came quicker (in 1944) than he had been expecting, so after the score was complete he gave agreement for a first performance to be given by the BBC Singers in London (in an English translation) after the BBC expressed great interest in the unpublished score. Naturally Poulenc still wanted to make some sort of symbolic gesture with his work to mark the day when the Nazis were driven out of Paris, so as he wrote in a letter to the singer Pierre Bernac: “The day the Americans arrived, I triumphantly placed my cantata on the studio desk, beneath my flag, at the window”.

The eight movements of Figure Humaine are scored for double SMATBB choir, with frequent divisi, so that up to 14 parts are often heard. Poulenc himself recommended a large choir of 84 for the premiere, with seven singers to a part. In a large body of frequently very difficult choral works, it is undoubtedly the most challenging of all his works in the genre—not inappropriate given the terrible struggle which Europe was engaged in for Liberté. Even though it is only 20 minutes in length, the work is a supreme test of stamina, technical agility, range, aural skill and musicianship. Poulenc maintains a basic antiphonal structure in each of the movements, juxtaposing the two choirs in virtuosic ways (at various times suggesting argument, distance, amplification etc) and bringing them together at moments of particular textual significance. Poulenc’s rigid belief in the primacy of text is apparent throughout, as amongst all the complications of the score there is not a single moment where the lines of text risk being clouded by excessive polyphonic writing. Even in the fugal sections he is careful to repeat lines of text a sufficient number of times to ensure their absorption.

The first seven poems are clearly intended to form a sequence, capped by a longer epilogue (the eighth). The overarching dramatic thread seems to be one of gathering madness, brought about by the combination of long-suffered oppression and long-desired liberty. In common with many of his choral works, Poulenc juxtaposes mood to great effect, placing the most furiously agitated sections next to the most becalmed, and the most dissonant next to the most soothingly consonant. Here we also find a preoccupation with analogies from the world of nature. Wolves (thought to represent the German SS) rampage through another cantata composed during this period, Un Soir de Neige (1944), but the bestiary contained within Figure Humaine is rather more diverse (and sometimes fantastical), since Eluard presents all of humanity not only as perpetrator, but also as potential saviour at this dark hour in its history. Birds and beasts abound, and the constellations have their say along with diurnal and seasonal cycles, with none of them bearing much comfort. Most often Eluard prefers to leave the descriptions incomplete to deepen the sense of what lies in the sinister darkness, and what terrifies us most. The monsters introduced in the first movement become menacing, scaly beasts with powerful jaws by the seventh movement, and the unnamed animal leaving its tracks in the snow in the sixth movement seems to represent humanity stripped of humanity—a march of cattle towards death. Poulenc’s musical response is carefully designed to match the shape of the text, and displays all of the composer’s extraordinary harmonic deftness and imagination. Trademark cycles of fifths and jarring tritones propel the music into unrelated keys, and his favourite modes, Phrygian and Aeolian, combine with 7th and 9th chords to blur the edges between minor and major and infuse everything with a delicious bipolarity, as monastic as it is jazzy.

After the desperate, ecstatic declamation of man’s indestructibility which concludes the extraordinary seventh movement, Poulenc instructs the singers to pause for a while before the finale, as if in contemplation of the 24 stanzas still to come. This is the climax of the work, and these are the words which had been scattered over the French countryside and imprinted on Poulenc’s conscience. Where does one begin this revolution, this declaration of freedom? Eluard begins at his desk, with the everyday objects in front of him, and Poulenc obliges with a simple, easy-paced setting of gently swaying homophony. Eluard moves his gaze out to the world, taking in warriors and kings, animals and birds, and then reaches beyond to the ether and the stars, before drawing back to the foreheads and hands of those dear to him (presumably Poulenc himself was touched by Eluard’s pen). On every object which Eluard sees or imagines, he daubs it with the word which is now haunting him, and he is determined to continue until he has covered the whole world with its seven letters. Poulenc captures the excitement and insane optimism perfectly, beginning in the E major key which has by now become associated with redemption in this work, but lurching from key to key, often without preparation, as the poet switches dimensions from micro to macro, and from abstract to concrete. The antiphonally-apportioned singers serve Poulenc especially well here, as the first choir takes the role of searching the world for writing surfaces, and the second choir obliges each time with the refrain “J’écris ton nom”. The momentum builds perpetually, the tempo gradually quickens and at the ear-splitting climax where the word “Liberté!” is finally sung by the entire choir, the tessitura rises almost beyond the range of earthly singers.

The reviewer of the first performance, WR Anderson, wrote in the Musical Times that the piece contained ‘dubious structure’ and ‘evasive harmony’, and concluded that he would ‘need to see the score to get at it’. One cannot help but wonder if a choir assembled barely two weeks before the first performance in the immediate aftermath of the armistice might have needed a little more exposure to the score to ‘get at it’ themselves (sadly, the original recording does not survive). But in spite, or perhaps even because of the fierce battles which must be fought and won in staging a performance of this work it remains synonymous with the zealous efforts made by some French artists to make a meaningful contribution to Europe’s struggle for freedom in the 1940s. Elizabeth Poston, European Music Supervisor at the BBC during the 1940s, advised her commissioning editor that the work symbolized French fortitude and suffering during the war, and was thus an important work for the BBC to disseminate; and today, its reputation has grown (despite the relative infrequency of performances) to the point where it is universally acknowledged as Poulenc’s crowning achievement in the realm of unaccompanied choral music.

Gabriel Crouch © 2010

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