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The Hyperion French Song Edition

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

The Complete Songs

Graham Johnson (piano)
4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: October 2013
Total duration: 313 minutes 39 seconds

Graham Johnson is simply the greatest living authority on French song; an artist whose innate feeling for the music is combined with prodigious scholarship. He also has the ability to discover and nurture singers who here prove to be matchless performers of this repertoire.

Following his many wonderful recordings in Hyperion’s French Song Edition, Johnson turns to the complete songs of Francis Poulenc, released also to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Each of the four CDs presents a programme of songs in an order that is chronological for that disc alone—signifying four different journeys through the composer’s career. Disc 1 features a substantial appearance, recorded in 1977, of Pierre Bernac (Poulenc’s long-term collaborator)—narrating L’histoire de Babar, a story known to children throughout the world. The singers include Dame Felicity Lott, acclaimed as one of the foremost performers of Poulenc, and many other stars from previous recordings.


‘Johnson's playing is marvellous, virtuosic where needed, but above all attuned to every nuance of his singers. This really is a multifaceted release: the blending of the art forms that was characteristic of Poulenc's time, where poets were absorbed by painters, and composers by poets, alongside the 15 singers gathered on these discs, together with the chameleon-like nature of Poulenc's own genius, all make for an enterprise of dazzling complexity. The recording quality is exemplary, combining clarity with a perfect bloom on the piano sound’ (International Record Review)

‘There are some outstanding performances: Christopher Maltman's account of Miroirs brûlants and La fraîcheur et le feu (both based on Eluard), and the Calligrammes (on Apollinaire's texts) are worth the price on their own, while Sarah Fox is just as persuasive in Les chemins de l'amour as she is in Tel jour telle nuit. There are telling contributions, too, from Ailish Tynan, Susan Bickley and Ben Johnson, and a brief appearance in the Quatre chansons pour enfants by the English grande dame of French song Felicity Lott. Touchingly, one work also features the voice of baritone Pierre Bernac, Poulenc's recital partner, for whom many of the songs were composed; he's the narrator in a 1977 recording of L'histoire de Babar and the whole set is dedicated to his memory. It's a gorgeous collection, and for sometime Poulenc sceptics like me, a real revelation’ (The Guardian)» More

‘Especially enjoyable is the final disc, subtitled Fancy. Soprano Susan Bickley is superb in Poulenc’s early Poèmes de Ronsard—sparky settings of Renaissance poetry, and Ashley Riches has fun with the better-known Chansons gaillardes. The Huit chansons polonaises, sung by Agnieszka Adamczak, pay oblique homage to Poulenc’s beloved Chopin. There’s not a weak link among the vocal cast, and there’s even a cameo from the great Felicity Lott. A wonderful bonus is the inclusion of a 1970s BBC taping of Babar, narrated with impeccable grace and wit by Poulenc’s long-time recital partner Pierre Bernac. Johnson’s accessible, comprehensive notes deserve to be published in book form, and Hyperion generously provide full texts and translations. These songs will comfort the most jaded of palates, and this box set contains enough riches to sustain a lifetime’s listening. In Johnson’s words, Poulenc’s music 'has seemed dark and joyous, accessible and remote, imperishable yet infinitely fragile, and now it is in the hands of a younger generation’ (TheArtsDesk.com)

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The mélodies of Poulenc have been recorded complete at least three times before, and they have been presented either in chronological order, or in separate programmes with one disc issued at a time. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Poulenc’s death the Hyperion Poulenc Edition is issued as a complete set, but not in chronological order. Instead, each of the four discs presents a programme of songs in an order that is chronological for that disc alone—signifying four different journeys through the composer’s career. Of course the pros and cons of a straightforward chronology across the entire set were carefully considered. If the listener had the time to listen in a single sitting to four or five discs arranged in such an historically accurate way we could trace a mighty crescendo followed by a gentle diminuendo, the early songs from 1918 and the ’20s leading to the great masterpieces bunched together between the years 1936 and 1948, and then a gradual unwinding, full of distinguished music but a decrescendo nevertheless, through the ’50s to the early ’60s. There is a biographical poignancy in this messa di voce of mélodies, certainly, but the piling on of a dizzying juxtaposition of songs, particularly in that amazingly fecund middle period, is an embarras de richesses that does little to help the listener discern the separate paths that Poulenc, a mercurial and Protean artist, followed in his career. Like many great song composers he tended carefully to isolate different strands of his creative (as well as his private) personality as if he were one of those authors capable of working on four novels at once, advancing each of them in turn, a chapter at a time, rather than concentrating on one book and finishing it. How typical this is of a man of many parts: Poulenc the sybarite and epicurean in love with the austerity of Rocamadour and its Black Virgin; the homosexual man who fathered a daughter at the age of forty-seven; the life and soul of the party who was also a depressive; the rich boy from the Right Bank who chose to live on the Left and had tender affection for working-class Paris; the composer equally devoted to Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard, two different worlds of poetry, with a different way of setting each of them to music.

Accordingly, the Hyperion Edition is arranged in four separate, self-sufficient programmes. These four discs can be listened to in any order; the sequence proposed here is only a personal suggestion. Disc 1 features a substantial appearance, recorded in 1977, of Pierre Bernac—narrating rather than singing. It is to his memory that this Intégrale des mélodies is affectionately and gratefully dedicated.

Throughout these notes the composer’s own opinions of his songs are quoted from a small notebook he kept as a kind of diary. This Journal de mes Mélodies (abbreviated to here as JdmM) was posthumously published in 1964. A bilingual English edition translated by Winifred Radford appeared in 1985. The FP numbers are taken from The Music of Francis Poulenc: A Catalogue (1995) by Carl B Schmidt.

Compact Disc 1 — Métamorphoses (Songs 1931–1963)
Women and children first! This disc is an anthology of feminine verse and childlike wonder. Settings by female poets are heard alongside songs for and about children from the beginning and end of Poulenc’s career. Pierre Bernac, a tutelary spirit for all students of French song, narrates a performance of Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant, a story known to children throughout the world. In a BBC recording from 1977, Bernac, then aged seventy-eight, commands a range of colour and depth of nuance with his speaking voice that recall his own matchless singing of this repertoire.

The disc begins with a set of three songs to which the renowned painter Marie Laurencin contributes the first and last of the poems; she was the mistress of Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote the middle poem himself. We also hear three sets of songs by Poulenc’s beloved Louise de Vilmorin, a single song to a poem by Colette, and one by the female poet Laurence de Beylié. Apart from the song Mazurka, a Vilmorin setting for bass that is included on disc 4, this represents Poulenc’s entire output of settings by female poets. Children are represented in four songs from 1934 in the music-hall tradition, and by Babar which the composer specifically dedicated to nine of his named younger relatives. The songs from Poulenc’s final cycle, La courte paille, are addressed to children, although the poems themselves are by a male poet.

Poulenc was a homosexual man who adored women: Louise de Vilmorin and Marie-Blanche de Polignac, names that feature on this disc, both lifelong friends, were the kind of good-looking, glamorous women that Poulenc found irresistible. As a young man he had hoped to marry his childhood friend Raymonde Linossier, but she turned him down and died soon afterwards, leaving him desperately unhappy. During his life he had important relationships with men (Richard Chanlaire, Raymond Destouches, Lucien Roubert, Louis Gautier) as well as other more fleeting attachments. He first met Pierre Bernac as a colleague in 1926 but the pair, very different personalities in fact, fell out over the scabrous texts of Chansons gaillardes. They met again in 1934 and became the most devoted of musical partners and confidants, but theirs was never a sexual friendship, and it was not a parallel relationship to that of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, their celebrated English contemporaries. Poulenc and Bernac addressed each other as ‘vous’ (rather than ‘tu’) to the end of their lives. Until many years after his death it was not known that Poulenc was father of a daughter, Marie-Ange (born 1946), as a result of an unexpected affair with a woman named Freddy (Fréderique) Lebedeff whom he had known for a long time, a distant relative of his first great love, Richard Chanlaire (the song Dans l’herbe on this disc is dedicated to Freddy). The child was brought up believing that Poulenc was her godfather, a grievous mistake by today’s parenting standards, but in other respects the composer was a devoted father; the majority of his considerable posthumous royalties was left to Marie-Ange.

A study by Richard D E Burton (Francis Poulenc, 2002, a book that considers the composer’s sexuality in the light of his Catholicism) makes the fascinating suggestion that many of Poulenc’s emotional needs were addressed through his compositions for women’s voices—that he became, in his own mind, the brave and transfigured Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, just as he had identified with the hunting goddess Diana in his early chamber music piece Aubade. The composer admitted—in a letter of 20 April 1958—that he himself was the abandoned ‘Elle’ in La voix humaine, just as Flaubert had admitted to being Madame Bovary. Such a claim could never be made, for example, about Benjamin Britten and the female characters in his operas. It seems likely that the songs that Poulenc wrote for women to sing, particularly those with texts by Louise de Vilmorin, had a measure of self-identification. Vilmorin was more of a novelist by inclination, but the composer had encouraged her into becoming a poet. Her work enabled him to explore the feminine side of his nature—as if he were suddenly slim and beautiful, dressed by Lanvin and able to receive the gallant homage of a line of suitors. Women singers have always found these songs supremely satisfying to sing, both emotionally and vocally (Poulenc had become a real expert in writing for the singing voice soon after the establishment of his duo with Bernac). There is never the slightest sense that the composer is patronizing his female singers or writing down to them—rather is he grateful to them for voicing aspects of his own personality. It is significant that shortly after Bernac retired from the concert platform in 1959 Poulenc established a duo with Denise Duval, a ravishingly pretty and extremely talented soprano for whom he wrote a number of works. Poulenc’s relatives and friends have assured me that he would have been equally stricken by la grande Anglaise, Felicity Lott. Dame Felicity is a star of a number of Poulenc records (including Voyage à Paris, and an earlier intégrale on Decca); she makes a cameo appearance on this disc. Younger singers are indebted to her example in this repertoire, unmatched by any soprano of her generation.

Compact Disc 2 – Main dominée par le cœur (Songs 1935–1958)
This disc collects together the settings of the surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose writing most engaged the altruistic and humanistic side of Poulenc’s nature. Éluard wrote ceaselessy of love between man and woman, also a theme of fascination, somewhat paradoxically, for this composer; but Éluard was also poet of the Left and a voice of resistance and freedom during the Second World War. On this disc there are also war-related settings of Éluard’s friends and sometime colleagues Louis Aragon and Robert Desnos, as well as Calligrammes, a First World War cycle of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. The more urbane aspect of this important poet dominates the third disc in this set.

It was a fortunate moment in Poulenc’s song-composing career when he began to set the texts of Éluard; his song-writing moved into a new sphere in 1935, one might almost say a coming of age, when he embarked on an intense engagement with the work of this poet, just over three years his senior. This more or less coincided with the composer’s reconversion to Catholicism as a result of a mystical re-awakening of faith at the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, and the establishment of his recital partnership with the baritone Pierre Bernac. ‘People will never know how much I owe to Éluard, how much I owe to Bernac’, Poulenc wrote in JdmM. ‘It is due to them that lyricism has entered my vocal works.’

Paul Éluard was the pseudonym of Eugène Émile Paul Grindel (Éluard was in fact the name of his maternal grandmother). He was born into a comfortable middle-class household in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, on 14 December 1895. Although Éluard was always associated with the Left and with working-class causes, his father was a chartered accountant who became a successful estate agent. Three things jolted the young man out of the comfort-zone of a bourgeois existence: illness, war and love. A sudden and severe pulmonary haemorrhage at the age of seventeen consigned him to months of enforced immobility at a sanatorium of Clavadel, near Davos, where he read deeply and widely; the crystalline Swiss mountain landscapes by which he was surrounded were later to influence his poems. A young Russian student by the name of Helena Dmitrovnie Diakonova was a fellow-patient at the same institution. Her nickname was ‘Gala’; after some years of separation Éluard was to marry her in 1917 when on military leave. Despite his ongoing infirmity he had volunteered for the front; his first published work, Le devoir et l’inquiétude (1917) describes the misery, comradeship and solidarity of the soldiers who suffered in the trenches. (The Poulenc cycle that encompasses this experience from another viewpoint—Calligrammes to the poetry of Apollinaire—is also to be heard on this disc.)

After his demobilization, already a young husband and father, Éluard was introduced to André Breton and Louis Aragon and soon assumed his place as a member of the Parisian avant-garde, publishing several collections of poetry. In 1921 Éluard met the German painter and sculptor Max Ernst (1891–1976), the first of his many painter friends and one of the most influential on his development (there are thirty-two painters celebrated in Éluard’s 1948 anthology Voir, including Ernst). His seminal role in Éluard’s career has been compared to that of Virgil guiding Dante in the perilous regions of the dream-like inferno that was to become Surrealism. The poet chose six of Ernst’s collages to illustrate his collection Répétitions. Éluard, Ernst and Gala settled into a ménage à trois, the German painter having left his wife and son. Their shared home at Eaubonne near Paris was decorated with Ernst’s murals. In 1924 there was a personal and conjugal crisis and Éluard suddenly left Paris for Saigon. Both Ernst and Gala followed him there at his behest; it was decided in Vietnam that Gala would stay with Éluard—although he was eventually to lose her to another painter, Salvador Dali, in 1929. The poet had a lifelong hatred for possessive jealousy, believing rather in the innocence of desire; sexual liberty was a reflection of fraternal sharing and openness of heart. Éluard took the subject of love extremely seriously: the erotic freedom he espoused was never simply an excuse for libertinage, and each of his partners was accorded the elevated role of Muse in a seamless tapestry of creativity. The work of the poet, like that of his close friend Picasso, has often been defined by the major female figures of his life—Gala, Nusch, Jacqueline and Dominique. It is the second of these, Nusch, who was often the inspiration of the poems that Poulenc chose for his settings.

Together with Breton, Philippe Soupault and Aragon, Éluard was the founder of Surrealism, a movement that grew out of Dadaism, although the term had been coined much earlier by Apollinaire. In October 1924, soon after Éluard and Gala returned to France from Saigon, Breton published his Manifeste de Surréalisme. This defines the movement as a ‘purely psychic automatism by which it is proposed to explain, be it verbally, be it in writing or by quite other means, the true functioning of thought. Dictated by thought in the absence of all control by reason, outside all aesthetic or moral occupations, Surrealism rests on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of associations, formerly neglected, and in the transcendent power of dreams released from any interference by thought. It tends to destroy all other psychic mechanisms and to take their place in the resolution of the principal problems of life.’ It follows that every reading of a surreal poem is wholly individual. When asked what Éluard’s poems actually meant Bernac always replied, ‘I have no idea’. But it was Poulenc’s readings and the musical meanings he assigned to the poetry that are both intuitive and revelatory—he seems to translate the poems into music rather than simply setting them.

Several important poetry collections were published in this period—from Capitale de la douleur (1926, the year Éluard joined the Communist party) to La vie immédiate (1932). In 1930, the same year that Éluard published his collection À toute épreuve, he had met Maria Benz, a destitute music-hall and circus performer from Alsace, eleven years younger, who went by the name of Nusch. The poet’s discovery and rescue of this highly intuitive waif—Poulenc mistakenly always spelled her name ‘Nush’—brings to mind an older version of Mignon, the child-acrobat saved by Wilhelm Meister in Goethe’s novel. The couple married in 1934. Graceful, light-hearted and luminously beautiful (she was one of Picasso’s favourite models), Nusch was the poet’s ideal companion and inspiration. The collection Les yeux fertiles (1936) celebrates Éluard’s friendship with Pablo Picasso; the powerful affinity of poet and painter, both personal and political, was reinforced by the rise of Fascism and the outrage of Guernica. It is also the collection from which Poulenc took eight of the nine texts for his Tel jour telle nuit. The collection Facile (1935), illustrated by Man Ray’s astonishing nude photographs of Nusch, is the source of the final poem in the cycle, Nous avons fait la nuit.

By 1938 Éluard had broken with Breton whose brand of ‘pure’ Surrealism became anathema to him; instead he preferred to develop his own kind of Promethean humanism, a joyful celebration of the fraternity of mankind where women are the spiritual mediators, a philosophy light years away from the dour and dogmatic Stalinism of some of his associates. Le livre ouvert I (1940)—later the source of Poulenc’s cycle La fraîcheur et le feu—was one of the first collections in which the poet, now taken up by Nusch and themes of love, more or less turned his back on the didactic preoccupations of his former colleagues. The occupation of France and the resistance, far from extinguishing these themes in the poet’s works, reinforced his visionary optimism and determination (Poésie et vérité 1942—a title that translated Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit as a dig at the occupying forces—and Rendez-vous allemand, 1944). In these two collections the radiant poem Liberté (set as a huge choral piece by Poulenc in his Figure humaine) proclaims the ‘power of a word’ by which the poet can begin his life afresh: ‘I was born to know you / To name you / Liberty.’

Éluard had always been fragile in terms of his health. He often left Paris for sojourns in the mountains and by the sea, holidays that were facilitated by the family money that enabled him to survive in relative comfort. Nevertheless it was Nusch who died first—of a totally unexpected cerebral haemorrhage in November 1946 while visiting the poet’s mother. This sudden loss rendered Éluard suicidal. He was consoled by the affections of Jacqueline Trutat who inspired a different kind of poetry in Éluard, as did Dominique Laure who became his tender and vigilant wife in 1951. The poet died of a sudden heart attack on 18 November 1952.

There is only one poet in Poulenc’s song output who can match the importance of Paul Éluard and that was Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918). In JdmM Poulenc states: ‘If on my tomb could be inscribed: Here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire and Éluard, I would consider this to be my finest title to fame.’ It was Apollinaire’s Bestiaire poems which launched Poulenc’s song-writing career in 1918 (see disc 3) and the composer remained for ever the poet’s entranced admirer. Poulenc heard Apollinaire reading aloud at Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in the Rue de l’Odéon shortly before the poet died and he never forgot the sound of his voice—Marie Laurencin, formerly Apollinaire’s lover, claimed to be able to hear these vocal inflections somehow incorporated in Poulenc’s music.

Both Apollinaire and Poulenc were deeply in love with Paris. The composer was born with a silver spoon in his mouth on the right bank while the impoverished Apollinaire, Parisian only by adoption, was a left-bank garret-dweller (Poulenc himself later chose to live a somewhat bohemian life à la rive gauche). They were also both enthusiasts of modernity and its everyday blessings and conveniences: both were able to find many things poetic that had formerly not been recognized as such. Anything could be the subject of poetry—trains and trams, planes, posters, modern architecture, electricity, machines, cannon and shrapnel, any picturesque curiosity, any unexpected or outlandish juxtaposition. This earthy eclecticism suited Poulenc, the musical magpie, the master of patchwork quilts, to a T; he gobbled up composers, Monteverdi to Malipiero, just as Apollinaire revered Villon to Verlaine, recycling them to his purpose. Both artists were masters, in their own fields, of the audaciously allusive. Add to this that Apollinaire was the most lubricious and anti-puritan of poets (relishing his ‘bad boy’ status) and also the most intrinsically musical (a lover of popular song as much as of medieval virelais) and the creative link (albeit posthumous) between composer and poet seems almost inevitable. In Apollinaire’s poetry there is a simplicity of emotion beneath the outré sophistication, an unashamed elegiac lyricism, that inspired some of Poulenc’s greatest music, similarly avant-garde on the outside, and utterly accessible on the inside—or the other way around. Side by side with his passion for the here and now, Apollinaire sang of lost paradise, the tragedy of ‘never again’, the intimate and melancholy music of the unlucky in love, the unlikely hero with his face turned expectantly towards the future. In many ways he was Poulenc’s literary alter-ego.

Guillaume Apollinaire was the pseudonym of Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitsky, born in Rome on 26 August 1880, the first of two illegitimate sons of Angelica de Kostrowitsky, a down-at-heel noblewoman of Polish-Russian stock, and Francesco Flugi d’Aspermont, a feckless Italian playboy-aristocrat. In 1885, the abandoned Angelica moved to France with her children; until the age of seven the young Wilhelm spoke only Polish and Italian. Guillaume (as he became) went to school in Cannes and subsequently in Nice where he did not bother to finish his baccalauréat. The upheavals Apollinaire later effected in French literature, and the insouciance and charm with which these were accomplished, were no doubt symptoms of his disrupted childhood and polyglot background (because Apollinaire was naturalized only in 1916, the greatest French poet of the early twentieth century was a citizen of France for only the last thirty-two months of his life). In 1897, at the age of seventeen, he was already as interested in anarchism as in the prevailing orthodoxy of symbolism—indeed he was destined to become the liquidator of symbolism (a Debussy song to an Apollinaire text thus seems an impossible thought, although the two men died in the same year).

After a year of Bohemian-living in Monaco, Guillaume moved to Paris with his family in 1899—a city of which he had long dreamed and which he idealized (see Poulenc’s Montparnasse). Excluded from the literary establishment, the daily challenge of the young poet (‘un peu bête et trop blond’) was to escape poverty by whatever means necessary—he became an odd-jobs man of the printed word, putting together hasty anthologies, writing articles for other writers (a practice known as ‘faire le nègre’), and proving himself a master-pornographer, admired not only for his salacious imagination, but for his style and wit. Apollinaire’s beloved Paris now became a base for travel on a shoestring. In 1899 he and his brother Albert (passing themselves off as Russian nobility) lived for a while near Liège, where they learned the local dialect, explored the Walloon countryside (see Banalités/iii) and engaged in amatory adventures. More in earnest was Guillaume’s futile courtship of Linda Molina in 1901 (Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire/ii). Striking it lucky in the same year with Vicomtesse Milhau who needed a tutor for her daughter, Apollinaire was whisked off to Germany and discovered the Rhineland at the same time as initiating an affair with Annie Playden, English governess of the Milhau children, a relationship that was to drag on for three years. In February 1902 the poet visited Cologne during the Carnival (an episode recalled in Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire/iv) and went on to visit Berlin and Dresden. In March he took in Prague, Vienna and Munich.

Apollinaire’s fortunes improved somewhat in 1903 when a job was found for him in Paris working in a bank. He visited London (see Hyde Park) in the vain hope of persuading Annie to elope with him. At this time he began to meet more important people in artistic circles: the writers Max Jacob, André Salmon and Alfred Jarry, and the painters Picasso and Derain (the latter illustrated Apollinaire’s first book, L’enchanteur pourrissant, in 1909). In 1905 he visited Holland (see Rosemonde); by 1907 he left his mother’s apartment and moved into his own lodgings in Montmartre where he frequented the louche bars and the famous Bateau-Lavoir, the nickname for the insalubrious building in Montmartre where avant-garde artists, mainly painters (including Picasso), had taken up residence. Apollinaire’s profound knowledge of modern painting and his famous book Les peintres cubistes (1913) have their origin in this period. In 1908 Picasso introduced the poet to the painter Marie Laurencin with whom Apollinaire had a passionate and stormy affair (Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, disc 1). Marie terminated the liaison in 1912 on account of the poet’s jealousy and his incorrigible infidelities; there remained, nevertheless, an emotional link between them (reflected in Calligrammes/v). Apollinaire’s poetry implies, disingenuously, that women habitually mistreated him, but his perpetually roving eye was largely to blame for the failure of his relationships.

During these years poems by Apollinaire appeared in various reviews and newspapers. In 1911 he published Le bestiaire où le cortège d’Orphée, poems set by Poulenc seven years later. The woodcuts were by Raoul Dufy, although the poet would have preferred Picasso. He spent some days in prison, bizarrely suspected of being mixed up in the famous theft of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre; as a Russian national he risked deportation from France. (He was an associate of someone who had regularly stolen other artefacts from the museum.) This low point was followed by increasing literary success, although it was lost on nobody that the poet kept questionable company and was a ‘wide boy’ ready to sweep aside with audacity the accepted way of doing things—serving the pizza with a florid gesture, as someone put it, while fixing the lady with a long and languorous look—hardly in the tradition of the impeccably disinterested French waiter. At the same time he sincerely professed himself a dyed-in-the-wool Parisian and patriotic Frenchman precisely because he was neither Parisian nor French; like an Indian-born writer bemoaning the end of the British aristocracy, he revelled in a nostalgia for a vieille France that another side of his nature sought to modernize by any and every means, even if his rampages might result in its destruction.

1913 saw the publication of Apollinaire’s most famous collection of poetry, Alcools. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered immediately but, as a Russian citizen, encountered a barrier of red tape. In September of that year in Nice he met Louise de Coligny-Chatillon (‘Lou’) who temporarily resisted his advances. He then successfully enlisted in the 38th infantry regiment at Nîmes (see Calligrammes/vi for a song about these ‘Gens du midi’). In December 1914 ‘Lou’ capitulated to the poet in uniform and the couple spent an idyllic week together (reflected in Calligrammes/iii). On a train journey to Nice-Nîmes in January 1915 Apollinaire met the young Madeleine Pagès to whom he became engaged later in that year. Being unable to spend more time in Madeleine’s company because of his war duties inspired L’espionne (Calligrammes/i). The following Easter he was sent to the front at Champagne; by November 1915 he had been promoted to sub-lieutenant in the 96th regiment and had experienced the horror of the trenches. On 17 March 1916 he suffered a head-wound from shrapnel at Berry-au-Bac and underwent a lengthy convalescence and sub-cranial surgery. The relationship with Madeleine Pagès had petered out. In September his collection of stories, Le poète assassiné was published. Although only thirty-six himself, he had already become the idol of a group of younger men who espoused the literary avant-garde—Breton, Tzara, Reverdy and Cocteau. He wrote the programme note for the Cocteau-Satie ballet Parade in 1917; shortly afterwards his play Les mamelles de Tirésias was performed, the work for which he first formulated the label ‘surrealist’; in 1946 Poulenc was to turn it into an opera, his greatest homage to the poet. During his recuperation from a lung infection the poet met Jacqueline Kolb who became his wife shortly afterwards—Poulenc later became her friend and dedicated Calligrammes/iii to her. (Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, discussed in detail below, was a collection of poem-drawings with a war-and-peace theme that had been published in April 1918.) The poet, weakened by his illnesses, died of Spanish flu on 9 November 1918. An actual friendship between Apollinaire and Poulenc might have brought forth even greater things but, as in the case of Schubert and Goethe, we must be grateful for an inspired synthesis of words and music that personal contact could not possibly have improved.

Compact Disc 3 – Parisiana (Songs 1918–1961)
This disc, with the city of Paris at its centre, encompasses seven cycles and sets of songs, as well as five single songs (twenty-eight songs in all), to words by Poulenc’s beloved Guillaume Apollinaire, adopted Parisian, but poet of Paris sans pareil. Of the forty-two tracks on this disc all but fourteen are devoted to the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet we have already encountered in Calligrammes on disc 2. The first of Poulenc’s cycles, Le bestiaire, appears alongside assorted pieces of the composer’s Apollinaire juvenilia, the early Cocteau chanson Toréador—as well as the Cocteau cycle Cocardes—and Poulenc’s Airs chantés, songs to texts of Jean Moréas—the dislike of whose poetry among the younger literary set seems a typically Parisian contempt for la littérature démodée on the part of the jeunesse dorée of the 1920s. Poulenc’s music for these poems is deliberately meant to render the words ridiculous, and the music more or less impossible to perform. However, these settings were so well liked by sopranos that they immediately entered the repertoire. There are tiny cameo appearances by Théodore de Banville and Raymond Radiguet. The disc closes with another Cocteau work written forty-two years after Cocardes: La dame de Monte-Carlo, a scène rather than a song of course, but written by Poulenc as a recital piece for Denise Duval. We may be sure that this inveterate and suicidal gambler is a displaced Parisienne.

Poulenc’s first songs were almost Apollinaire settings—almost because there is a single madcap chanson, Toréador, that is officially the composer’s first work for voice and piano. Toréador has a text by Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), whom someone named ‘the spoiled child of the century’. Ten years older than Poulenc, he was very much part of the composer’s youth, an iconoclastic poet who was soon to become an icon and cultural animateur in general. It was the musicians around Cocteau—Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre—who were collectively dubbed ‘Les Six’ by the critic Henri Collet. It was entirely natural that Poulenc should have wanted to collaborate with this quicksilver spirit who was ruthlessly ambitious and whose talents seemed limitless. Cocteau was everything and anything he needed to be: playwright, critic, novelist, draughtsman, stage decorator, film director, choreographer. Considering the consanguinity of their sexual tastes and the multiplicity of Cocteau’s talents (the validity and depth of which have always been hotly contested, particularly by the serious Surrealists) it is surprising that Poulenc, a social gadfly in at least part of his being, did not become much more of a Cocteau composer. Even in the early days we sense that what Cocteau had to offer the composer in terms of verbal inspiration was not enough. Theirs was a friendship of youth, a tutoyer relationship that time could not wither, but after Toréador, apart from the tiny cycle Cocardes composed in 1919, there was no collaboration until two Cocteau works written for the soprano Denise Duval at the end of Poulenc’s career: the one-act ‘tragédie lyrique’ La voix humaine (1958) and La dame de Monte-Carlo (1961), the ‘monologue pour soprano’ that closes this disc.

Compact Disc 4 – Fancy (Songs 1924–1959)
This is a disc for a finale, a dazzling gallimaufry of a programme with Poulenc as time-traveller and stylistic magician. Benjamin Britten is often praised for his stylizations, but Poulenc is his match, although in terms of languages foreign to him he can only boast Polish, English (Shakespeare), and translations of Spanish (Lorca), against Britten’s French, German, Russian and laland Scots. Like Britten in Gloriana Poulenc excels in time-travel with musical inflections that cleverly suggest antiquity while retaining their contemporary focus: settings of Ronsard, Charles d’Orléans, seventeenth-century Chansons gaillardes as well as Racine and Malherbe. As Ravel said, Poulenc invents his own folksongs—specifically Breton in the Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob and more generalized in Chansons villageoises, music that shows just how glamorous the composer found working-class life, an enchantingly idiosyncratic nostalgie de la boue. The Chansons polonaises are evocations of Poulenc’s beloved Chopin, as is the Mazurka for bass, written on the hundredth anniversary of the Polish composer’s death. The disc ends with the composer’s only song in English.

The songs of Francis Poulenc—A personal memoir
I experienced the coup de foudre of discovering Poulenc the song composer late in 1971. An LP by Régine Crespin, accompanied by John Wustman, contained delectable performances of Hôtel and C, and the indomitable Mrs Knight of The Chimes music shop in Marylebone High Street in London sold me the scores—the Apollinaire cycle Banalités and the Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon. Felicity Lott and myself, fellow-students at the Royal Academy of Music, were simultaneously hooked and enraptured. For a concert in June 1972 in honour of the seventieth birthday of my piano teacher Harry Isaacs, we performed Hôtel; during the postlude, after ‘je veux fumer’, Flott lit a cigarette on stage (it seemed a good idea at the time) turning the Duke’s Hall into a Parisian boîte—quite an achievement this—without any regard to health and safety. Autres temps, autres mœurs. In the same year we took part in masterclasses given by Pierre Bernac at the British Institute of Recorded Sound; these were organized by the enchanting Winifred Radford, the soprano daughter of the great British bass Robert Radford. After her retirement she taught the French song class at the Guildhall School. Winifred was a lifelong friend of the great baritone, and assisted him in the translation into English of his two books. At these classes Flott and I encountered an impressive array of young singers, mostly Guildhall students, who were already devoted to French mélodie—Richard Jackson (later a founder member of The Songmakers’ Almanac), Stephen Varcoe, Jennifer Smith, as well as such accomplished pianists as Jonathan Alder and Richard True. It was at one of these classes that the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang Poulenc’s Bleuet (later recorded on the Hyperion Poulenc Songmakers’ Almanac anthology Voyage à Paris) leaving the usually hyper-critical Bernac almost speechless with admiration (‘My God, what a singer you are!’).

Working with this exacting teacher awakened my curiosity about Bernac’s singing voice (he had retired from the concert platform in 1959). I found an LP published by French EMI which remastered some of his 78-rpm recordings with Poulenc accompanying. The first track was Gounod’s Sérénade: I was initially taken aback by the unusual sound of the voice—neither sumptuous nor particularly beautiful—but by the end of that track I was fascinated by the flexibility of the arpeggios and the colour changes in that song’s magical final verse (‘Quand tu dors’). By the end of the LP’s second side I had become an ardent fan of Bernac’s mastery of musical and verbal nuance, as well as the inimitable sound and touch, generously pedalled, of Poulenc as an accompanist. Since then I have never wavered in my admiration for this great duo, who stand next to Pears and Britten in the performance of twentieth-century song. In the few remaining shops in London where 78 records were still for sale I bought Bernac-Poulenc performances on shellac, recorded in the ’30s and ’40s; in Holland I found their final recordings: two 10” LPs on the Vega label from the early ’50s with a wonderful selection of Poulenc songs. On a trip to Paris I stumbled across a music shop, long-since vanished, in the Rue Lamartine where I purchased second-hand scores of almost all the song collections at ten francs each, copies that serve me still. The easy availability at that time of those partitions struck me as evidence that this composer was not yet as well known a master of twentieth-century song as he should have been: I wrote an appreciation of Poulenc’s songs for the RAM magazine in the summer of 1973, the year I left to begin my career. Many years later I was moved to discover that Sir Lennox Berkeley, a personal friend of Poulenc, had written approvingly about this article in his diary.

At about the same time as I was planning the first series of concerts for The Songmakers’ Almanac in 1976, I approached Elaine Padmore, at that time head of opera at the BBC, and a singer herself, about the possibility of doing a radio series about Poulenc’s songs. I visited her office in Yalding House, spread all the scores on the table, and asked her how many she knew. Today most of these titles would probably be familiar to music-lovers, but then it was not the case. Elaine was intrigued and what followed is scarcely believable by today’s standards: I was commissioned by Radio 3 to write no fewer than thirteen programmes, each 90 minutes long. These were arranged in biographical sequence and narrated by Elaine and myself; they were broadcast on Sunday afternoons between October 1977 and the end of January 1978. The series’ title was Journal de mes Mélodies, taken from the small song-diary kept by the composer and published after his death. Gramophone records were used only in part: twelve British singers and eight accompanists, as well as a number of instrumentalists and The Nash Ensemble, were invited to contribute new performances of the songs. The series enjoyed considerable critical success at the time and many appreciative letters from listeners. Sidney Buckland, an Éluard expert, was astounded to hear for the first time over the radio settings of texts where Poulenc’s music brought words she already knew by heart into sharper and more meaningful focus. This first acquaintance with the composer’s songs led to her becoming one of our foremost Poulenc authorities; her English edition of a selection of the composer’s letters is a masterpiece. It is to Sidney that I owe a copy of Éluard’s Chanson complète inscribed by the poet in 1939 to Pierre Bernac—‘to whom these poems owe being heard’. It had been a gift to her from the composer’s niece in recognition of her wonderful translations of Poulenc’s letters, entitled Echo and Source.

Thirty-eight years after that inscription was written, Bernac, already frail with a heart condition, was invited by the BBC to come to London to record L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant as part of the Journal de mes Mélodies series. He had given the first performance of the work on French radio in June 1946. I remember his huge emotion (and his nervousness) in returning to Studio 2 in Maida Vale where he had worked so often with Poulenc himself. It is our performance from 1977 which reappears on the first of these four discs. The broadcast also included a long interview where the singer’s loyal discretion concerning Poulenc’s private life remained unshakeable: at that time it was not even generally known that the composer had fathered a daughter, nor that the composition of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites had been overshadowed by a painful love affair—these and many other biographical details have emerged only in the last twenty years or so, and not a word about them from Bernac himself.

Bernac was naturally interested in the progress of the radio series and requested tapes for Les Amis de Francis Poulenc, a lively group of the composer’s friends and admirers administered at that time by the composer’s niece, Rosine Seringe (and now, with continuing success, by her grandson, Benoît Seringe). In 1977 my first visit to the composer’s home, his beautiful house at Noizay near Tours, was the beginning of my lifelong friendship with Rosine (daughter of Poulenc’s older sister Jeanne Manceaux) and her remarkable husband Jean. My friendship with Bernac also grew and we corresponded regularly: he despaired of finding a publisher for his recently completed book on Poulenc’s songs. Cassell, who had earlier issued his celebrated The Interpretation of French Song, were not prepared to take on so specialized a study. It so happened that I had worked as a student répétiteur at the City Literary Institute in Stukeley Street and had overseen a concert performance with mature student singers of Poulenc’s Dialogues. I had assigned one of the roles to Livia Gollancz, who had years before played the horn in the Hallé orchestra. She had fallen in love with singing Poulenc’s music, and when I told her of Bernac’s dilemma she immediately agreed to publish his book, Francis Poulenc, the Man and his Songs, overriding the objections of others in her family firm.

In March 1979 Bernac himself arranged a concert of Poulenc songs at the Théâtre du Ranelagh in Paris for Jennifer Smith, Richard Jackson and myself; Jennifer fell ill and Felicity Lott took her place. After the concert we were all invited to the Paris apartment of Rosine and Jean Seringe in Rue d’Aumale in the ninth arrondissement, almost next door to the Trinité. This was one of the last gatherings of the old Poulenc côterie still more or less intact, and my copy of the newly published Bernac book was signed by those present: Winifred Radford; the song composer Henri Sauguet; Henri Hell, Poulenc’s first biographer; Yvonne Gouverné, who had conducted the first performances of many of Poulenc’s choral works; the astonishingly youthful Suzanne Peignot, who had sung the first performance of the Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne and recorded Poulenc’s Airs chantés with the composer more than forty years earlier; the glamorous Geneviève Touraine, Gérard Souzay’s sister, who had sung the first performance of Fiançailles pour rire; and Madeleine Milhaud, Darius’s brilliantly lively widow. After Bernac died in October 1979, Patrick Saul of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, together with Winifred Radford, established ‘The Friends of Pierre Bernac’ which arranged the reissue of the singer’s recordings first on LP and later on CD. That great patron of the arts Alice Tully of New York, an enormous Bernac admirer, contributed the funds to make this possible. Winifred Radford also published a version of Journal de mes Mélodies with the French texts with her English translations printed on facing pages.

Since that time my visits to Paris to play in recitals have almost always been combined with the joy of staying with Rosine in that same family apartment in the Rue d’Aumale. Rosine has long referred to herself as my ‘Mère d’Outre Manche’—my mother across the channel. Jean Seringe, most generous of hosts, died some years ago; he was enormously charming, the incarnation of ‘vieille France’ (a member of the Jockey Club) and at the same time an earthy Parisian. Rosine, now over ninety, still seems as energetic and engaged as ever in the lively life into which her uncle’s work has drawn her. (It was her older sister Brigitte who had been particularly close to Poulenc, and who had been expected to take up the responsibilities of managing the composer’s affairs after his death, but she died, most unexpectedly, shortly after Poulenc.) A highpoint of my Parisian career in tandem with my beloved Flott was an invitation from Les Amis for us to perform an entire recital of Poulenc songs at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1993, thirty years after the composer’s death. Afterwards we were royally entertained at an elegant brasserie in the Avenue Montaigne, the Eiffel tower glistening in the background. The name of the establishment, most appropriately, was Chez Francis.

Although I never met the composer personally I have always felt ‘chez Francis’. I have encountered so many people whose faces light up in remembering him and his circle (Peter Pears, Hugues Cuenod, Dalton Baldwin, Ned Rorem, Felix Aprahamian, John Amis, John Julius Norwich with his tender adolescent memories of Louise de Vilmorin, among many others) that I feel Poulenc to have become what the Germans call a ‘Schutzgeist’, a spiritual mentor. Rosine even allowed me to sleep in his bedroom in Noizay; this was intended to be, and was taken as, an enormous honour. As if I were listening to a selection of different Poulenc songs playing in my mind I was acutely aware of the nights of loneliness, anguish and melancholy passed in this room with a crucifix over the bed, and then suddenly ascetic thoughts as these would vanish in favour of the joyous rough and tumble of another kind of music. The critic who described Poulenc as both ‘moine et voyou’, monk and ragamuffin, understood the dichotomy that runs through the composer’s life and work. Rosine also gave me a copy of Ceremony of Carols inscribed to Poulenc by Benjamin Britten, his ‘English friend’, in 1945 when the two composers played Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos at the Albert Hall—two worlds of song, two such different men, united in cross-channel friendship. When Felicity and I recorded a BBC television programme at Noizay together, I played Poulenc’s songs on the very piano on which they had been composed. In Paris I continue to sleep in the childhood bedroom of Poulenc’s great-nephews and sleep in sheets embroidered with his initials; for breakfast there is a charming teapot with a lid engraved with an Art Deco ‘FP’. Many items from his library surround me in the ceiling-high bookshelves in the dining room at Rue d’Aumale, including the manuscripts of Louise de Vilmorin’s poems. It is things such as these that seep into the blood and somehow or other guide the fingers via the heart. Much more is now known about Poulenc the man since nearly forty years ago, when I first realized that the composer of the lightweight Mouvements perpetuels was also a great composer of songs, some of them as deeply moving and profound as any composed in the twentieth century.

In the days of the BBC programmes I rushed in where only angels would have dared to tread. But now in presenting an intégrale of the Poulenc mélodies I feel myself both on familiar territory and very mindful of a lifelong debt to be repaid. The songs of Poulenc have brought untold joy and friendship into my life, beginning with my collaboration with Felicity Lott (it was our shared love for the composer that perhaps sealed our partnership). And now everything has come full circle with a musical scene peopled by younger singers, not yet born when we were at the beginning of our careers, and who are all in love with this music in the same way. To paraphrase, and slightly alter, W H Auden on Edward Lear, singers have flocked to Poulenc like settlers, he has become a land. At the same time it is inevitable that the performing traditions that go back to Bernac should have become ever more distant. For those of us who have been privileged to know something of this unique territory, if not quite at first hand then something near it, it is both a duty and a joy to follow Hector’s instructions in The History Boys by Alan Bennett: ‘Pass the parcel … Take it, feel it, and pass it on.’ To me the Poulenc parcel has felt heavy and light; it has seemed dark and joyous, accessible and remote, imperishable yet infinitely fragile, and now it is in the hands of a younger generation.

Graham Johnson © 2013

Other albums in this series

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