Mirages: The Art of French Song
- Sleeve Notes
Gabriel Fauré composed more than 100 mélodies and was very little influenced by contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel. The style of his songs develops from the gracefully melodic early mélodies, through the productive second period, to the late songs – mostly cycles – which display a simplicity, austerity and purity that are quite unlike anything else in French song. Mirages was composed during the summer of 1919 when Fauré was 74, to four poems by Renée de Brimont. He selected four of the sixty poems that make up the work – and in doing so repeated the pattern of the Second Piano Quintet on which he was working at the same time, which also has four movements, the slowest of which, as in Mirages, was the second. Though married to Albert-Auguste-Gabriel Hanotaux, who had been French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Renée was evidently bisexual – as is suggested by the admission in Reflets dans l’eau that ‘J’aimais vos caresses de sœur’, and by the presence of the female dancer – svelte, supple, erotically naked – in Danseuse. The first two songs of the cycle take place by or on water. In Cygne sur l’eau, the black swan glides ‘slowly along the shores of ennui on the fathomless waters of dreams and delusion, of echo, of mist, of shadow, of night’ – an atmosphere conjured up by Fauré’s chordal accompaniment and the almost unbroken vocal line. In Reflets dans l’eau the singer looks into a pond, where she immerses herself in memory and recalls her former love, at which point the piano slowly descends ever deeper, in whole tones, into the bass register. The poet imagines that she slips beneath the surface and drowns – the ripples inspiring Fauré to music of astonishing descriptive power: the piano’s triplets turn into duplets and finally dissolve into silence. The next song, Jardin nocturne, describes a tranquil moonlit garden. As the poet reveals that she is fully aware of the charms of the garden which are ‘ruffled by desire and ennui’, the music rises to a restrained climax – throughout this extraordinary work the music never rises above piano. If the first three songs are veiled and reserved, Danseuse is characterized by a dotted falling figure, as the singer pleads with a mysterious being to dance her erotic dance. Although Fauré omitted the most sexually overt of Brimont’s verses, his music drips with sensuality and was described by Norman Suckling (Fauré, Dent 1946) as ‘one of the most vertiginous things ever written’. The first performance took place on 27 December 1919 during a concert of the Société Nationale de la Musique, sung by Madeleine Grey with the composer at the piano.
André Caplet (1878–1925) was a close friend of Debussy, who, on hearing two of the younger composer’s mélodies in 1908, wrote to Georges Jean-Aubry:
Ce Caplet est un artiste. Il sait retrouver l’atmosphère sonore et, avec une jolie sensibilité, a le sens des proportions; ce qui est plus rare qu’on ne le croit à notre époque de musique bâclée [...]!
This Caplet is an artist. He knows how to render atmosphere in sound and, with a fine sensibility, he has a sense of proportion – which is rarer than one might think in the present era of slap-dash music [...]!
He won the Prix de Rome in 1901, pipping Ravel to the post with his Myrrha, and went on to compose some forty mélodies. This modest output was due to a number of causes: he died relatively young, he was prodigiously busy as conductor and pianist and spent much of his time assisting Debussy. But although he made piano transcriptions of La Mer and Images, completed the orchestration of Gigues and finished Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, he had a most distinctive voice of his own. Gassed at the front in the First World War, his lungs were permanently damaged – which meant that after the armistice he gave up his career as conductor and pianist and devoted himself to composition, the first fruits of which were the Cinq ballades françaises (1919–20). In each of these songs one senses Caplet’s delight at having survived the war: there is a rhythmic subtlety and dance-like joie de vivre present in the piano accompaniments. La ronde was the first to be composed, immediately after his marriage – a sort of folksong in the form of a gigue. This was followed by L’adieu en barque, a solo piano piece on which Caplet lays the vocal line.
The crucial markings for this poetic evocation are printed at the end of the long prelude: très effacé (very unobtrusive) for the piano, and très enveloppé (very veiled) for the voice. Next came Notre chaumière en Yveline, which radiates content in every bar, and Songe d’une nuit d’été – a fantastical dream that celebrates freedom for the roses and, symbolically perhaps, for the people of France. The last to be composed was Cloche d’aube, with which he decided to open this lovely work – a crystalline depiction of bells ringing out across a dawn landscape. The poems are by Paul Fort (1872–1960) and come from his Ballades françaises that began to appear around 1895 in magazines and were published in book form two years later, eventually filling over thirty volumes. France is the subject-matter of these delightful prose poems, revealed in Fort’s descriptions of towns and countryside, history and legend. The poems are always printed as prose, in which, following Baudelaire’s example in Le Spleen de Paris (1869), rhythm and assonance play an important part. Fort was elected ‘Prince des poètes’ in a referendum organized by the newspaper Gil Blas in 1912, and although his star has somewhat waned, his poetry has stood the test of time.
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) also set three poems by Paul Fort, the Trois Poèmes of 1916. And almost all of his 60 or so mélodies (he also composed some 40 chansons) set texts by celebrated modern writers (Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Paul Fort, Jean Giraudoux, Francis Jammes and Jules Laforgue.) Unlike several other members of ‘Les Six’, such as Milhaud and Poulenc, Honegger did not produce much vocal music, but there are several indisputable masterpieces, of which we hear two. Petit Cours de Morale dates from April 1841 and was premiered on 28 June 1942 in the Salle Gaveau by Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc during a festival in honour of Honegger’s fiftieth birthday. The six deliciously ironic poems come from Chapter 7 of Suzanne et le Pacifique, a novel by Jean Giraudoux that had been published in 1921. Giraudoux once declared:
A mon avis, le but d’un livre, l’idée dominante d’un auteur au moment où il écrit son livre, doit être une idée morale.
In my view, the aim of a book, the predominant idea of an author when he writes his book, should be a moral idea.
As if to illustrate this dictum, the little poems that punctuate Chapter 7 all point a pithy moral. The songs are a delight: immediate, witty and melodic. The novel concerns the adventures of the 18-year-old Suzanne from Bellac. Having won a trip round the world, she is shipwrecked and seeks refuge on a deserted island in the Pacific. She revels in nature and manages to swim to other islands in the archipelago. On her return to Bellac, she recounts her adventures. This parody of a Robinson Crusoe novel also has a serious side and celebrates nature as an indispensable part of life.
Saluste du Bartas also dates from 1941. Honegger chose six of Pierre Bédat de Monlaur’s twenty-six Villanelles that celebrate the life of Saluste du Bartas (1544–1590), a Gascon and protestant poet and ambassador at the court of Henri IV. He is vividly described as young, proud and ambitious in Le château du Bartas and Tout le long de la Baïse which also refers to his infatuation with Queen Marguerite of Navarre. His departure to woo her is the subject of Le départ in which he is described as a dandy with fine bearing. We eventually glimpse Marguerite in La promenade as she goes for a walk in her most sumptuous attire. Nérac en fête describes her subjects dancing in her honour, while Duo, the final song, celebrates the encounter of the Queen and her lover. The thrice repeated
‘Marguerite’ – each time to a ravishing melisma – is as lyrical as Poulenc at his most moving. Honegger’s music – never over-written – is full of swagger, humour and tenderness, and composed with an economy of means which links him to
Les Six. The cycle is dedicated to Noémie Pérugia who gave the first performance in 1942.
Ravel’s final three songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, were composed in 1932–3,
a response to a commission to write a score for a film that Georg W. Pabst was making for Chaliapin. Ravel failed to deliver on time, which meant that Jacques Ibert was eventually the fortunate composer. Ravel was never paid for his pains, but the songs are a delight, and have held the recital stage ever since Martial Singher premiered them on 1 December 1934 in the composer’s presence. Ravel was a great admirer of the Cervantes story, but it is unlikely that the great Russian bass would have taken to the simplicity of these songs which never attempt to demonstrate any virtuoso vocal qualities. Ravel, with his Basque blood, used the Spanish idiom liberally throughout. In Chanson romanesque we hear
the alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythm over a guitar-like accompaniment, which conjures up the quajira of Spanish folklore, and gives the song a deliciously lilting quality; Chanson épique, with its serious 5/4 metre, is reminiscent of the zorzico and, with its organ-like harmonies, has a whiff of Catholic incense about it; while Chanson à boire is in the spirit of the jota, its strong cross-rhythms conveying the tipsiness of Morand’s text.
Roderick Williams, who composed Les Ténèbres de l’Amour towards the end of 1994, explains the genesis of the work:
I was commissioned by my friend and colleague, baritone Henry Wickham, along with pianist Susie Allan, to write a piece for them to perform as part of their upcoming Park Lane Group recital at the Purcell Room, London. They were already presenting Gabriel Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson in the programme and asked if I would consider, by way of complementary contrast, setting some of the other Verlaine poems from this collection that Fauré had not included in his cycle. I had to work quickly to meet the deadline and delivered the piece to them in two instalments; the first two poems and then the second half, only a matter of weeks before the premiere. Aiming to allow for limited learning and rehearsal time, I devised a style that would allow both performers a certain amount of declamatory freedom, sometimes independent of each other, so that they could do an amount of their preparation separately.
I chose verses that reflected Verlaine’s impatience at the length of his engagement to Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. However, it struck me as rather ironic that, after these restless, agitated protestations of burning love and devotion, within a year or two Verlaine had grown bored of his wife and notoriously set off on a spree with Arthur Rimbaud instead. I wanted to write music that would allow for similar contradictions; be full of a similar heat of pent-up passion and frustrated sexual energy, mixed with doubt, anxiety, paranoia and depression alongside flashes of hope, love and occasional contentment. The four songs run continuously and are connected by short piano interludes, one of which, I note all these years later, was definitely influenced by the fugue in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op.110 Piano Sonata, a piece I was struggling to learn at the time, with little success.
Henry and Susie premiered the four songs at Purcell Room on the 12th January 1995 and the piece is dedicated to them.
Guillaume Apollinaire, with apologies to Paul Éluard, was Francis Poulenc’s favourite poet for song composition, and the titles of the 36 mélodies to Apollinaire’s verse give a good idea of the flavour and range of the poet’s range:
‘Le dromadaire’, ‘La chèvre du Thibet’, ‘La sauterelle’, ‘Le dauphin’, ‘L’écrevisse’, ‘La carpe’ from Le Bestiaire; four further songs from the same bestiary: ‘Le serpent’, ‘La colombe’, ‘La souris’ and ‘La puce’; ‘Chanson’ from Trois Poèmes de Louise Lalanne; ‘L’anguille’, ‘Carte postale’, ‘Avant le cinéma’, ‘1904’ from Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire; ‘Dans le jardin’ and ‘Allons plus vite’ from Deux Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire; ‘La Grenouillère’; ‘Bleuet’; ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’, ‘Hôtel’ ‘Fagnes de Wallonie’, ‘Voyage à Paris’ and ‘Sanglots’ from Banalités; ‘Montparnasse’ and ‘Hyde Park’; ‘Le pont’ and ‘Un poème’; ‘L’espionne’, ‘Mutation’, ‘Vers le sud’, ‘Il pleut’, ‘La grâce exilée’, ‘Aussi bien que les cigales’ and ‘Voyage’ from Caligrammes; and ‘Rosemonde’.
The Deux Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire – from Il y a, a collection published in 1925 – were composed in the summer of 1938. Le jardin d’Anna, written much earlier in 1901, is a zany fantasy on Apollinaire’s passionate relationship with Annie Playden, an English governess in the employ of the Vicomtesse de Milhau, who had invited Apollinaire to spend the autumn with her in Germany as a tutor for her daughter Gabrielle. The barock Milhau villa, Neu-Glück (New happiness), where they lived, was situated in the middle of a pine forest and seems to have ignited the poet’s imagination. He sets the scene of his poem in 1760 and imagines himself married to Anna. The conditional perfect predominates (16 examples in 34 lines) as Apollinaire fantasizes about the life he would have led with his beloved. Pierre Bernac writes perceptively about Poulenc’s setting:
The poem has an extravagant degree of verve and fantasy. It displays by turns irony, tenderness, parody, it is bombastic, farcical, erotic, down-to-earth, poetic – all this without transitions, in phrases that follow one another in a whirl of images.
Allons plus vite is no less virtuosic. Poulenc’s commentary in Journal de mes Mélodies is crucial for an understanding of the song, which describes the loneliness of a man cruising the streets of Paris in search of carnal satisfaction:
I have so often loitered at night in Paris that I think I know better than any other musician the rhythm of a felt slipper along the pavement of a May evening. [...] If the sexual melancholy of the poem is not understood, it is useless to sing the song. For Apollinaire and me the boulevard de Grenelle is as rare and poetic as the banks of the Ganges are for others. To tell the truth, I was not specifically thinking of the boulevard de Grenelle while I was writing the music, but of its twin brother the boulevard de la Chapelle, which I passed through on so many evenings when I lived in Montmartre. I imagined Pauline at the door of the Hôtel Molière. Czechoslovakian prostitutes are seen there in shiny rubber boots, for a hundred sous ...
Much of Apollinaire’s poem remains obscure, and it is not clear whether the ‘Allons plus vite’ of the title refers to a gendarme moving the prostitutes along,
or a client urging a prostitute to hurry along to their assignation in her room. Poulenc’s song is a strange mixture of poetry and repulsion. Markings such as ému et doucement poétique (moved and gently poetic), dans un doux halo de Pédales (with a sweet halo of pedal) and très poétique (very poetically) suggest that he genuinely saw beauty in the scene that he was creating. ‘The poem by Apollinaire opens like Baudelaire’, Poulenc wrote in the Journal de mes Mélodies, and it’s worth remembering that Baudelaire, in an unpublished poem called ‘Épilogue’, had written:
Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence, Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.
For I have extracted the essence of each object,
You gave me your mud and from it I have created gold.
On the other hand, Poulenc’s markings on the final page of his song suggest a wholly different atmosphere: falsetto on ‘Pauline honteuse’, sec et un peu narquois (crisp and caustically quizzical) on ‘Les ouvriers’, sans humour on the penultimate ‘allons’ and très sec on the piano’s final low note. The song, which had begun as a sort of apostrophe to Baudelaire, ends with more than a modicum of self-loathing and disgust, reminiscent of a couplet from Baudelaire’s ‘Le Crépuscule du Soir’ in the ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ section of Les Fleurs du Mal which Apollinaire and Poulenc must have known:
La Prostitution s’allume dans les rues; Comme une fourmilière elle ouvre ses issues;
Prostitution lights up in the streets; Like an anthill, it opens its orifices;
Parisiana comprises two poems by Max Jacob, Jouer du bugle, and Vous n’écrivez plus?. Poulenc had considered introducing Jouer du bugle into Le bal masqué but decided to abandon the idea. It is a zany poem. Stanza 1 describes three ladies playing the cornet in their bathroom, looked after by a certain scoundrel who is only there in the morning; stanza 2 tells of a blond child, a bastard’s son, who catches crabs with his hand and says not a word; stanza 3 reveals that this bald child has three mothers and one father – who is poor and treats him like a dog; stanza 4 describes the poet playing the cornet down by the Pont d’Iéna, near the Eiffel Tower, of a Sunday, with a placard on his sleeve.
Vous n’écrivez plus? is a wonderfully witty portrait of a writer in Paris down on his luck, working as a newspaper seller (stanza 1); chestnut-seller at the corner of the rue Coquillère (stanza 2); ticket-seller, lavatory cleaner, assistant at the Gingerbread Fair and defendant at the Magistrate’s Court in stanza 4. Paris always brought out the best in Poulenc. When living in his country house in Touraine he rarely left his beautiful terrace with its formal garden that he had designed himself – a walk in the country gave him the blues. Not so Paris, as we hear in ‘Allons plus vite’ and these two songs: the first slow and sweet with a lot of pedal; the second heavy and fast but never crude.
Debussy probably met the poet Paul Bourget at the Chat Noir cabaret, and though their friendship was of short duration, they exchanged a good many letters. Bourget’s lyrical verse was in perfect accord with the sentimental atmosphere that was all the rage in the early 1880s, and Debussy’s setting successfully recaptures the religious nostalgia of the poem: accompanied by a background of bells, the melody flows unperturbably on with hardly a change in tempo or dynamics – happy memories should not be disturbed. Beau soir, published like ‘Les cloches’ in Les Aveux, was written by Bourget during a trip to Ireland and Scotland in 1881. The carpe diem theme is hardly original, but there is a broad sweep to the verse that clearly attracted Debussy. The melody is appropriately spacious, and there is an expressive marking of plus lent at the end of the song to convey the imminence of death – without sentimentality.
Richard Stokes, 2021
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