Hugh Keyte’s full CD notes

These have an extended commentary on Daniel-Lesur’s ‘Le cantique des cantiques’, and footnotes that we couldn’t fit into a CD booklet.

Pleasure: no nation does it quite like the French. In drama, in literature, in the concert hall, at table or in bed, a prime concern is always a proper gratification of the senses, which is regarded as bon pour la santé. Yet this – dubbed le paradoxe français by staid Anglo-Saxons – is not the whole story. The French are also addicted to intellectual debate, and their pleasures have always had a cerebral underpinning, often of fiercely partisan ideas and political commitments that shape and define them. Anyone might expatiate on the culinary delights of cooked partridge, but only a French intellectual would take it upon himself to specify which leg is the more delicious, and why – as Jean Françaix does in his Ode à la gastronomie (No. 3 in our recording). And only a Frenchman (Swiss-born in this case, but long domiciled in Paris) would think to enshrine such aperçus within a jokey musical construct that is nonetheless a thing of ear-tickling sensuality.

Inspired by Françaix’s example, our recording is designed as a sumptuous musical banquet, carefully crafted so that each course is both a delight in itself and a calculated foil to the one that it succeeds. A simple Poulenc song for voice and piano acts as a preliminary amuse-bouche (or amuse-gueule, as the French would more likely put it), the text a single elusive stanza by Apollinaire, the ‘father of surrealism’. Two sizeable choral works provide substantial feasts for the ear: Daniel-Lesur’s deeply religious Le cantique des cantiques and Françaix’s wickedly epicurean gastronomic extravaganza. Two cycles by Poulenc contribute his idiosyncratic brand of virile choral asceticism in settings of ‘difficult’ and subtly erotic surrealist verse; and two songs by Milhaud for vocal quartet add another heady flavour to the mix. Functioning as palate-clearing inter-course water ices are three of Satie’s Gnossiennes for solo piano, beneath the limpid surface simplicity of which lurks what a musical wine buff might identify as disturbing undernotes of plangent Rosicrucian spirituality. And to round off the banquet in the proper manner (the coffee and liqueurs, perhaps) we have a pure jeu d’ésprit, Roderick Williams’s specially commissioned arrangement for piano and voices of the much-loved slow movement of a Ravel piano concerto.

Paris between 1889 and 1952 (the parameters of our chosen works) laid claim to be the centre of the artistic universe. At once a melting-pot and a magnet, it drew to itself painters, poets, composers, dramatists and prose writers, all subsisting in a vortex of philosophical interaction within a café society in which revolutionary ideas were not merely discussed (endlessly) but put into practice. Rejecting both the academic bias of the previous century and the etiolated sensuality that had characterised the decadent movement of its later decades,1 they espoused every kind of artistic freedom and created a dizzying succession of new movements, each one breaking impatiently with established convention: the right-brain bias of the Enlightenment and the constraints that kept the excesses of the Romantics within bounds had given way to left-brain reliance on instinct, on the subconscious, on easy-going eroticism; even (in literature, occasionally) on automatic writing. The random, the grotesque and the irrational were deliberately embraced. Dada; cubism; abstract art; surrealism; futurism: each of these movements had an idealistic side and all were seen as justified reaction against the wars and civil conflicts that had afflicted 19th-century Europe (France above all) and in particular the culminating catastrophe of the First World War, into which the nations were believed to have been led blindfold by the rigid policies of right-brain dominated politicians. Surrealism in particular became ever more of a political movement, embracing both anarchism and communism, with artists convinced that their rejection of the old ways of thinking could lead – via seductive pleasuring of eye and ear – to a transformation of society.

At the very centre of the Parisian artistic ferment was the aptly-named Guillaume Apollinaire 2, whose poem ‘Hôtel’ was set by Francis Poulenc as part of the 1940 cycle that he teasingly entitled Banalités. On the most literal level, the poet here presents himself as indolent, sensual, intent only on tobacco-induced fantasies. But the languor and the randomly spreading smoke may also stand for the mental free association that lay behind both dada and surrealism, its much more influential successor. Surrealism (the name was Apollinaire’s invention) had grown out of dada around 1920. To begin with it was a purely literary movement. Foremost among the surrealist poets was Paul Éluard, and settings of poems by Apollinaire and Éluard are prominent in the present recording.

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In painting, the new freedom was midwife to cubism, abstract art and futurism, though it was some time before full-blown visual surrealism evolved, with the mind-bending juxtapositions and hyper-realist, Bosch-like creations of figures like Magritte and Dali. Music stood always at an oblique angle to surrealism, yet it, too, had cast loose from the old academic constraints in Debussy’s espousal of impressionistic, non-rational harmonies, while at the other extreme Satie drew on cabaret songs and faux-naïf, 3 essentially diatonic melody in pursuit of crystalline simplicity. And it is Satie’s music, arguably, that is most immaculately dadaesque – in that it resists rational analysis. 4 For example, his intriguing little falso-bordone chant, ostensibly for the psalm Dixit Dominus, defeats any attempt to pin it down for practical use. Nor are his Trois morçeaux en forme de poire in any sense pear-shaped: the title is both a joke and a device for deflecting pedantic right-brain categorization. In his art, as in his life, Satie was unrelenting in the pursuit of (in Christopher Isherwood’s phrase) the cult of romantic strangeness; and a calculated obscurantism and childlike innocence5 were equally assiduously cultivated.

As for the three Gnossiennes (nos. 4 – 6) that punctuate the choral numbers on our recording, just what is a gnossienne? Nobody knows. There may be a Rosicrucian reference here6; or Satie may have been thinking of the Theseus legend and the great Cretan palace of Knossos (parts of which Sir Arthur Evans would soon begin restoring to its supposed Bronze Age splendour). It may even have derived from a couplet in Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid.7

Perhaps Satie conceived his gnossiennes as slow, hieratic dances – ancient Cretan dances, maybe? But his intentions remain as gnomic as the musical style: free-ranging right-hand melodies against deliberately unassuming arpeggiated left-hand harmonies. Nos. 1 – 3 were published in magazines in 1893 but had probably been composed in 1890. Nos. 4 – 6 remained in manuscript until the 1960s, long after Satie’s death, and the designation gnossiennes is editorial – though convincing. They date respectively from 1891, 1889 and 1897. No. 4 is headed Lent, No. 5 Modéré, No. 6 (more revealingly) Avec conviction et avec une tristesse rigoreuse – ‘tristesse’ (sadness) is perhaps the key to all six of these strange, otherworldly pieces.

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Jean Françaix’s twelve-part Ode à la gastronomie is scored for SSSAAATTTBBB a cappella choir. It’s a vast Gallic giggle that reflects the subversive side of surrealism, the text wickedly adapted, glossed and expanded by the composer from a revered classic of French gastronomic writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s La physiologie du goût (1825). Savarin was writing at the period when aristocratic French cuisine was beginning to permeate bourgeois society. Bereft of aristocratic employment in the aftermath of the Revolution, some of the most talented chefs in the country had set up in Paris the very first high-class public restaurants, and the national obsession with food was beginning to take wing.

There’s something inescapably risible about the solemn discussion of what is essentially bodily fuel (a very Anglo-Saxon attitude, admittedly) and Françaix is fully alive to the humorous potential of the mismatch. His text is a ribald but deeply affectionate parody of Savarin, replete with sage advice addressed to all and sundry, and crammed with gleeful word-play. The work dates from 1950 and is dedicated to Dr. and Mme Canaguier, who were among the composer’s closest friends. His son Jacques has a faint memory that the idea for the work arose out of discussions with them.8

The grotesque had a near-obsessive fascination for many 20th-century composers, and it is as prominent in Françaix’s Ode as in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or the Walton-Sitwell Façade. The ‘accompanying’ voices exploit nonsense syllables, onomatopoeia, puns,9 and much else. (Kitchen noises, for example: while an alto is addressing the ‘charmante pianiste’, the tenors and basses are chanting ‘Chopin, pain chaud’.) Some of the more outrageous word-play is scarcely apparent on first hearing, as when a reiterated on-beat ‘vent’ in Altos II and III links up with off-beat ‘treu’ in the higher voices to produce ‘ventre’ (belly) – which eventually emerges from the primeval linguistic soup as a word in its own right. Much of the garbled verbiage is a kind of manic, stream-of-consciousness response to words that are clearly to be heard in another voice part, and it often imitates the chatter and clatter of a frantically busy kitchen. The Ode culminates in explicit praise of ‘noble Savarin’ and of Gastéréa, the invented tutelary goddess of ‘transcendent cuisine’ who features in the sub-title of his magnum opus: and in the closing bars all twelve voices unite to hymn her immortal glory. [See this piece in I Fagiolini’s new film here.]

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By the mid-1930s there was an inevitable reaction by some younger musicians against both the now well-established surrealist movement (its nihilistic paganism beginning to feel a little dated) and the more recent fashion for dry, unemotional neo-classicism. Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur was a composer and a leading organist (one of the three who jointly premiered his lifelong friend Olivier Messaien’s La Nativité du Seigneur). He shared Messaien’s fervent Catholicism, having been greatly influenced by his years of study under the organist, mystic and composer Charles Tournemire. As a Young Turk professor at the Schola Cantorum, Daniel-Lesur had pushed through radical reforms, and in the public sphere he had helped set up a series of progressive concerts. Then, in 1936, he joined Messiaen, André Jolivet and Yves Baudrier to form La Jeune France, a loose and refreshingly undoctrinaire confederation that sought to re-establish a more humane and less clinical form of composition.

Though successful and prolific as a composer, Daniel-Lesur never achieved the eminence of Messiaen, but one work of 1952, Le cantique des cantiques enjoyed instant and enduring popularity following its televised première by Marcel Couraud’s Ensemble Vocal. This was one of three inspired choral commissions from that phenomenally gifted choir conductor, the others being Messiaen’s Cinq rechants (1948) and Jolivet’s Epithalame (1953). Couraud stipulated that each work should have a love-song theme and be scored for SSSAAATTTBBB unaccompanied choir (the same as Françaix’s Ode, as it happens): but three very different works were the result. Messiaen explored the love-death theme of the Tristan legend. Jolivet celebrated married love. Daniel-Lesur turned to an Old Testament book, the Song of Songs, and made these ancient and notoriously sensual Hebrew wedding songs the basis of a profound meditation on what the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage service calls ‘the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’.

Daniel-Lesur was evidently steeped in the venerable Christian Neoplatonist tradition that regarded both the Hebrew scriptures and much of classical literature as the divinely inspired, but veiled, prefigurings of the explicit revelation of the New Testament. And he will have been aware of Aquinas’ scholastic definition of the four distinct ways in which all Scripture was to be interpreted, the literal being only one of them. From that viewpoint, the wedding lyrics of the Song of Songs are already prefigurings of the union of Christ and his Church, but Daniel-Lesur underlines this interpretation in all kinds of ways. He carefully distinguishes between the two beloveds. When the bridegroom is speaking, the beloved is ‘ma bien-aimée (lower-cased and feminine): when the bride speaks, the Beloved is ‘mon Bien-aimé (upper-cased and masculine).10Her words are mostly sung by the female voices, his by the men, and the alternation between the two lovers is the formal basis of the ecstatic opening Dialogue, in which interpolated alleluias (from the Church’s liturgy) ring insistently through the texture.

Ringing in similar fashion through the second movement, The Voice of the Beloved, is the Hebrew word shéma. This is the first word of a famous passage in Deuteronomy (VI.4), a commandment of Moses that is central to synagogue worship, proclaimed repeatedly by the cantor at both morning and evening services: ‘Hear, O Israel (Shema Yisrael), that the Lord (Adonai) is your God, and he alone!’ Supplemented by other biblical verses, this is revered as a prayer, one that devout Jews teach their children to recite before going to sleep at night, and traditionally uttered with their last breath by the dying. The Shema is therefore likely to have been on the lips of many of Hitler’s victims as they were herded into the gas chambers.11 Whether Daniel-Lesur was aware of this in 1952 we cannot know, though he must have had many Jewish friends in Paris, and his setting of the word shéma unmistakably recalls the oriental-sounding chanting of a synagogue cantor. But above and beyond that he is presumably thinking of the verse that follows on in Deuteronomy: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.’ Highlighted against the amorous exchanges of bride and groom, therefore, Moses’ command becomes the Voice of the Beloved: Christ urging the Church to love him unreservedly.

The third movement, The Dream, is the Church’s response to Moses’ command, and is arguably the most original of the entire work, a dark night of the soul. The Bride (alto voices, later sopranos) has the OT text. She searches desperately for her Beloved yet fails to find him, and against this we hear passionate cries of ‘Yahweh!’ and of scraps of mostly penitential Latin drawn from the liturgy – tags that would have been familiar to an educated Catholic in the 1950s. The Bride here stands for sinful Christian humanity – the Church – and the overlapping texts and fractured textures evoke the anguish of the guilt-ridden soul seeking absolution. There is final resolution of a kind, as she quietly bids the Daughters of Jerusalem not to wake her Beloved. Taken literally, she now looks calmly forward to her marriage: read as allegory, she has won through to the conviction that her sins will be forgiven.

The fourth movement, King Solomon, is a celebration of Christ the King – Christ in the symbolic guise of Solomon, that is. Like his father, David, Solomon was one of the prime Old-Testament ‘types’ (or mystical forerunners) of Christ: both Solomon and Christ were, in the most literal sense, Sons of David. The Song of Songs is also known as the Song of Solomon, but his connection with the book remains obscure. It certainly dates from some time after his reign, but the poets may have been affecting to write in celebration of his marriage; or parts of the book may even have survived from the time of his wedding and been reworked and incorporated.

In this movement a single liturgical tag is added to the Old-Testament text: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, the acclamation of the crowd as Christ entered Jerusalem in triumph on the first Palm Sunday. We hear this twice, solemnly sung by the basses to the plainsong to which it is chanted as an antiphon during the blessing of palms before the annual pre-Mass outdoor procession on Palm Sunday. Above this the upper voices have the OT text, celebrating the bridegroom as he approaches in the guise of Solomon in all his glory, borne on a royal litter. But – amazingly – the twelve biblical phrases are not sung consecutively but simultaneously. Listeners cannot possibly disentangle or make sense of them, and nor are they meant to do so. What is being evoked is the clamorous excitement of the original Palm Sunday crowd. Not for nothing was Daniel-Lesur a professor at the Schola Cantorum, the institution that had pioneered the performance and scholarly study of early music. Here he is reviving an ancient technique of juxtaposing different texts, each with its distinctive music: inspired, surely, by those fourteenth-century motets in which two, or even three, quite different texts are sung (or, at least, may be sung) simultaneously. The idiom, however, is not antiquarian but modern, in the freely dissonant but basically diatonic manner that Daniel-Lesur cultivated.

In No. III (The Dream), the distracted bride sought her beloved. In No. IV (King Solomon), he came to her in his unveiled glory. Now, in No. V, The Enclosed Garden, he woos her in poetry of the most refined sensuality. His words are taken, as always, by the male voices, with the women responding as his bride with swooning untexted melismas on an open vowel. Eventually all twelve voices unite as the Chorus (the third protagonist in the drama, here as elsewhere), summoning the bride to her coronation by her Beloved. Is this a preliminary to her wedding? So shattering is the climax that it is surely to be read as the allegorical foretaste of the physical consummation towards which the entire work (like the entire biblical book) has been moving. The rapture over, the movement subsides in post-coital calm as the groom hails his bride as herself an enclosed garden (the perfection of womanly beauty, in which he alone may disport himself) and she looks longingly forward to their now-imminent union.

All this is redolent of the kind of untrammelled eroticism to be found in some of the secular works of Messiaen, but here all is religious allegory. The word ‘paradise’ derives from the Persian for ‘garden’, and in the present context an enclosed garden can only be the Garden of Eden. In the Christian tradition, Christ is the New Adam, the Virgin Mary the New Eve. (The ‘Ave’ with which the archangel Gabriel greeted her at the Annunciation was a reversal of ‘Eva’, the Latin form of Eve, just as her bearing of the Redeemer would reverse the primal curse which Eve’s sin of proffering and eating the forbidden fruit had brought down upon all mankind.) One of the traditional titles of Mary is Mater Ecclesiae12 (Mother of the Church), and it is not too fanciful to see this subtly-perfumed movement in terms of an infinite recession of reflecting mirrors: the groom and bride are Christ and the Church, are Solomon and his bride (though which of the many is not specified), are Christ and his Mother – and in the following movement the bride will have a further symbolic incarnation, as Abishag, who slept with King David. But all this shifting allegory is the rich, endlessly allusive underpinning to Daniel-Lesur’s overriding theme of the mystical union betwixt Christ and his Church.

The text of No. VI, The Shulamite, is taken entirely from the Song of Songs, with no interpolations from the liturgy. The Shulamite is generally taken to be Abishag, a young woman of surpassing beauty from the village of Shunem who was requisitioned (I Kings I.2-4) to lie with the aged and enfeebled King David in an attempt to reignite his dormant virility. A king’s potency was still at this period associated with the fertility of the soil, and an impotent king was therefore unthinkable. David’s failure to have sexual intercourse with the Shulamite was taken as a sign that his reign was over, and amid the ensuing scramble for succession David arranged for his son Solomon to be anointed king in his stead (I Kings I 28ff). None of this is alluded to in the Song of Songs, naturally, where the maid from Shulem is merely a paragon of female beauty with whom the female beloved is symbolically identified.

One particular passage must have been set to music more than any other in the entire biblical book: ‘Return, return, O maid of Shulam; return, return that we may gaze upon thee!’.13 But Daniel-Lesur omits all but the opening ‘Return, return!’ and concentrates on the following verse, drawing upon some of the ripest and most evocative passages in the entire Bible (and entirely omitting any mention of polyphiloprogenitive David). Commentators on this movement generally attribute the ‘Return, return!’ to the Chorus and what follows (‘Why do you look upon the Shulamite, dancing as in a double choir?’) to the bridegroom, but in fact Daniel-Lesur divides the text between bride, groom and chorus according to a scheme of his own that is, for once, deliberately non-rational. All is luxury and voluptuous delight in the flesh, preparing the way for the mystic marriage that will be achieved in next movement.

In this final Epithalium (Marriage Song) the love of bride and groom – of Church and Christ – reaches its longed-for consummation, and here the two interpolated Latin tags are entirely joyful. Once again Alleluias ring through the texture, this time from the conclusion of a Latin antiphon from the liturgy for the feast of a church’s consecration. This and a hymn to the Heavenly City are sung to their traditional plainchant melodies – which are at one point cunningly combined. The glorious poetry of the conclusion of the biblical book (‘Set me as a seal upon thy heart…. Love is strong as death…’) is set as an ecstatic wedding song during which the New Jerusalem (that is, the Church) is to be visualised as descending, arrayed like a bride, as in the Book of Revelation.

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Francis Poulenc was largely self-taught, though at one stage he (bravely?) undertook a course of study with Satie. His enormous musical output reflects the two sharply contrasted sides of his character, the one witty and hedonistic, the other deeply serious, with a vein of Catholic spirituality increasingly dominating his later works in the wake of a series of personal tragedies. In his songs, many of them composed for performance with the doyen of contemporary French singers, Pierre Bernac, his great gift was for mirroring the shifting and often elusive emotions of his carefully chosen texts in lyrical lines of inspired simplicity; and the accompaniments, he claimed, contained his best piano writing. No less accomplished are his many choral settings, those for unaccompanied choir encompassing both sacred Latin texts and the verses of the most ‘advanced’ of his literary contemporaries.

His Sept chansons of 1936, for four-part choir, set poems by two of his most favoured writers, Apollinaire and Pierre Éluard. They were composed immediately after Poulenc had attended a concert of madrigals and motets by Monteverdi, and are dedicated ‘with deep affection’ to André and Suzanne Latarjet. André was a prominent and innovative surgeon. He and his wife were friendly with many of the best-known poets, painters and musicians of the time, and they played a leading part in the artistic life of Lyons – hence, presumably, the additional admiring dedication to the ‘chanteurs de Lyon’. 14

In his Latin settings Poulenc revives a kind of traditional French word-setting (it had received its supposedly final coup de grâce by government statute during the Revolutionary period) in which the musical and poetic stresses are deliberately and fruitfully at odds. Historically, this was a feature only of secular vocal music, so it is strange that Poulenc does not apply the technique to his vernacular settings. Here, as in his voice-and-piano songs, a limpid simplicity of texture and line is allied to a scrupulous reflection of the verbal stresses.

No. 1, La blanche neige, sets Apollinaire in a series of evocations of snow: an officer, a chef plucking a white goose’s feathers.  It finishes with a delicious rhyme:

Le cuisinier plume les oies [the cook plucks the geese
Ah! tombe neige [Ah, fall snow
Tombe et que n’ai-je [fall and if only I had
Ma bien-aimée entre mes bras. [my beloved in my arms.

 

No. 2, A peine défigurée, sets one of Éluard’s best-known poems – its second line formed the title of a short novel by the teenaged Françoise Sagan that achieved a brief international celebrity in the 1950s.15 The poet lies on his back upon his bed, his emotions fluctuating rapidly (‘Adieu… bonjour, tristesse!’) as he reflects on the pleasures and pains of love. Poulenc’s setting adroitly matches the abrupt vacillations and poignant stops-and-starts of the verse.

No. 3, Par une nuit nouvelle, sets another Éluard poem of intense erotic longing.

No.4, Tous les droits (Éluard again) is all about erotic obsession. A succession of surrealist images – spring flowers, Eskimo night, autumnal grief, the scent of roses, the sting of nettles – seem somehow stretched out like transparent cloths within the beloved’s eyes, which are without secrets, limitless: her very soul is there laid bare. (Like so many poets, Éluard was fascinated by eyes.)

In No. 5, Belle et ressemblante, Éluard is haunted by a beautiful face, which sets off a succession of images in his mind. Originally for voice and piano, this was the first of the seven settings that Poulenc made.

No. 6, Marie, sets verses by Apollinaire, suffused with an old man’s longing for a long-lost love whom he once saw dancing as a young girl – hence the ‘la-la-la’ with which Poulenc accompanies his musings almost throughout.

No. 7, Luire, returns to Éluard at his most elusive. The poem seems to be set at around dawn. The globe of the Earth hangs heavy on the shoulders of Atlas, but his burden will lighten as the day progresses, the sun shines, and the flowers open: an allegory of human life, perhaps, which Poulenc sets as a triumphant affirmation.

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Darius Milhaud was a fellow member (with Poulenc) of Les Six. This was not so much a true musical pressure group as a combination of names of young radicals that had been – to an extent – drawn from a hat by a musical journalist for a magazine article of 1920. Most of the members slightly resented the invention, but the name stuck.

Milhaud was one of those composers (Shostakovich was another) from whose pen music poured forth as at the turn of a tap. Not all was of the same quality, but at his best Milhaud had few rivals. He was particularly attracted by jazz: Dave Brubeck was his pupil, and his jazz-influenced ballet La création du monde has retained its place in the concert repertoire. Milhaud’s Deux poèmes for vocal quartet were published in 1923 (though composed rather earlier) and are dedicated to the Marquise Yvonne de Casa-Fuerte, a violinist friend of both Poulenc and Milhaud who had married into the Spanish aristocracy. They have not previously been recorded.

The verse is by two decidedly bardic contemporary poets. Éloge V is by Saint-John16 Perse (1887-1975), the literary nom de plume of the poet-diplomat who (confusingly) went by the name of Alexis Leger in political circles and in private life as (Marie-René Alexis) Saint-Leger Leger. He worked as a senior diplomat till exiled to Washington during the German occupation. After his return to France in 1957 poetry flowed unstoppably from his pen, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1960. Perse had been born in Guadaloupe, in the West Indies, and though the family moved to France when he was two years old, memories of those distant sun-baked shores retained a powerful tug on his imagination ever afterwards. His Eulogy evokes an imagined Guadaloupe, all sunshine, love, softness and calm. Milhaud’s setting of 1916 rises to an impassioned, elegiac climax, in which the lower three voices are set against the soprano’s final lines with a reprise of the earlier ‘Enfance, mon amour!’

In stark contrast – at least at first – is Le brick (The brig), which dates from 1919 and sets a rather fey poem by René Chalupt. The brig of the title, a two-masted sailing boat seen passing on the horizon, is perhaps an image of the ephemeral. It plays a minor part in the poem, which begins as a tongue-in-cheek account of saucy goings-on on another far-distant island, Montserrat; but there is a hint of menace in the later stanzas, which is mirrored in Milhaud’s setting.

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Poulenc’s Un soir de neige is a ‘little chamber cantata’ of 1944 for SSATBarB a cappella choir or soloists. It again sets verses by Éluard, and is a masterly poetic and musical expression of the kind of bleakness and desolation that we associate with T S Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The dedication is to the soprano Marie-Blanche (?1898-1958), wife of Comte Jean de Polignac and a singer in Nadia Boulanger’s celebrated vocal and instrumental ensemble that made mould-breaking recordings of Monteverdi madrigals in 1937.17 Poulenc first met her in 1918 and she became a close friend, the dedicatee of fourteen of his songs and two piano pieces as well as the present work.18

Le feu is ironically titled: as the last line states, ‘we have no fire’. Trees, rocks, streams all have their place in the natural scheme of things but we, mere humans, find ourselves helplessly snowbound and bereft of life-preserving warmth in an alien woodland at night.

Un loup is about death: dead branches on the trees; animals hunted to death by the pitiless wolves; and even the handsome pack-leader wolf must eventually face his own violent demise as a rival supplants him.

In Derniers instants the poet identifies ever more closely with the mortality that surrounds him in the frozen nocturnal forest.

However Éluard intended Du dehors, Poulenc sets this final poem as a desparate cry for help from a soul locked inescapably in a frozen dreamscape.

This cantata is a strangely nihilistic work for someone whose Christian faith had been reawakened in the later 1930s and who had bravely defied the Nazi authorities in several works composed during the German occupation of Paris – most notably in the massive double-choir a cappella settings of eight Éluard poems, Figure humaine, with its overwhelming cries of ‘Liberté!’19 Perhaps the nihilism had something to do with the extreme hostility that Poulenc felt for the Germanic twelve-note system that was being ever more stridently promulgated by its French converts as the only future path for music. To Poulenc it meant the death of all he believed in, musically, and he derided it as ‘desert, stone soup [a splendidly surrealist image!], ersatz music, poetic vitamins’20– so making a life-long enemy of the young Pierre Boulez.

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Problem: how to finish off a musical banquet of which two courses have required serious input from the digestive juices? Milhaud might have been expected to come up with something suitably feather-light and jazzy, but didn’t. The sublime Mozartian ease of the Adagio assai slow movement of Ravel’s G major piano concerto would fill the bill admirably – if only we had a symphony orchestra on hand. We haven’t, so have commissioned the multi-talented Roderick Williams to arrange the movement for piano and choir, assembling a montage of appropriate French texts for the choir to sing.

The concerto was composed between 1929 and 1931, the opening theme famously coming to Ravel as he travelled by train between Oxford and London (home territory for I Fagiolini!). Touring the United States as a solo pianist, he had been fascinated by the rhythmic potentialities of jazz idioms, and was amazed that so few American composers had exploited this rich seam of native artistry. But the jazz element is less present in the languorous slow movement, which Ravel struggled to lick into shape.  Marguerite Long, the dedicatee of the concerto who gave its première in January 1932, enthused to him about the lengthy, seemingly effortless opening melody. ‘That flowing phrase!’ was Ravel’s response. ‘How I worked over it, bar by bar! It nearly killed me!’

Copyright © Hugh Keyte 2016

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  1. The Decadent movement is generally reckoned to have ceased abruptly throughout Europe following the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, but two recent studies suggest that, at least in literature, it actually went underground and had a major formative influence on Modernism. See Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (CUP 2014) and Kristin Mahoney, Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence (CUP 2015)

  2. Born out of wedlock to a French mother in Rome, he experimented in his later teens with three different names within the space of as many months, one of them Guillaume Macabre. His eventual choice Gallicised the first and fourth of his birth names, Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki. This approximated to the name of his Polish maternal grandfather, but the hint of a connection with Apollo, god of all the creative Arts, must have played a part in the final selection: and he did indeed fashion himself into a kind of macabre Apollo.

  3. Or was the naivety genuine? Might autism conceivably have played a part?

  4. ‘The pronouncement that “Dada was nothing, ie everything” opened up the world beyond the strictures of intellect.’  – Alfred Brendel, interview in The Guardian, 29 Jan 2016.

  5. Satie’s Parade of 1916–17 is (retrospectively) reckoned to be one of the first examples of fully fledged dada, and it is no accident that the word ‘dada’, long used to denote an obsession or idée fixe, derived from the child’s word (like the English ‘gee-gee’) for a horse or, particularly, hobby-horse. Had he known it, Satie would surely have approved of the final lines of George Herbert’s poem Holy Baptism:

    The growth of flesh is but a blister:/Childhood is health.

  6. Satie adhered faithfully to the tenets of then-fashionable Rosicrucianism, ‘a philosophical secret society said to have been founded in late-medieval Germany by Christian Rosenkreuz. It holds a doctrine or theology “built on esoteric truths of the ancient past”, which, “concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.” Rosicrucianism is symbolized by the Rosy Cross or Rose Cross.’ (Wikipedia).

  7. Let us the land which Heav’n appoints, explore,
    Appease the winds, and seek the Gnossian shore.
    (Book III, lines 153-4)

  8. Email exchanges with Robert Hollingworth, September 2015

  9. The French are at least as adept at puns as were the Elizabethans. Take Le boeuf sur le toît, for instance, the classy-but-louche Montmartre restaurant which was frequented by so many of the musicians and poets featured on this recording. English commentators ritually cite the South-American precedent for the name, and chortle over the fact that a live ox was marooned on the roof on opening night, but never do we learn that the restaurant’s name is a punning play on the standard French for a fried egg, ‘un oeuf sur le plat’. (It’s as though a swish Chelsea eatery were to call itself The Sleazy Goon.)

  10. So vital is this distinction to a proper appreciation of the Ode that in the texts and translations we have carefully distinguished between sections for Christ, the groom (Roman typeface), sections for the Church, his bride (Roman, indented), sections sung by full choir (italic) and portions of text sung simultaneously or hidden within the texture (bracketed). (An equally proper way to listen to the work is, of course, simply to let it all wash over one – as the original television audience must inevitably have done.)

    The distinction is obscured by egregious errors in both the printed score and in all existing CD notes and concert programmes that we have seen, but is reflected with the greatest care in the scoring, the words of the bride being assigned to the six female voices, those of the groom to the six men – only occasionally do all twelve voices combine for certain key passages. It is precisely because of the composer’s care in this respect that our texts and translations use typography, brackets and so on to make clear which voices carry which portions of the text.

    As for the many interpolated Latin tags (from the Catholic liturgy: a kind of neo-medieval glossing of the sacred text), these are freely distributed among the twelve voices, and we have diligently footnoted each one: not because every listener will feel the need to know that (for example) two Latin words are the opening of a particular antiphon for feasts of virgin saints, but because the monkish devotion with which Daniel-Lesur has devised his multi-layered construct merits a corresponding devotion on the part of commentators – something that it has most signally failed to elicit to date.

  11. Telephone conversation with Joseph Rochlitz, September 2015.

  12. When Benedict XVI stood down from the pontificate it was to the Mater Ecclesiae convent in the grounds of Vatican City that he retired.

  13. Grieg set it in Norwegian, but in French it is irresistibly poetic: ‘Reviens, reviens, La Sulamite, reviens, reviens!’ (The cry is echoed – surely deliberately? – in the opening of Théophile Gautier’s poem Absence, as memorably set by Berlioz in his song-cycle Les nuits d’été.)

  14. Were they a local choir that gave the first performance? Or was it the choir that sang the Monteverdi concert that Poulenc attended? In either case, they are not to be confused with the famous boys’ choir, founded in the 1980s, Les petits chanteurs de Lyon.

  15. Both the book and the subsequent film have recently been the subject of renewed interest.

  16. Presumably pronounced ‘sinjon’

  17. The recordings have been criticised for the use of piano continuo, but they were made when the ensemble found itself becalmed on board a Cunarder for some days when returning from a successful US tour, with Nadia’s harpsichord inaccessibly stowed away in the ship’s bowels.

  18. She is not to be confused with Marie Blanche Vasnier, beloved of Debussy and dedicatee of a number of his songs; nor, indeed, with the glamorous Scarborough-born stage and silent-film actress Marie Blanche (née Peacock, b. 1893). We are most grateful to Roger Nichols for enlightening us on this and a number of other matters.

  19. So openly defiant was it that the eventual first performance was not in Belgium, as intended, but broadcast from a BBC studio in England in March 1945.

  20. ‘Vitamins’ presumably refers to vitamin tablets, an unnatural and not necessarily effective adjunct to an unhealthy diet.

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