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Francis Poulenc: Priez Pour Paix

Just a month ago at the Moab Music Festival we opened the season with a program about war. The original inspiration came from John Brancy and Peter Dugan who toured extensively with a beautiful program celebrating the centenary of the end of WW 1 (the armistice). I borrowed a few of their ideas and included composers they didn’t. Mahler, Blitzstein, Shostakovitch, Bernstein. But the subject matter seems timely, and the sensible idea of the obsolescence of war just hasn’t come into maturity. So the discussion needs to continue. World Peace seems to have become a punchline for things that are unachievable. I’m not so sure.  Let’s start the week with some hope and beauty. Here are Mssrs. Brancy (voice) and Dugan (piano) in Francis Poulenc’s “Priez Pour Paix”. John Brancy will have a leading role in our next NYFOS concert at Merkin Hall on Nov. 19. Music by Marc Blitzstein and Kurt Weill

Francis Poulenc: Sanglots

I used to practice yoga regularly but I’ve fallen out of it in recent years. I guess this is a gentle reminder to myself that I want to get back into it. I reaped multiple benefits from practicing yoga: physical, mental, and spiritual. The word “yoga” literally means “union” and the concept that ‘we are all one’ is one of the primary teachings of the practice. Certainly the yogis do not have exclusive rights to the idea that humanity is interconnected. Many philosophies and religions share their own interpretations of that belief. If you subscribe to any aspect of this concept of oneness, you are likely as disturbed as I am by the current discord and division in our society. Of course, our own individual views of complex issues like politics, gender, race, religion, citizenship, socioeconomics, (the list obviously goes on…) make it difficult to agree, but can’t we strive to love and respect each other even if we disagree?

Banalités, Poulenc’s set of five songs on poems of Guilluame Apollinaire, ends with “Sanglots.” The opening lines of the song refer to the human race as being interconnected from the beginning of time:

Notre amour est réglé par les calmes étoiles
Or nous savons qu’en nous beaucoup d’hommes respirent
Qui vinrent de très loin et sont un sous nos fronts

Our love is ruled by the calm stars
now we know that in us many men breathe
who came from far away and are one under our brows

The song then continues with rhapsodic waxing of the hopes and dreams of humanity wearing its heart on its sleeve (or in its right hand as Apollinaire puts it). But as the song continues, the ultimate message is not of contentment but of despair and resignation. Poetic images of pain and disappointment abound. The bottom line is that humankind cannot avoid its predetermined fate of suffering. Not a cheery notion, but my take on it is a little less severe. To me, this song is a reminder that even though life can be difficult and painful, we need to be good to each other and treat each other with kindness and compassion.

I selected two different recordings of “Sanglots” as they each have their own merits. The first one is straight from the horse’s mouth: Monsieur Poulenc playing with Pierre Bernac (the two premiered it in 1940). Because Bernac’s voice can be a bit of an acquired taste, I chose another recording with Dalton Baldwin playing with the suave-voiced Gérard Souzay.

Poulenc: Montparnasse

Having just finished the NYFOS season in New York with our Lorca program, tossed off a Gershwin concert for our gala a couple of weeks later, and presided over my twentieth-fifth anniversary concert at Wolf Trap with music ranging from German Lieder to Cuban rumba, I am now in the throes of preparing a revival of Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay LifeThis program debuted exactly 10 years ago—and not at NYFOS. At that time there was a bit of resistance from our board—gentle but palpable—against a show with an explicitly gay theme. Fate intervened in the person of my buddy Jesse Blumberg, the founder and Artistic Director of Five Boroughs Music Festival. He wanted me to do a project with them, and enticed me by asking, “Is there a show you’ve been dying to do, but can’t schedule with NYFOS?” “Well….I’ve always wanted to do an evening devoted to gay men.” “Done.”

Jesse and I came up with a passel of ideas, whittled them down, and found a strong arc for the show. I wanted to illuminate contemporary life, but also delve into music by gay composers from the classical canon. We had a devil of a time deciding what to call the concert. Our working title, clearly unusable, was SCHLONG BIRDS. Jesse sent me a list with more punny titles—ranging from corny Dad-jokes to some that were wildly off-color. But among them was “Manning the Canon,” which I loved. We added an explanatory clause, “Songs of Gay Life,” and solved our hardest problem. 

The show was such a success with Five Boroughs that Michael Barrett urged us to bring it to NYFOS the following year. “And this is how all our shows should be: 75-80 minutes, no intermission, compact, contemporary.” “Manning the Canon” went from being the unwanted child to being the poster child for NYFOS. Our 2010 revival earned us a startling rave review from Anthony Tommasini at the Times—I never thought we’d earn his approval by programming Cy Coleman—and we brought it back once more in 2011. That night I promised myself that I would program “MTC” for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I could not have anticipated what a big hoopla June of 2019 was going to be, nor did I have an inkling of the political background we’d be encountering. I just knew I wanted to commemorate the birth of the Gay Movement with this material and a cast of brothers.

Two of those brothers have been in every iteration of the concert, Matt Boehler and Scott Murphree. I can’t imagine this show without them. This year we’re adding in two newbies: baritone Efraín Solís, who recently sang our Lorca concert, and tenor Daniel McGrew, making his NYFOS debut. I look forward to watching Matt and Scott teach them the choreo for “You’re the Top,” our closer.

I chose Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” for today’s song. We do it in a section of art songs about romantic fantasy. Apollinaire’s poem is a self-portrait that recreates his early days in Paris after he emigrated from Rome.  His poem looks at his young self with rueful self-deprecation, but Poulenc’s music fixates on the wide-eyed blond teenager with an unmistakable cloud of desire. Apollinaire conjured up a 19-year old with clothes from Old Navy. Poulenc transforms him into an Abercrombie model. He may be dumb, but with those looks, who cares? 

Here is Ian Bostridge, with my friend Julius Drake at the piano. I don’t think of Bostridge as a sexy musician—meticulous and scholarly is how I’d describe him. But he and Drake create a gorgeous, gauzy mist in their performance of “Montparnasse.” Chapeau, gentlemen. 

POULENC/Apollinaire: Montparnasse (Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake, pianist)         

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRIDgE9somM

Francis Poulenc: L’une d’avril

L’une d’avril (April Moon) is the very last song French composer, Francis Poulenc, ever wrote from his song cycle, La courte paille (The Short Straw). The song voices the concern of parents for the violence of the modern world. He composed the work in 1960 during the time of nuclear disarmament and demonstrations banning nukes. I personally love the colors used in the song and its haunting ending.

Françis Poulenc: Montparnasse

My preferences change a lot, so only two things have earned from me the immutable stamp of “absolute favorite” over the years. My absolute favorite color: green. My absolute favorite art song: Poulenc’s “Montparnasse.”

Green is obvious, it’s the best color. But can we take a moment to chat about, and to adore this song? I fell in love with it several years ago when Steve programmed and played it on Manning the Canon, and Scott Murphree sang it so beautifully. Fun fact: it took Poulenc four years to write the song, because it came to him in bits and bobs, and in various unrelated keys. And yet this bittersweet meditation on Apollinaire’s youth and folly seems so fresh and so right, as if it was simply plucked from the ether, fully formed.

Francis Poulenc: Tu vois le feu du soir

I once asked a pianist friend of mine to read through “Tu vois le feu du soir” with me and he asked, “what’s this song about?”  I have never had a more difficult time answering that question. So I just shared the text with him. Here is the mysterious, surreal text of the poem.  The literal meaning is impossible to discern, yet the language is so beautiful and evokes a profound sense of meaning…it’s just hard to describe that meaning.

Tu vois le feu du soir
Music by Francis Poulenc; poem by Paul Eluard

Tu vois le feu du soir qui sort de sa coquille
Et tu vois la forêt enfouie dans sa fraîcheur

Tu vois la plaine nue aux flancs du ciel traînard
La neige haute comme la mer
Et la mer haute dans l’azur

Pierres parfaites et bois doux secours voilés
Tu vois les villes teintes de mélancolie
Dorée des trottoirs pleins d’éxcuses
Une place où la solitude a sa statue
Souriante et l’amour une seule maison

Tu vois les animeaux
Sosies malins sacrifiés l’un à l’autre
Frères immaculés aux ombres confondues
Dans un désert de sang

Tu vois un bel enfant quand il joue quand il rit
Il est bien plus petit
Que le petit oiseau du bout des branches

Tu vois un paysage aux saveurs d’huile et d’eau
D’où la roche est exclue où la terre abandonne
Sa verdure à l’été qui la couvre de fruits

Des femmes descendant de leur miroir ancien
T’apportent leur jeunesse et leur foi en la tienne
Et l’une sa clarté la voile qui t’entraîne
Te fait secrètement voir le monde sans toi.


You see the fire of the evening emerging from its shell
And you see the forest buried in its coolness

You see the bare plain at the edges of the straggling sky
The snow high like the sea
And the sea high in the azure

Perfect stones and sweet woods veiled succors
You see with a golden melancholy
Pavements filled with excuses
A town square where solitude has its statue
Smiling and love a solitary house

You see the animals
Malignant look-a-likes sacrificed one to the other
Immaculate brothers with confused shadows
In a desert of blood

You see a handsome child when he plays when he laughs
He is indeed smaller
Than the little bird on the edge of the branches

You see a landscape with savors of oil and of water
Where the rock is excluded where the earth abandons
Its greenness to summer who has covered it with fruits

Women descending from their ancient mirror
Bring you their youth and their faith in yours
And one, her light the veil that draws you in
Makes you secretly see the world without you.

 


As with “Flor de Yumuri” yesterday, this poem and this song, I think, speak to deep, universal, and unutterable aspects of human experience.  Eluard, in my personal lexicon, is a brilliant exponent of post-modernism. By this, I mean that he is incorporating into his poetry an acknowledgement that humanity’s entire conception of existence is itself unique to humans.  The way that our brains process signals from the outside world and interpret them to our consciousness is not common to all living things, and yet we do know that the outside world is there, however dimly or incompletely we perceive it.  Some reactionary types see post-modernism as an attempt to dismantle rightful power structures in society (and there is a debate to be had about what makes any given power structure “right”). Today, for example, issues of gender and sexuality are a hot button as so called “postmodernists” argue that gender is the product  entirely of socialization rather than biological function. There is no inherent “girly-ness” as we know it, rather a system of gender identity that reinforces male dominance. “Conservatives” may argue back: that’s ludicrous! There are obvious differences between men and women, and men should in fact dominate because of those differences.  As I try to think through the various arguments I come across on these issues, I often find that both sides have valid points, and yet I find that both miss the big picture by insisting on a one-or-the-other approach. It seems, regrettably, that in our age of polarization the grey area is becoming a forbidden zone.

The main wisdom I’ve attained in getting older is that I know a lot less than I thought I did.  And yet, although there are many mysterious things about life, just because we don’t know the answer to those mysteries doesn’t mean there is no answer.  I find such beauty in the post-modernism of Eluard because he is brave enough to live in the mystery and plumb its dark secrets. I don’t believe that evil is some external force that acts on people. We all possess the potential to do ill. The moral battle we all must fight is to see ourselves clearly and honestly enough so that we don’t allow ourselves to justify doing something evil. There is a seductive comfort in certitude: I know I’m right so whatever I have to do to defend what’s right is justified. That feeling gives one not only a sense of righteousness, but a sense of power and control over the chaotic world, too. It is threatening and destabilizing to probe past the conscious mind which makes order out of the atoms buzzing all around us. This song somehow peeks beyond the paradigm of the conscious mind and through its evocative imagery, rustles up something moving and disturbing, and I think, something true. Poems exist because they are the best way to articulate an idea that can’t be contained by prose or orderly, linear thinking.  In other words, Eluard couldn’t have said it better.

Francis Poulenc: Quelle aventure!

Ever fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole? You know, you innocently start looking for something and three hours later you look up from your iPad, having forsaken all social niceties (and biological necessities), and wonder what happened to the afternoon? I don’t know who has the time to load every video ever made in the history of media, but I for one am thankful that it’s all there. I stumbled across this clip as I was preparing a lecture for Paris Between the Wars, a class I occasionally teach at Juilliard. The video includes a short interview with Poulenc (en français), followed by a performance, with the composer at the piano accompanying the divine Denise Duval—Poulenc’s frequent muse—singing two songs from La court paille. How educational to see the composer himself playing the music he wrote, with the singer who originated the piece. Enough said. “Quelle aventure!” starts at 2:55 if you want to skip ahead, but don’t! I love the footage of them turning the pages and Duval purring “Quelle aventure” to Poulenc like it’s a seduction. And you can listen to the entirety of La courte paille—all seven songs—in about eight minutes. To paraphrase Erik Satie, one of Poulenc’s idols, “A composer shouldn’t take more of the audience’s time than is absolutely necessary.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Owf0eW0I3CQ



Francis Poulenc: Les Chemins de l’Amour

Shortly after the 1940 Nazi invasion of France, Francis Poulenc was asked to write incidental music for a light drama by Jean Anouilh, Léocadia. It starred the celebrated French actress and singer Yvonne Printemps, and Poulenc took advantage of her presence in the cast to add to his instrumental score a “valse chantée”, called “Les Chemins de l’Amour.” (The play is about a young prince who is obsessed by his memories of a woman whom he knew for three days, and the young woman who is hired to bring him back to reality.) In 1956, when an English version of the play (now called Time Remembered) opened on Broadway with Helen Hayes, Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg, Poulenc’s score was dropped in favor of a new one by Vernon Duke.

Printemps was a great star of French and English theater and film, who appeared in plays, operettas and musicals.  She made her Paris debut at the age of 12, achieved her first fame in works by Sasha Guitry (whom she married and divorced) and went on to appear frequently with Pierre Fresnay (whom she may or may not have also married). Printemps’ light, expressive voice inspired several noted composers, including Reynaldo Hahn and Oscar Straus. Although she spoke only French, Noël Coward wrote his operetta Conversation Piece for her, and she enjoyed great success in it in both London and New York, performing the entire role phonetically.  In London, Coward appeared opposite her, and long remembered having to repress his onstage giggles whenever Printemps read one line as “a clood has pissed across the sun.”

Poulenc: Tu vois le feu du soir

The Wolf Trap concert I’m about to start rehearsing is another one of my quattro stagione pizzas: four groups of songs from four countries, each nationality introduced by a two-piano piece for Joseph Li and me to play. Joe had asked me to include some French music, and I obliged. I’m putty in his hands—and he’ll also be playing most of the songs.

Since the tenor Jonas Hacker was in the mix, I knew I had an artist sophisticated enough for Poulenc’s “Tu vois le feu du soir.” Paul Eluard’s poem speaks about the visionary quality of his beloved in a collage of surreal images. And the last lines describe an ego-less clarity, the transcendent ability to perceive and understand a world uncolored by one’s own self. Poulenc’s music glides like a gentle boat ride, rapt with adoration and appreciation. It was the composer’s favorite song, and his longest.

We musicians are always told to perform Poulenc’ music in strict tempo, no variations, no expressive stretching, no pulling on a phrase to allow for a relaxed breath. This came in part from Poulenc’s directives, but it was propagated for decades by his close friend and frequent muse Pierre Bernac. Bernac spent the latter part of his life teaching, coaching, and writing books. If your music-making already had a naturally strong sensuality, Bernac could be a superb instructor. But many of his disciples came out of his schooling with a rather rigid approach to Poulenc’s songs. I always felt this was wrong. Certainly Poulenc’s sexy music shouldn’t have the starchy quality of a sex manual.

Last time I did this song, with Paul Appleby, I listened to the recording by Poulenc and Bernac. And I was thrilled to hear that Poulenc himself played the piece with flexibility and a romantic spirit. Yes, the music is always flowing and the tempo variations are gentle, but this is no metronomic reading. It is rapturous. It swoons. And so do I.

Here’s the recording:

and here is the poem:

 

Tu vois le feu du soir qui sort
de sa coquille

Et tu vois la forêt enfouis dans
sa fraîcheur

Tu vois la plaine nue aux flancs
du ciel traînard

La neige haute comme la mer

Et la mer haute dans l’azur

Pierres parfaites et bois doux
secours voilés

Tu vois de villes teintes de
mélancolie dorée,

Des trottoirs pleins d’excuses

Une place où la solitude a sa
statue souriante

Et l’amour une seule maison.

Tu vois les animaux sosies malins sacrifiés l’un à l’autre

Frères immaculés aux ombres confondues dans un désert de sang.

Tu vois un bel enfant quand il joue,
quand il rit

Il est bien plus petit que le petit
oiseau du bout des branches.

Tu vois un paysage aux saveurs
d’huile et d’eau

D’où la roche est exclue où la terre abandonne sa verdure

À l’été qui le couvre de fruits

Des femmes descendant de leur
miroir ancien

T’apportent leur jeunesse et leur
foi en la tienne

Et l’une sa clarté la voile
qui t’entraîne

Te fait secrètement voir le monde
sans toi.

 

You see the fire of the evening
as it leaves its shell

And you see the forest nestled in its
cool atmosphere

You see the naked plain in the flanks
of the laggard sky

The snow high as the sea

The sea reaching high into the azure sky

Perfect rocks and sweet woods
veiled assistance

You see cities tinted with golden
melancholy

Sidewalks filled with excuses

A square where solitude has its
smiling statue

And love has a single house.

You see wicked animals sacrificed,
one for another,

Immaculate brothers, their shadows muddled in a desert of blood.

You see a beautiful child when he plays, when he laughs

He is so much smaller than the little
bird on the end of the branches.

You see a landscape scented with
oil and water

Eradicated of boulders, where the
earth gives up its green bounty

To the summer that covers it with fruit

Women descending from their
ancient mirror

Bring you their youth and their
faith in you

And one, her radiance the veil
that swaths you

Makes you see, secretly, the world
without you.

 

Francis Poulenc: Priez pour paix

The transformative world of Francis Poulenc’s music lends itself well to any song recital program. Two seasons ago, after graduating from Juilliard, I chose to add “Priez Pour Paix” on a recital program I had concocted with pianist Peter Dugan for our first professional tour together. This program is called A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song. It is designed to commemorate the centennial of WWI by illuminating the lives, music and poetry of many composers who lived, fought and died during the Great War. Our program begins with music from England and Germany, after the intermission it moves through to France and America; representing some of the countries who were involved in the conflict. Many of the composers on the program, like George Butterworth and Carl Orff, fought in the war and saw battle, with the talented Butterworth losing his life to a sniper’s bullet. Poulenc, however, was only 15 years old at the outbreak of the war. Although young, from January 1918 to January 1921, Poulenc was a conscript in the French army in the last months of WWI and the immediate post-war period.

In the context of a program such as A Silent Night, “Priez Pour Paix” serves the purpose for which it was originally intended: to offer a moment of prayer and solace to those who have been affected and disturbed by the unending wage of war. The five lines of text are taken from a fifty line french ballad by a medieval prisoner of war. Poulenc spotted the poem on September 29th, 1938, at the outset of WWII in Le Figaro, a french magazine during the time. The five lines were perfect for Poulenc’s purposes and work flawlessly in the context of his haunting melody. There is no word or note out of place in this perfectly simple and powerful song.

Here is a video of pianist Peter Dugan and myself performing “Priez Pour Paix.” Our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song will be completed hopefully by the end of this year. It is our hope that many people will hear the music of these great composers and be transported to a time when music and poetry carried a strong message full of history and depth of soul, encouraging listeners to remember those who have been affected by this unceasing, unending force against humanity and nature.

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org