Poulenc: Tu vois le feu du soir

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Song of the Day

Published May 17, 2017

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

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.


author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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