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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

Danny Boy, sung by John Brancy

Steve Blier introduced me to the 19 yr. old John Brancy ( a Juilliard underclassman) about a decade ago. Since then, we’ve helped, and watched “Brancy” (he’s become a one-name star) go from success to success. Most recently, he won a number of prizes in the biggest competition I know of—in Montreal, including the 1st place art song award. I’m amazed, with all the focus on opera, that such a thing even exists. Brancy is going through a rapid transition from “emerging” star to just being a star. Here he is four years ago (!) singing “Danny Boy.” If you have a little imagination, use it to wonder what he sounds like now. His partner at the piano is Peter Dugan, who is a star in his own right. Their recent recital at Alice Tully Hall (or whomever has the naming rights) was searing and breathtaking in its depth and artistic gravity. So here’s to Brancy and Dugan. Long may you boys wave.

Danny Boy

Arguably the most well known song ever, Danny Boy has swiftly become a very favorite of mine since I became intimately acquainted with it a few seasons ago. I mentioned in a previous post that pianist Peter Dugan and I will be launching our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song this year. When we were first thinking of concepts for how to organize the program, we knew we wanted it to end with something memorable, powerful and original (to a degree). Peter came to me with his arrangement of “Danny Boy”, which I truly feel is the best piano-vocal version out there. Just to back up that claim, we have been asked many times if the arrangement is available for purchase. We have even been asked by pianist Julius Drake for a copy as well—don’t worry a copy is on its way soon!

Instead of going too far into the depth of the story and the origin of the song. I feel like this one really speaks for itself, and this arrangement gets right to the heart of what the song is all about.

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.

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