Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Francis Poulenc: 1899- 1963- Two excerpts from La Courte Paille, Les Chemins de l'amour and

Below you will find two exquisite performances of two pieces from Poulenc's La Courte Paille. Poulenc is at the piano with Denise Duval,the legendary French soprano who created the roles of Elle in La voix humaine and Thérèse in Les mamelles de Tirésias. She also had much success with the role of Blanche de la Force in Dialogues of the Carmelites, although she didn't sing the world premiere. The artistry between these two is absolutely stunning. Like Britten, Poulenc is considered one of the all time great accompanists. Read this NY Times article by William Crutchfield for more information.

The video begins with a short interview between Poulenc and the host. In it, you can hear Poulenc speaking about the cycle, that he wrote it for Denise Duval and he refers to her as one of his favorite singers. (They toured together quite a bit towards the end of his life, forming in addition to his great partnership with Bernac, one of the great duos in Art Song performance.) Listen to the interview and see how good your French comprehension is!

La Courte Paille/The Short Straw
Text: Maurice Carème (1899- 1978)

# 2
Quelle aventure/What an adventure

A flea was pulling
a little elephant in its carriage.
They looked
in all the jewelry store windows.

My God, my God! What an adventure!
Who's going to believe me?

The baby elephant was absent-mindedly
sucking on a pot of jam.
The flea didn't mind,
and pulled him with a smile on her face.

My God, my God! And it keeps right on!
I'll start to think I'm crazy!

Suddenly, by a fence,
the flea blew away in the wind
and I saw the little elephant
break down walls as he ran away.

My God, my God! It surely happened,
but how will I tell Mother?

# 5
Les anges musiciens/ The musical angels

Upon the threads of the rain
the Thursday angels
play on the harp for a long time.
And beneath their fingers, Mozart
tinkles, deliciously,
in drops of blue joy
since it is always Mozart
which is played endlessly
by the musician angels
who, all day Thursday,
make their harps sing
the sweetness of the rain.

Complete translations for La Courte Paille found here.

Denise Duval, soprano and Francis Poulenc, piano

Next, listen to this fabulous find!
Singer/actress, Yvonne Printemps sings "Le Chemin de l'amour" with orchestra in this very affecting performance. Pay close attention to the wonderful portamenti and her superb attention to the text.

Les Chemins de l'amour/ The Pathways of Love
Text: Jean Anouilh (1910-)

The pathways that go to the sea
have kept from our passage
some plucked flowers
and the echos under the trees
of our sweet, clear laughter.

Alas! Some days of happiness,
radiant times flown away,
I go on without finding traces of them in my heart.

Pathways of my love,
I search for you always,
Lost pathways, you're not there any more
and your echos are deafened.
Pathways of desperation,
Pathways of memories,
Pathways of that first day,
Divine pathways of love!

If I have to forget one day,
life erasing everything;
I want that in my heart one memory remains
stronger than any other love:
the memory of the pathway,
where radiant and delirious
one day I felt your hands burning upon me.

Pathways of my love,
I search for you always,
Lost pathways, you're not there any more
and your echos are deafened.

Pathways of desperation,
Pathways of memories,
Pathways of that first day,
Divine pathways of love!

Yvonne Printemps, soprano

One Final Performance: "C" Text: Louis Aragon (1897-1982)
This is one of Poulenc's most beautiful and moving compositions. It's not on the listening list, but you must be familiar with it!

Aragon, who was a member of the Communist Party since 1927 and was a high ranking member of the French Resistance wrote the poem. It is filled with imagery about the war, nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. Note that each line in the French ends with the rhyme Cé. Hugues Cuenod is the tenor. The pianist is unfortunately not noted.

Le Pont de Cé/ The bridge of Cé

I have crossed the bridges of Cé
It was there that it all began
A song of times past
Speaks of a wounded knight
Of a rose upon the road
And of a bodice unlaced
Of the castle of a mad duke
And of the swans in its moats
Of the meadow where will dance
An eternal fiancée
And like cold milk I drank
The long lay of false glories
The Loire carries off my thoughts
Along with the overturned cars
And the defused weapons
And the tears not rubbed away
Oh my France, oh my abandoned one
I have crossed the bridges of Cé.

Hugues Cuenod, tenor, pianist, unfortunately not noted.


  1. Yvonne Printemps performance and style is just mesmerizing. I really appreciate her singing, the constant, flowless portamentos and glissandos. The way sings is so touching. The music itself just so beautiful and bittersweet in the same time. No wonder why famous movie directors chosen this particular song as a theme of their movies.

  2. After reading the NY Times article, I went to try to track down some Bernac/ Poulenc recordings, and this is the best one I came up with.

    Here are the translations from the Lied and Art Songs page:

    I thought that the article was maybe a little harsh against Bernac. Sure, his voice isn’t 100% perfect, but then again, whose is? He brings such a high level of sophistication and artistic finesse to his interpretations.

    After listening to some other Youtubes of him, and re-listening to the Duval video and some of the listening list, I noticed that the singers all had kind of a bite to their sound. I’m not sure I would describe it as “acidic” like in the Times article, but maybe more like an edge (?). Since both Bernac and Duval have this quality, is this something that Poulenc liked in a singer, and therefore wrote his music for this type of voice? Or is it that the most successful interpreters of his music all have that quality? I guess either one makes sense; even though he wrote beautifully lyrical melodies, he tended to like bigger intervals. That makes some of his melodies sound disjunct. That edgy quality probably makes the edginess of the vocal line really shine. I have heard other performances of Poulenc sung by people with more rounded voices, and they just didn’t quite bring the right color to the pieces. Is that because their voice type doesn’t match what Poulenc wrote for, or could it just be a not- as- successful interpretation? Am I totally off base here? Input from other people would be interesting.

  3. I think that I liked the second piece that Yvonne sang better than the first. To me, the angels sounded a bit too lazy and not quite the pure atmospheric quality that I would normally associate with those images. Then again, I think that it sounds almost Weill-ish and maybe Poulenc was going for some lower class perspective and sarcasm....? I really thought that the playful storytelling affect of the second piece really came alive. Everything sounded very much on the higher side of the pitch and excited.

  4. Les Chemins de l'Amour was not at all like I expected. I listened to some more contemporary artists sing it, and they were mostly all more serious about the entire piece. Too serious, perhaps. I keep forgetting that a lot of reaction during this period as against taking life and death too seriously. The artfulness of the song becomes more concerned with being light and floaty rather than in really emoting the words. I have to say, I really like my "serious" music. I realize, however, that if you sing it too seriously, the piece loses a lot of its charm.

  5. I really like this piece a lot!! Wow! The emotional impact of this song is immense! Poulenc's music is perfect for this text because just as the poet draws on the past to describe the present, so Poulenc's music uses old modality/tonality to create new music for the present. The poetry is completely uninhibited by the music and yet the music still speaks with a powerful voice. You don't remember just the music or just the words after you've listened to it. They really mesh to create one lasting impression!

  6. Aaaaaaaaaa I loved the video of Poulenc and Duval! Her interpretations were so charming- I liked the faster tempo for Les anges musicians; to me, slower interpretations sound a little sluggish and languorous- probably not what Poulenc was going for. And her Quelle aventure was so cute! She did such a good job of a little kid trying to tell a tall tale; she had this awesome look of fake innocence on her face.
    I went and tracked down a few other videos of her and Poulenc performing together. I couldn’t find any of mélodie, but I found videos of them playing sections from his operas. My favorite was their rendition of music from Les mamelles de Tirésias- Poulenc makes an awesome vocal appearance. Duval and Poulenc are such a good pair- they are so charming and candid in their performing. Before watching the video, go look up the plot for this opera- it’s very Dada/ Surrealist.

  7. The Poulenc and Duval collaboration was so satisfying to watch. Poulenc's accompanying skills were wonderful. He was right there with her on every phrase but never got in the way. He did just as much as he could without being overdone. I love Duval's charm. She is so natural! And a good page turner while singing! Les Chemins de l'amour was just as satisfying. I like the added orchestration too. It gave it a grander feel. Printemps singing style gave each word a very clear strong meaning.

  8. I think it's funny that Yvonne Printemps real name was Ermont Yvonne Willigniolle Dupre. Having the last name "Spring" was just so darn perfect to compare to her sound!

    A lot of the time I have a hard time putting composers in real time. I mean that my parents were alive during the time that Poulenc was. I find that unbelievable for some reason. The Yvonne Printemps recording has a real popular "style of the times" feel to it and i have to remember that it wasn't all that long ago that this composer was alive! I guess i just think that composers like that came from a land far, far away in times long, long ago. Unimportant...moving on...

    The Duval/Poulenc recording reminds me a lot of this amazing CD of Teresa Stratas singing "Unknown Kurt Weil". It is absolutely remarkable and an example of another composer who can really portray the "sound of the times" beautifully. I love the quality of Duval's voice and want to get more of her and Poulenc working together because i think her, like Stratas, really know how to sometimes sacrifice "beauty" of "awesomeness of sound". Those are the artists i respect the most. I LOVE POULENC!

  9. Poulenc's Banalites was my first exposure to a larger vocal work by him. His style is definitely not "impressionistic", but it still has the same quality of sensuality and ecstasy. I think his music would be the French equivalent of Rachmaninoff. A sort of neo-romanticism.

  10. Yvonne Printemps definitely exploits this as a salon piece and not as if she were debuting at Carnegie or Alice Tully. She has so much style and it also reminds me of early 20th century movies. Also being an actor, you get a certain quality of musical theater in her performance of Les Chemins de l'Amour. It's so similar to Voyage a Paris from banalites. A sort of carnival ride around a story, I guess.

  11. For those of you who are Poulenc fans, do visit those other links posted by Emily.

    And here is another "not to be missed"
    performance of Mady Mesplé singing "La Dame de Monte Carlo!" She was almost 60 at the time.

    Also, here is the final scene from "Dialogues of the Carmelites," where the nuns one by one are guillotined. It is absolutely chilling.

  12. The poetry in Le Pont-de-Ce is full of imagery and the tenor portrays it very well. He is able to convey a wide variety of color and good range of dynamic level that seems to be essential to give life to the variety of images in the text, and with Poulenc, you know he had a specific intention for every nuance. I actually like the piano part in the song better the vocal line. I'm not sure if it is the playing or the writing, but it has a tasteful, reflective sound.

  13. In the recording Mady Mesple, aside from having a great voice, is able to sing well and be very entertaining to watch. She is a great example of how to retain freedom of movement in a recital setting. I have had little exposure to Poulenc's opera, but after reading the back story of Dialogues des Carmelites, that final scene is simply chilling, especially with Poulenc's inclusion of the Salve Regina.

  14. I like watching the rapport between Poulenc and Duval, it is friendly and relaxed, and who needs a page-turner when you can have Denise Duval do it? They are, for lack of a better word, cute. I enjoy her willingness to sacrifice a little of her sound for the sake of the piece, and I also appreciate that she does not do so wantonly. The points at which she decides to alter her tone or add color seem very well thought out and purposeful.

  15. In the performance of Poulenc/ Duval I loved the closeness in the performance of the two musicians. They really seemed united in spirit. I don't think I have ever experienced a collaborative intimacy. I enjoyed the Les anges musiciens very much. With music like this, I sometimes find the interpretation to be paradoxical. The music naturally has so much restraint but is so easily overdone with rubato and drama. I liked the flexibility they exercised over the phrases. It was always controlled and "organic". I also loved the fact that the singer was the page turner on the second melodie. I wish the people I accompany would turn my pages ......wink, wink.

  16. I really enjoy the stylized singing of Yvonne Printemps. I think the portimenti really give a sense of gesture to the vocal line. I don't often sense this in vocal melodies. I think she sometimes utilizes this vocal effect to create more movement in the arrangement when the orchestra is not supplying the waltz figuration. The portimenti make me feel like I am on a carousel.

  17. I love the color changes in the collaboration of Le pont de Ce. Both musicians did a wonderful job. I feel that the vocalist perfectly rendered my conception of the use of the soft pedal on the piano. I imagine a soft, cotton, coating around the note. I would like to know how Cuenod conceives of his vocal timbre in such places. I felt that the ensemble was great in matching the dramatic changes.

  18. The brief interview at the beginning of this video was great to listen to so that we can get more of the spoken sound of French in our ears, especially for those of us who may not be as familiar with French. And, it is always wonderful to get a better sense of what a composer is like as a person and how that may be reflected in the music.
    Duval is gorgeous! I especially like the strength and athleticism in her voice, along with the color. Even so, there is still a simplicity that appears in her voice and her demeanor, although I'm sure she is working hard to produce such a sound. Thank you for the treat!

  19. The recording with the photos of Yvonne Printemps is a great example of fitting music in with the historical context in accordance with fashion, physical surroundings, etc. I really enjoyed seeing various photos of her while listening to this infamous piece and putting everything together in the context. What a gorgeous voice!

  20. Holy Moly! Hugues Cuenod performance is excellent. I LOVE the timbre of his voice-so smooth and buttery, if you will. His high notes are light, but have substance to them and the mid-range has a lot of the same qualities. I could listen to him A LOT more. Thanks for the introduction to this performer!

  21. Denise Duval sings with tremendous expression and joy without going over the top. She is graceful, elegant, and poised. She communicates the meaning of the songs through her voice, demeanor, facial expression, and subtle body language. Clearly, to her the performance is about sharing the charm of the song, not about herself as a performer. Due to her respect for the music, I, in turn, have respect for her as a singer.

    Yvonne Prinemps does indeed have gorgeous portamentos! And they are perfectly appropriate for this sentimental song.

    Louis Aragon's poem "Le Pont de Cé" is a masterpiece. It takes the reader on a journey as he floats through different themes in France's history. The poem is enchanting in its mystery and beautiful in its imagery. When set to music, it becomes nothing short of magical.

  22. I am in no way a history buff, but I have a particular appreciation for art that brings to life a particular point in time that a large body of people can relate to. The very present, immediately applicable poetry of Cé is a break from Poulenc's usual impressionistic taste, often focused on the unseen details of everyday images. It is clear why he was drawn to Aragon's poem. Clearly, "the dark days of 1940", as Bernac refers to them, are not an experience the people of France will soon forget. Whether they lost loved ones in the war, or were forced to leave their homes in fear, Poulenc's mélodie likely helped some cope with such memories. Both the tenor and pianist do an excellent job communicating this poignant text setting.

  23. It's always interesting to hear a composer perform their own works. To hear Debussy play, despite poor recording quality was very educational (especially in the matter of tempo!). I was also very interested to hear Poulenc play his music. I particularly noticed his use of pedal when he played. He (as Bernac affirms) seems to like to hold the pedal down quite a bit to let different sonorities and colors blend together.

  24. Denise Duval, you rock. What a wonderful presence she has. It's clear that Poulenc liked her voice, since he wrote so appropriately for it, but he also appreciated collaborating with her (or at least I THINK he said that in the interview!). She appears smart, expressive, and in no way a ridiculous diva, though she could get away with it, with that skill. And, as Jake and Michael pointed out, she can page-turn! After observing some singers attempt this, I think SOMD administration should consider making it a required class for the Voice degree programs.... :)

  25. My favorite thing about Crutchfield's article was the picture of one of Poulenc's inspirations for setting children's poetry. We should all be so wise to listen to the wisdom of children!

    And I have to say THANK YOU for posting the link to Mady Mesplé's performance of La Dame de Monte-Carlo. I have so much respect for her vocal delivery and interpretive skills, she makes me want to move to Toulouse and follow humbly in her footsteps! She has that clear, expressive, yet subtle sound that is perfect for (but not limited to) French repertoire. This performance gave me new insight into her dramatic specificity and control.

  26. So many impressions and food for thought with these wonderful varied performances. Each one truly shows unique and personal artistry that seems to be created in the moment. Duval is a wonderful story teller. Each piece is distinctly different, very alive and told with such 'innocent' straightforwardness. The sweet innocence that we so often connect with children. La Courte Paille is brilliant in that way. It's so direct, clear and without heavy luggage. Duval is able to capture that world.
    Les Chemins de l'amour is such a gem! Printemps takes us on a fabulous ride on these roads of love. You don't want the ride to end!
    Cuenod is wonderful! Such tender, beautiful nuanced singing! Such complete openess! Beautiful!
    Mesplé! Yet another fabulous, unique performance. This one I really wanted to see in person. I think you'd be even more swept up in the story, and the Monte Carlo atmosphere. The fact that she was close to sixty just adds more layers to La Dame. I had a teacher who did La voix humaine at the age of eighty-two. Yes, it ceratinly added even more layers...