Ideological prejudice in the approach to French songs
University of the Arts, Taiwan, November 2012
Being asked to talk about French songs to a Taiwanese audience, I had to look for a thread that could allow me to tell you what I wanted to communicate that you couldn’t find in books.
Good books have been written on French songs. I can mention Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes, A French Song Companion, and Le Guide de la Mélodie et du Lied, edited by Brigitte François-Sappey and Gilles Cantagrel, both of which we currently use in France.
Here you may start to understand the title of this lecture, and the beginning of a question: why no book in France on French song for its own sake? Why a “Guide for Lied AND Melody”? Why should French art so much depend on German?
Other questions would right away appear: is the translation of “song” mélodie or chanson? When did the concept of French song arise? In the middle age or just after the German Lied? What does it have to do with this last one? Follower or breaker?
These are questions I had to ask myself all my life. As a young musician, I was first attracted to German Lied. This is how I started, and the reason why I became a “collaborative pianist”. I discovered the beauty of the combination of text and music with Schubert, Schumann and Wolf.
I must add that I was brought up in the hatred of anything German. My father went to a concentration camp, Mauthausen, and wrote quite a few books about it. He died of the followings of the camp when I was still a girl. The discovery of the repertoire of the Lieder was therefore quite a bomb in my life. But it didn’t lead me right away to French repertoire. French songs were not known in my family, not mentioned at school, despised by my music teachers, and ridiculed by French society at large.
So I followed the thread first by going to study in London, quite a neutral field, where I first heard that French composers (Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Poulenc) were just as great as German composers. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to do this lecture in English: English would deserve to name French composers their own, and in that matter, it’s healthier for me to think in English.
Then I went to Austria, played for great artists and worked for them as a coach (Christa Ludwig, Herbert Karajan), my knowledge of languages being of use. Much later, I wrote my dissertation on Fanny Hensel, sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and I measured then how organised German history was: not a book without references, without indexes… Musikwissenschaft is a German discovery, the whole 19th Century is sorted out as far as they are concerned. The bibliography of my dissertation was in fact quite an easy business.
The research on French music of the 19th Century has just started… The Institute of Musicology of the Paris Sorbonne has opened in 1970… And until now, French musicologists were not very interested, neither in 19th Century music, nor in text put into music. Hard luck for French songs altogether.
So, if it wasn’t for the outside demand, mostly from England, America, and now the eastern countries, Japan and China first, there would be in France disrespect for French music.
My title and my questions may seem to you a little negative. But in fact the result of this constraint is amazingly beautiful and rich, as if it served the music to look for new ways of expression.
Why is that? Where does it come from? Of course what I am going to suggest is hypothetic.
It runs through 18th and 19th Centuries literature that the French is one of the most musical folk there is. Everyone sings, at work, at leisure… “En France, tout finit par des chansons” writes Beaumarchais, “everything ends in songs”. Nowadays the same people think that music is not in their inheritance. Again, what happened?
My belief is that political instability starting from the French Revolution brought confusion. At first, music was not at all involved: the same composers could be in one camp or the other; the text was making the difference, not the music. Still, one had to be careful not to belong to the previous period “l’ancien régime”. Later, musical styles became adopted into different social classes: Italian opera to the aristocracy, comic opera to the bourgeoisie, resulting in the quality of music becoming less important than its style.
Then the schooling became compulsory for everyone, and from this schooling, music making was totally absent. It gave French educated people a growing feeling of the vacuity of musical education, as totally useless. Music belonged to a useless class of salon goers, not to working and useful people.
That’s from inside. From outside came very strongly what German musicians had to say about France. Music making and musical education became growingly important in Germany during the 18th Century, as we can see in le Voyage musical dans l’Europe des Lumières de Charles Burney . It was quite clear for people like Zelter, Goethe or Schiller that music could be the mean of reuniting a folk otherwise split in small parcels. The problem didn’t exist in France, where the national feeling didn’t need music to build a community of interest. Therefore grew a misunderstanding about what was music making in France or in Germany. For France, where thousands of concerts were happening in the first half of the 19th Century, it was a social occasion, a way of being happy together while admiring virtuoso playing or singing. For German composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann or Wagner, this was shallow and not respectful enough of their creative powers.
It should also be said that Germany was poor in tradition compared to France or Italy, and it had to assert itself, using some aggressiveness and untruth.
Musical edition was at that time almighty, very rich and strong. Editors supported their composers… and it came that light music lost to serious music. The interesting point is that when Wagner or Brahms wrote of their disdain for anything French, the French themselves believed them… Wagnerism was strong in everyone’s mind until the 1980’s. Then, somehow, it faded away and everyone started to consider Wagner as a good composer among the others.
Wagnerism in France is quite an issue, and an ideology in itself. Combined with French nationalism, it may indeed lead to oddities.
One should not forget the French tendency to centralism. At first, the king was taking charge of the general taste, and that worked in a way. It was called “colbertisme”, after the name of Louis XIV’s minister. After the French Revolution it took the name of “jacobinisme”, after the name of the political movement that made Paris the center of French thinking. In that respect, when no king’s taste is there to control who sings what, music making becomes a kind of anarchy, and the governing ones hated that. But this anarchy was certainly very healthy for composers, and probably one of the reasons for the quality of the French repertoire.
World War II didn’t help. The German occupation brought the habit to sing in German at the Opéra de Paris, and that habit carried on after the war as far as German operas were concerned. The conviction that music was a German asset remained in French background, and that, combined with French guilty feeling due to their collaboration with the Nazis, came to a thorough dislike of their musical past.
The fact that serious music should be good, good music was German, and Germans being considered as serious brought everything into a full and repetitive circle.
Berlioz (1803-1869) is in that respect the eccentric that one cannot really classify. Forerunner, early Wagnerian?
So music is not listened to as good or bad, but as fulfilling the requirement of being good if serious and German. The fact that Germany stopped producing good German music in the first half of the 20th Century meant that good and serious German music was also classical or romantic, and that good music belonged to the past.
That’s what I mean by “ideological prejudice”: this is when you stop listening to what’s happening in reality, it is when you know after a couple of notes that what you are listening to is the right or wrong type of music, and when you decide before the end of the piece if you like it or not.
Good music being serious and German excludes all folk music from the field. Even Beethoven is not entitled to write folk songs. And he wrote around 400 of them! Which are hardly played or understood. Just because he is not supposed not to be serious…
In short the prejudices are:
French are not musical
Light music can’t be good
– Good music belongs to the past
The wonder is that there is still a wide repertoire of wonderful French songs to talk about.
So, what happens to our songs?
A song is a text set to music. As you know the translation to “French song” is not “chanson française”, but “mélodie”. That’s already ideology moving on. Originally, “mélodie” just means tune. The word appears at the middle of the 19th Century precisely to balance the concept of “Lied” which had become so noble on the other side of the river Rhine.
That is about from that time that we want to start our investigation. I shall be then not just enumerating the composers who did a good job in the field of French songs, but also looking for the original way they had to find for themselves between light and serious music. I am not going to be thorough about every French song composer; I shall just mention a few of them, and stop at those whom I think significant for my purpose.
This beginning of French “mélodie” is in no way against the German Lied, but on the contrary, full of love and admiration. French audience knew of Schubert and Schumann through singers like Nourrit, and later Pauline Viardot. Of course through translations.
Music at that time was getting increasingly difficult technically, wherever in Europa. That applies to the voice to a certain extent, although a human voice is limited, certainly much more than a piano or any instrument. It means that the style of the songs is getting more and more professional.
In order to keep being a good song, the balance between text and music must remain simple and not sound technical: the audience must effortlessly attend to every aspect of the piece, that is, meaning of the text, tune, and piano part whatever it is.
So the French musicians first interested in composing songs inspired by the German art had to keep that in mind. They knew their audience, used to theatre and salon music, which had little to do with the church music behind the Lied.
What is most important for the quality of a song in whichever language is the text: it has not only to be good, but also to relate to the composer in his most intimate artistry. Sometimes too heavy, too “good” a text will not inspire the composer, who will prefer a more modest poetry. On the other hand, most songs or operas suffer from too weak a libretto or poetry, so the composer has to be careful not to waste his time and artistry.
The first composer getting openly influenced by German music is of course Gounod. He met with it when in Rom, where he spent a lot of time with Fanny Hensel, elder sister of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, composer of her own. She introduced Beethoven, Bach and Mendelssohn’s piano music to him, which opened a new world to the young man. From there you can date the famous Ave Maria, where Gounod composed a tune over Bach Prelude I from the first book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues. That is a case where the piano part was composed well before the tune.
Gounod was a very gifted musician, but not a very strong character, so he didn’t have the morality to follow his real taste for church music. The Mendelssohn thought that he was the future for church music in France, but he preferred earning lots of money in opera. A few of his songs are good, sincere, with the advantage that he keeps the simplicity. Sometimes too much, and his choice of texts is too often conventional. He wants to push himself socially, thinking that he is the French Mozart.
Gounod is the leader of a whole generation of salon composers. This music was extremely in demand, and played and sung by very many amateur artists. The idea of this music is also that it should be sung and played by the same person. The great singer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) used to perform her delightful songs from the piano. Lalo (1823-1892) is very often simple enough in that respect. Bizet (1838-1875) however is more demanding, and researching a good balance between an intelligent text and an independent pianist. Les Adieux de l’Hôtesse arabe on a text by Victor Hugo, although not showing off, is one of the greatest songs of the repertoire, with a discreetly percussive piano part, expressive of the incantation the singer wants to work on the listener.
It would be difficult to mention all this salon music, and not very useful, because hardly ever performed. The great opera composer Massenet (1842-1912) wrote pile of them, earned lots of money. It adds to the prejudice that all this salon music is not interesting. It is very unfair on some of it. Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) who, like Pauline Viardot, used to sing while playing, has since a few years come back into fashion. His choice of texts indeed made this come back possible: lots of Verlaine, but also Victor Hugo (Quand la nuit n’est pas étoilée, Si mes vers avaient des ailes), Théophile Gautier, Alphonse Daudet…
Relation to ancient music
Apart from this great hang to salon music, tying the so-called “mélodie” to an operatic style, there was in that time a more serious movement relating the song to church music and ancient music. It was initiated by a not very well known composer named Louis Niedermeyer (1802-1861). Although Saint-Saëns pretended he was the first to write what could be called a “Mélodie”, no more a “romance” of which the music would be unrelated to the text, he is only remembered as the founder of the Niedermeyer school where Saint-Saëns taught the young Fauré and André Messager (1853-1929).
Again you can see in the foundation of that school a will to get a more lasting ground to a music otherwise light and left to the decisions of the market. The aim of that school that opened 1853 was to reinitiate a real work on ancient music, what was not called yet “barock music”, but “the masters of the past”: Palestrina, Bach… Not far from the work of a Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Germany.
That was the schooling Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) received from the age of 8. His piano teacher was Saint-Saëns, who always remained a close friend, and close to his musical preoccupations. The fact that he was, very young, in contact with church modes that had nothing whatsoever to do with salon, opera or concert music of that time makes his style unique.
Fauré is probably the best-known composer of French songs; therefore I am not going to say much about his life. To my purpose, I shall only say that his music is said to be “salon music” in a derogatory way, where we know that the foundation is church.
Fauré’s song writing doesn’t look for big effects. He seems to obey inner rules, unrelated to what the establishment or the market would demand on composers. One doesn’t know much about his life; he was very discreet but not tortured by the unhealthy commands of the catholic religion. Love affairs he had, although one can only guess the real truth. That makes his music very openly sensuous; one only has to respect his tempo markings and general indications to become aware of the pulse and liveliness lying under very restraint writing.
He certainly wrote to be performed in salons, where else? Some of them are just a perfect balance of what a song should be: a sensitive text effortlessly understood, while the piano part underlines the point of this text and nothing is lost, either of singing, right or left hand.
Fauré wrote much more difficult songs toward the end of his life. He was practically deaf then, with strong aural disorder. This supposedly too easy composer turned to obscurity in La Chanson d’Eve, obliging the audience to listen and listen again to something unexpected. His last song cycle, L’Horizon chimérique (1921), however, comes back to a more popular way of writing: simple, unaffected and sensitive.
His friend Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote also melodies that are not all of the level above salon music, but that suffer all of the same prejudice. His settings into music of Victor Hugo in particular are first class music: la Fiancée du Timbalier, Attente, la Cloche, Le Pas d’Armes du Roi Jean should be more often performed. With Camille Saint-Saëns we see an remarkable instance of prejudice: he was considered a revolutionary man in his youth, defending instrumental music against the ruling Italian opera, he became towards the end of his life representative of a style of music that belonged to a past one didn’t accept anymore.
We get now to the composers who bowed to the Wagner operas to the point of not being able to compose after him… Of course that didn’t happen only to French composers.
You get a very strong instance of ideological tensions leading to masterpieces with the composer Henri Duparc (1848-1933). Duparc was a passionate French nationalist, and a no less passionate Wagner admirer. That went indeed to a clash. The 1870 war split the relations between France and Germany, otherwise rich. Duparc had a nervous disorder, not registered by the medicine of that time, which prevented him to carry his composing after 1885. 17 songs remain to us, the rest of his work he burned.
They are definitely post Wagnerian, some of them even quoting tunes. Elégie sounds like Traüme. Although they sound as if they belong to an orchestral style, and some of them are indeed orchestrated, I prefer those songs with piano, where the clarity of the text and of the prosody is better respected.
It was obviously very difficult for Duparc to keep both of his standards, and combine the shamelessly complicated composing style of Wagner with the fluidity required by a song. To his opinion, he was successful only 17 times, leaving us 17 jewels.
Chausson (1855-1899) suffers to day from texts that we don’t understand. Le Temps des Lilas (Maurice Bouchor) and La Chanson perpétuelle are supposed to be masterpieces, still, if you look closely at what the text says you have a problem. I much prefer Le Colibri (Lecomte de Lisle) or Les Heures (Camille Mauclair) where singer and pianist can put themselves behind what is said.
I want to draw your attention on a less known musician who wrote some of the best vocal music, and without whom Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc would not exist (so they said): Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894). He belongs to the Wagner fans, discovering the composer with Duparc, later sharing the passion with Vincent d’Indy. But he knew how to remain personal: the influence of his home country, the Auvergne, remained very strong. So he developed a style where the most daring harmonic remain sort of masked by simplicity and a great sense of humour.
He was a lawyer and worked at the Home Office until 1880, when he resigned to devote himself to composition. He was known as a great pianist and improviser, but his friends were nevertheless worried for him: he was still considered an amateur, a self-taught man who had never visited the big institutions, except for studying law. The piano pieces he wrote are brilliant and imaginative, Poulenc said of the Pièces pittoresques that they were as important to French music as the Préludes of Debussy.
He published six songs in 1890, a short time before illness prevented him from working. Ballade des gros Dindons, Pastorale des Cochons roses, Villanelle des petits Canards and Les Cigales on texts of the poets’s couple Edmond Rostand and Rosemonde Gérard are a unique instance of very sophisticated music on hilarious and biting texts. One cannot imagine les Histoires naturelles if they had not existed: as musicians, we are very often confined to an expression of lyricism, sentimentalism and passion that leaves out any “normal” human feeling for reality and intelligence. These songs are a big break towards realism.
Chanson pour Jeanne (Catulle Mendes) is supposed to be Ravel’s favourite song. Toutes les Fleurs (Edmond Rostand), L’Isle heureuse (Ephraïm Mikhael) are masterpieces, and Lied (Catulle Mendès) doesn’t have much German about it: light, fun, a perfect “divertissement” for grown up people.
Other songs of Chabrier were not published until after his death: only in 1913. L’Invitation au Voyage, which he didn’t want to push because he thought that the setting by Duparc was so good… which is true. It is nevertheless a very interesting setting, with obbligato bassoon, which is rare in romantic music. It is even more strongly evocative of the “artificial paradises” of opium than the Duparc setting is. The bassoon notes adds an uncanny atmosphere to the recitative of the singer on the arpeggios of the piano. The two Victor Hugo settings, Sommation irrespectueuse and Ruy Blas, and Tes Yeux bleus on a poem by Maurice Rollinat are exceptional songs. In this last song, like in Duparc Elégie, the quotation of Wagner Traüme is quite transparent. It is a pity that the text should be so poor.
It should be noticed that Chabrier was a friend of Verlaine, that he knew the best writers and painters in Paris, that he had a strong taste for theatre, literature and art of all kind… But it was obviously difficult for him to compose on a text he respected too much. The Rostands seem to have been just the good balance for him.
What emerges from this period of Wagner fanaticism are precisely those songs that didn’t want to prove something. All the students of César Franck (1822-1890), who himself wrote very few songs, Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), Guy Ropartz (1864-1955), want to demonstrate that a French composer can write Wagner music. Which doesn’t mean much to us to day. The texts often betray big feelings without much sincerity.
All these composers suffer more or less from the pressure of a mighty establishment: the world of Italian opera, the Wagnerism and later the “Ars Gallica”, defence of the French composers of instrumental music, and in the middle of a world looking for pleasure and money, the very power hungry local Roman Catholicism. This last one preyed heavily on almost all of them, and mostly on Duparc, Chausson, and later Messiaen.
An other world, other ideas from elsewhere had to come to give a new breath, a new freedom to these artists.
Resort to elsewhere: folk music , exotism, Russian, antiquity, middle age or renaissance poetry…
When composers, from France or elsewhere, got tired of too much sound and too big feelings, they turned towards simple tunes, or what they would call their roots.
This is one of the interesting aspects of Chabrier, and where he showed the way to most 20th Century composers, Ravel first of all: he looked for the tunes of his native country, the Auvergne and around, and harmonized them with respect but also imagination.
That was later the research of Maurice Emmanuel (1862-1938), with harmonisation a bit too marked but still very lively. You may include Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in this way of looking for a sound that is not more operatic or even rossinian, and of considering that a folk tune has richness and originality than can give new strength to an aging world of sound. Maurice Delage (1979-1961) looked towards Indian music to enrich his language.
The very strange composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) influenced very strongly all the new comers by forbidding any gush of sentimentality. To this day, we don’t know if he meant seriously all the music he wrote, or if he was pulling our legs forever…
I wonder whether Debussy (1862-1918) acted as big a revolution as Satie. Debussy very much composed the way he wanted; I don’t know whether his point was to change the musical world.
He was the one who introduced pentatonic scales in western music. He looked in every direction where sensuality was to be founded, assuming that western rules were boring.
If we look at his work after the point of view we have been following, he has been as much inspired and “prejudiced” by Wagner as any other composer was. Like Wagner, he wrote the texts of his 4 Proses lyriques (1892-1893), showing the same tendency to megalomania. The third one in particular, De Fleurs, shows in text and in lines that the composer had Im Treibhaus in mind. The sun that is so much to be feared (Ami des fleurs mauvaises, tueur de rêves, tueur d’illusions…) is the same one Tristan is so hateful of.
Debussy tried also, like a German composer, to write on big texts: The Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire are great and interesting music, but the texts are too big and the music too complicated, the audience is amazed but not quite happy… This is a case where the poetry stands on its own, doesn’t need music. To do justice to the greatness of the poet, the composer uses all his skills, and the point is lost: the text becomes unclear, and one doesn’t listen to the music.
I guess Debussy found a better balance between Verlaine and himself, writing one wonderful song after the other: Ariettes oubliées, two volumes of Fêtes galantes… Still, I feel that sometimes, his happiness while making music and his obvious pleasure in playing the piano don’t do justice to the very dark bitterness of Verlaine’s poetry, like in C’est l’Extase, for instance. Then the question is, do you want to hear Debussy, or do you want Verlaine?
Then Debussy, like Chabrier, like Victor Hugo, looked outside France for his inspiration, and composed Trois Chansons de Bilitis on texts by Pierre Louÿs which were moked translation from the Greek. They were scandalous, texts and music, (the story of a girl’s introduction to sex) as were scandalous the lives of the poet and the musician. One notices the use of the word “Chanson”, as if “Mélodie” was not the fashion anymore.
Debussy never tried to please anyone else than himself. So it is no wonder if his songs got more and more introverted in climate as Debussy grew older and lost his friends, disapproving of his private life. Trois Chansons de France (Charles d’Orléans, Tristan l’Hermitte), Le Promenoir des deux Amants (Tristan l’Hermitte), indeed Debussy is not looking for inspiration in fashionable poetry, but far in the past. That is what he is doing also in Trois Ballades de François Villon, his only songs for male voice. Here is no question of songs or melodies, but the “ballades” mean to be timeless. They are difficult to understand, not so much because of the music than because of old-fashioned French. As to the Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1912), neither music nor text is supposed to be easily accessible.
What is important in Debussy, and he was in that respect greatly influenced by Massenet’s operas, is his prosody. Until that time, French was set in a metric that was sort of all right for German or Italian, where the composers could accommodate the beats to the language. But in French, the so-called tonic accent is at the end of the sentence, whatever is being said. That is, the accent is at the end of the word, or, at the end of the group of words, or, at the end of the sentence. It means that marking the first beat is absolutely prohibited in French music, more than in any other music.
Debussy also made a large use of triplets, that shouldn’t be emphasized as in German: to speak in triplets is natural for French, not specially expressive.
All that leads to a more realistic way of speaking while singing. Nevertheless, although it sounds quite logical and necessary, it doesn’t appeal to the audience as much as big arias do.
That brings us to the unique Histoires naturelles that Ravel ((1875-1937) composed in 1906 on texts by Jules Renard. They were as scandalous as later the Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring. One talks about the novelty of his suppression of the mute e that hitherto composers carried on putting into music. Think of Fauré writing long notes on this e. I can’t believe that an ‘e’ could be such an issue. I think that what was scandalous about the Histoires naturelles is that they are absolutely void of lyrical feeling.
This was new, absolutely “unromantic” and antiwagnerian. Ravel let himself be inspired by folk music of all countries, by poets of the past (Clément Marot), Ronsard, by Debussy of course, by Satie and the Russian composers (most of all Mussorgsky) who also greatly influenced Debussy and later Poulenc.
So we are in a world where the greatest composers don’t communicate well with their audience… So the western world broke up and that was World War 1. Patriotism is a great feeling that was compulsory at the time, and one can understand that the establishment not at all accepted the renunciation to “great feelings” in music.
The artistic world that followed this big outburst of feeling was necessarily mistrustful of feeling. But it was not easy for creators to find a way of being honest with themselves while keeping in peace with the audience who massively rejected the dryness of “modern music”.
Roussel (1869-1937) is one of those composers who wrote too heavy music on too heavy texts. Still, I want to mention one of the most beautiful French song ever written. Roussel write La Réponse d’une épouse sage on a Chinese poem by Chang Chi (710-782) translated by Henri-Pierre Roché. Here again, French artists look outside their world for solutions against sentimentalism. The “honest wife” is also honest with herself and the music, getting influences from eastern art, is moving while remaining restrained, or because it doesn’t let go to “big feelings”.
A poet had a very special influence on music: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963).
Jean Cocteau belonged to a upper class family who did not succeed in making him study properly law or whatever. He remained all his life apart from a well thinking society. He was gifted for so many things that it is still common to reproach him for investigating too many fields of art: not only poetry, but also movie making and painting. Still, the fact that he didn’t have to please anyone else than himself and that he refused to be attached to one ideology gives him to day his full value as an artist. He was open, artistically candid, and enthusiastic for other people’s work. Still, he didn’t want to be closed inside a movement or an ideology and didn’t belong to the Surrealists.
He is known to have gathered around him, together with Satie, the rather heteroclite “Groupe des Six”. Now, they were extremely different, but Cocteau’s poetry pushed them to write some of their best vocal music. He had learned the lesson of lightness, and Milhaud, Honegger, Durey, Auric, Tailleferre didn’t composed heavy music on his texts. Still it was not music to please the audience…
Poulenc is very close to Cocteau, and his independency from the establishment became his best asset. Again, I shall not talk about someone so generally known. I shall just underline that he is still not acknowledged in France as one of the greatest song composer who ever existed, just because he didn’t care to follow the official French routes, the Conservatoire and the Grand Prix de Rome. He remained true to the texts he composed, changing his writing after the poet: his music is not the same for Eluard or for Cocteau, for Apollinaire or for Louise de Vilmorin.
What is for me very special is his gift of transformation, not getting closed inside a style: he wrote the most spiritual church music, and could still be daringly saucy in the Chansons gaillardes. Inside an ideologically dominated world, he could be clearly right wing by his name, family and connections, and still be honest and compose on Eluard, Aragon or Maurice Fombeure because their texts found a reflection in himself, whatever their literary value was.
The quatre Chansons pour les Enfants are highly stupid and thoroughly enjoyable. This way Poulenc can win whichever audience.
His wish is to remain popular, close to his audience. It must have been difficult to live for him, as he was, like Cocteau, considered an amateur. He listened to serial music, but couldn’t be brought to compose after so abstract an art and refused to get closed inside that ideology.
Now a day, next future…
I won’t talk about what the serial musicians might have decided to compose on texts. I don’t find it very useful for our concert programs, where after all we have to convince an audience that is already not so favourable to serious music. Texts and music are too heavy for me. As far as 20th Century music is concerned I find it better to investigate good popular songs.
We have to admit it is a fight to impose so good a composer as Joseph Kosma (1905-1969). Kosma came to France in the 30se with the idea to find a poet he could work with as Kurt Weill had worked with Brecht. He found Prévert and for the next 20 years both wrote the most beautiful and effective songs of these years, as good and effective as Poulenc’s. They became famous after the Liberation, as a manifest of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 50se. They met with the same problem than Kurt Weill’s songs: too difficult for popular singers to sing as written, in the right key, and too popular for art singers… Still, popular singers, performed them sometimes with “arrangements” spoiling the music, but so-called “classical” singers didn’t rush to call this music their own.
Of course some of them did: Régine Crespin always liked to sing light songs, but I never heard of her stepping forward to record them. On the other hand the great Austrian singers Irmgard Seefried and Gerald Stolze recorded them for the Radio in Köln and had them published in German.
I met with Kosma’s widow, Marie Kosma, in my youth, and she gave me Kosma’s music with the hope I could help with giving it to “real” singers. Of course these singers had to have intelligence of the text and a real projecting diction, otherwise music and poetry together, that is to say, the song, would be like cold coffee.
How often does one find real singers with real art of recitalist? And does the audience expect it really? Don’t they expect real singers not to be understood? Do they listen to the text, in songs or in opera? Isn’t it mad to think that the work on the voice, the sort of added value on the organ, means a loss of expressivity on the text?
Why do we have to separate the world of music and the world of meaning?
I have now in my class as a singer a young woman who is writing a dissertation on the settings into music of Rimbaud. Well, she has of course to work on Britten’s settings, that is all right… Otherwise she has to work on unknown contemporary music, and she is to avoid any analysis of songs written by honest folk songs writers, unless she mentions it as general opinions around Rimbaud.
That will be my conclusion about the state of ideology around French songs. We have come to a time where our idea about our repertoire doesn’t reflect the true state of things. On the other hand, for a very long time, English speaking audience and artists have more accurately received this repertoire than we did. Now Eastern world is getting interested as well and will have its word to say about what they like to perform and listen to.
I do think we will have to combine both academic and light worlds in order to create songs that sound like us. I know that this may happen, that composers and interprets are ready for such a move. The future will say… I am at the moment working on songs written by Vincent Bouchot, himself singer and a composer, and seeing that he is heading towards intelligence and lightness. I hope you will hear them sometimes.
I didn’t mention all composers who suffered from ideological prejudice. Caplet (1875-1925), Sauguet (1901-1989)… Like most 20th Century composers, they had to follow the dictates, self-imposed or not, of the different movements: surrealism, serialism… They wanted their music to answer an idea, rather than letting it flow. How difficult!
The composers, the artists who succeeded in giving us lasting pleasure in performing and listening to them were quite independent, to the point of being often almost anarchists. I think it was their response to an otherwise too strong musical establishment. Song is a simple form, and free…
As said the American composer Leonard Bernstein, “God loves a simple song”. Not only God…
 Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes, A French Song Companion, Oxford University Press, 2000
 Guide de la Mélodie et du Lied, edited by Brigitte François-Sappey and Gilles Cantagrel, Fayard, Paris, 1994
 Michel Noiray, Charles Burney, Voyage musical dans l’Europe des Lumières : traduction, préface, notes et index, Paris, Flammarion, 1992