Tag Archives: Gérard Souzay

French Poets Society

In Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand discuss the relative merits of poetry and music, trying to determine which of the two is the greater art.
What comes first? The words, or the music? and does it matter? Isn’t this debate akin to the age old chicken and egg question?

Regardless of the answer, I would like to offer that the words do matter a great deal, particularly when it comes to art song. After all, the poem usually precedes and even inspires the mélodie, at least in most cases. How is it then, that when it comes to approaching art song, many young singers simply ignore the poetry to dive head first into the singing. How many times have I had students come to a coaching with only a very superficial understanding of the literary underpinnings of the piece we were supposed to work on, not to mention a sometimes very vague idea of a translation! I would like to take the opportunity of this post to reiterate the importance of text, and to suggest that one always start working on all aspects of the poetry, before venturing into singing. This work includes (and is not limited to):

– Research of the literary sources, the poet or author, the historical context in which the poem or text was written.
– A great deal of reflection on the meaning of poetry that can be difficult to grasp at first.
– Diction work (IPA transcription, listening).
– Recitation, both in French, and in translation, without being bound to the rhythm chosen by the composer.

All of this before a single note has been sung!

In that spirit, I think some level of understanding and knowledge of the main currents of French poetry is necessary. This post is therefore dedicated to a brief overview of the French poetic landscape as it pertains to the French art song repertoire. The examples I will be using come from a wonderful project at Wheaton College, called “vive voix” (a play on words meaning “out loud” or “live voice”): a collection of audio recordings of French theater actors reciting poetry.

Medieval period and Renaissance:
The development of French mélodie really started in the 19th century and most of the familiar repertoire rests on poems written from that point on. Some composers did however feel a close connection to poets of earlier periods. Names like Charles d’Orléans or Clément Marot come to mind. The compliance to strict traditional forms, like the ballade or the rondeau, is one of the notable traits of their output, as is the use of “old” French (vieux français) which poses its own challenges.
Here is “Hiver, vous n’êtes qu’un vilain”, by Charles d’Orléans which was set to music by Claude Debussy. (click here)
An English translation is available at recmusic.org (click here)

Classical period:
We are talking here about the 17th and 18th centuries. Fixed forms like the rondeau tend to disappear, and the rhyme patterns become freer, imitating prose more closely. Poems of that period have not generated a great deal of art songs.
Here is Jean de la Fontaine’s La cigale et la fourmi which was set to music by André Caplet. (click here)
An English translation is available at recmusic.org (click here)

The 19th century
We now enter the bulk of the poems that inspired French composers to invent and perfect the art of French mélodie. There are several important currents in this time period, and it is very helpful to know their chronology as well as some of their characteristics.

Romantics: Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine are two of the most important poets of the romantic era. Emotional, dramatic, sometimes dark and brooding, the poetry of the era also reveals a fascination for the individual within the group. Romanticism will inspire later movements, such as realism and symbolism.
Here is Victor Hugo’s L’aurore s’allume, which was set to music by Gabriel Fauré. (click here)
An English translation is available at recmusic.org (click here)

Parnassians: The name comes from the literary magazine Le Parnasse Contemporain (in Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was believed to be the home of the muses). The poets who published their work in the magazine’s pages were generally writing in reaction to the romantics, and inspired by Théophile Gautier’s principle of “Art for Art’s sake” were mostly concerned with workmanship and traditionnal forms. They promoted a certain emotional detachment and enjoyed classical and exotic subject matters. The main names associated with the current are Théodore de Banville, Leconte de Lisle, and Paul Verlaine in the early stages of his career. Here is Banville’s Sculpteur, cherche avec soin. (click here)

Symbolists: This is a looser group of poets, encompassing the “poètes maudits” (cursed poets), some naturalists, and the darker offspring of late romanticism. They typically rejected poetic convention and were not afraid to deal with more licentious subjects. The term symbolism was coined by Jean Moréas in his Symbolist Manifesto. There is a great variety of styles and personalities at play here. Among the most notable were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé.
Here is Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au voyage which was famously set to music by Henri Duparc. (click here)
An English translation is available at recmusic.org (click here)

The 20th century
While there are a lot of different currents, groups and styles, a few traits dominate the period: the exploration of modern life as a source of inspiration; the growing use of free verse; the experimentation with drugs and altered states; the exploration of the absurd; the importance given to the subconscious mind, etc. One important movement emerged from all this: surrealism, with names such as Paul Eluard, André Breton and Jean Cocteau.
Here is Guillaume Appolinaire’s L’Ecrevisse, which was set to music by Francis Poulenc (click here)
An English translation is available at recmusic.org (click here)

This is certainly not an exhaustive survey, but I hope this will be a good starting point to put some order in all the poetry that one encounters in French mélodie.
I’ll finish with this recording of the great Gérard Souzay singing L’Invitation au voyage by Henri Duparc accompanied by Dalton Baldwin.