Francis Poulenc Mélodies sur les poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire Paul Éluard & Federico García Lorca, Chansons gaillardes


Francis Poulenc
Songs on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire
Paul Éluard and Federico García Lorca
Chansons gaillardes (texts of the 17th century)

Laurent Naouri (baritone)
David Abramovitz (piano Steinway)

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°252


Francis Poulenc, songwriter or painting poetry in music

Apollinaire : poetry for the eye

"As regards punctuation, I have not done away with it because it seemed useless to me and indeed, it is; the very rhythm and cut of the verses : that is true punctuation, and there is no need for any other. […] I generally compose while walking and singing two or three tunes that have come to me naturally and that one of my friends has written down. Standard punctuation would not apply to such songs." Thus composes Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) in 1912.

""Montparnasse" is a marvellous poem written in 1913, Poulenc tells us. I came up with the music for the verse “Un poète lyrique d’Allemagne” at Noizay in 1941, and all the end (from “Vous connaissez de son pavé”) at Noizay, in 1943. The first two verses around 1944 in Paris. There remained a few verses, including the terrible incident: “Donnez-moi pour toujours une chambre à la semaine”. I caught it in mid-air at Noizay in 1943. Then, I let the fragments steep and polished everything in three days, in Paris, in February 1945. This method of working in spurts might seem surprising. However, it has become fairly customary for me when it comes to songs. As I never, for the sake of facility, transpose into another key music that I have just found for a verse or even for a few works, it follows that the patching is often difficult and that I need to stand back a bit in order to find the exact place where I must sometimes modulate."

Comparing the confessions of these two creators perhaps conceals one of the reasons why, from 1918 to 1956, Poulenc remained faithful to Apollinaire, even though, in 1952, he admitted to no longer recognising himself in it.

Poulenc’s first encounter with Apollinaire’s poetry dates from 1918 when he discovered Calligrammes, thanks to Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop which was patronised by the pride of the Parisian intelligentsia. The previous year, Poulenc had fleetingly rubbed shoulders with Jacqueline and Guillaume Apollinaire at Montparnasse and retained the memory of the poet’s "half-ironic half-melancholy" voice. "However, all of a sudden, a great laugh violently shook his heavy stature, and then a cascade - not of simple words, but of ideas - burst from him with a nabob’s profusion. Modern art owes so much to Apollinaire. He was the first poet I set to music."

The poems of Le Bestiaire, which Poulenc worked on in 1919, have something of the pre-Surrealist aphorism, and it seems to us that the Four Poems are of the same order, to be sung "without irony, believing in them". From that moment on, one might wonder about what attracted Poulenc, both in the collection Il y a (from which come three poems of Banalités and three of the Four Poems) as well as in Calligrammes. The response seems to be contained in the way in which he claimed to compose, by separate phrases that he then assembled in an almost Cubist collage manner. Yet, it so happens that many of Apollinaire’s poems, whether calligrammes or not, were conceived in the same way; seeing several poems overlap in one. Sanglots (the fifth song in Banalités) would be a perfect example, with the verses of the second poem able to be spotted typographically through the use of indented lines.

With Calligrammes, Apollinaire pushed this visual element of his poetry to the extreme. The musician thus continued to use them in order to compose by phrases, creating calligrammes of modulations in the image of the layout of the poems. And nonetheless, Calligrammes, subtitled "Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre" ("Poems of peace and war", 1913-1916), remain for him anchored in the atmosphere of the First World War, hence the dedications to his friends of the time, from Simone Tilliard to Jacques Soulé, as well as Jacqueline Apollinaire and her sister Jeanne Manceaux. The war is present above all in two songs : Mutation, which Poulenc set as a very fast waltz in the middle of which the interjections ‘Eh! Oh! Ah!’ form a refrain, and Aussi bien que les cigales, in which people from the South of France are Apollinaire’s companions in arms. The other poems are related more to peace, to love for L’Espionne ("The Female Spy") and Voyage, "which goes from emotion to silence, by way of melancholy and love", this final melody being dedicated to Raymonde Linossier, a youthful love of the composer’s. For Il pleut, in which Apollinaire arranged the lines vertically, Poulenc very cleverly displaces the calligramme from the line to the drop : rippling notes in a tempo marked "as fast as possible" expressing the rain in a way that reminds us of his admiration for Debussy.

Whereas Banalités was a collection of circumstances or situations, Calligrammes forms a consciously constructed whole, the keys subtly organised around a main colour, that of F sharp minor, in which the cycle opens and concludes. In this regard, one will notice that, contrary to what Poulenc wished to make us believe, some of his songs were indeed transposed, the keys appearing in a letter to Pierre Bernac dated 18th July 1948 being shifted by a half-tone in relation to those in the printed score… Faithful to the free verse of his poet, Poulenc adopts a key signature free of all accidentals, whereas the keys are quite clearly asserted.

Another common ground between Apollinaire and Poulenc was Paris. For although Poulenc willingly settled in Touraine to work in his country home at Noizay, he above all loved the Paris of his childhood and that of the guinguettes (open-air dance halls) of Nogent-sur-Marne. By highlighting the word "Paris", Voyage à Paris (in Banalités), as in Les Mamelles de Tirésias by the same Apollinaire, Montparnasse, and also La Grenouillère all attest to this. The latter "evokes a beautiful lost past of easy and happy Sundays. I of course thought of those lunches in straw hats painted by Renoir, in which the women’s bodices and the men’s vests have other agreements in addition to colour. Also evoked, with my customary egotism, are the banks of the Marne dear to my childhood. It is the collision of their dinghies that provides the rhythm from start to finish of this tenderly haunting melody."

Éluard : lyricism and religious sense

Poulenc discovered Paul Eluard (1895-1952) in the same way and at the same time as Apollinaire, thanks to Adrienne Monnier. But this discovery was coupled with meeting the man, who quickly became a friend. Eluard, of whom Poulenc said that he was the only Surrealist poet interested in music, attested to this rare effect of reciprocal revelation that established itself between the poem and the melody :

Francis, I was not listening to myself
Francis, I am in your debt for having heard me
On a completely white road
In a vast landscape
Where the light is re-immersed

At night there are no more roots
The shadow is behind the mirrors
Francis, we dream of expanse
Like a child of endless games
In a starry landscape

That reflects only youth.

However, Poulenc would wait until 1935 before writing the Five Poems, followed by the setting of some thirty others as songs or a cappella choruses including the extraordinary cantata, Figure humaine. With Eluard, it is lyricism that penetrates Poulenc’s vocal art, along with a metaphysical dimension : his return to Catholicism dating from 1936. With their success, their profundity and their structural coherence, the cycles on poems of Eluard rise to the level of the great German lieder cycles and perhaps more particularly those of Schumann, given the importance of the piano part.

La Fraîcheur et le feu, whose title was suggested to the composer by Eluard, came into being in 1950, thirteen years after Tel jour telle nuit, the first important collection devoted to the poet after the experiments of the Five Poems of 1935. Taking up the antithesis of the title for musical ends, Poulenc created a cycle unified by the prelude (and postlude) of Rayon des yeux that he brings back as a conclusion to La Grande rivière qui va. Faithful to syllabic declamation, without vocalise or textual repetition, he multiplies preludes and postludes, reviving an almost Romantic function of a piano with voluble writing.

The literary work was conceived as seven poems making up a single poem (originally entitled Vue donne vie) that became seven songs organised into a cycle according to a play of alternation between coolness (fraîcheur) and fire (feu), fast and calm tempi. Unis la fraîcheur et le feu, in fifth position, serves as a synthesis, while other thematic links are established, as between Tout disparut and, precisely, Unis la fraîcheur et le feu. The first mentions Stravinsky’s Serenade in A, justifying the cycle’s being dedicated to the illustrious elder. Moreover, it is to the finale of that four-movement serenade that Poulenc refers, delighting in the idea of having concocted for Stravinsky "one of the only dishes for which he does not have the secret".

Already during Paul Eluard’s lifetime, Poulenc had planned on setting poems from his collection Voir, in homage to painters. Out of the thirty-two poems, the composer chose seven : Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miró and Villon (pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp’s brother). We have already seen, as regards Apollinaire, how visual elements of poetry could inspire the composer. With Le Travail du peintre, he accepts the challenge of expressing his passion for painting in music, while conforming to the Baroque tradition of the musical portrait à la Couperin. The texts that he left at the same time as his music are full of references to the visual arts, notably the Feuilles américaines, a diary he kept for the publishing firm La Table ronde on his second journey to the United States. These pages show us a Poulenc avid for visiting American museums, almost going into ecstasies in front of a Saint Francis by Zurbarán, trying to reveal to the American tourist the grandeur of Watteau or the inner relationship between Proust and Renoir, Renoir whom we have already mentioned regarding La Grenouillère. They also reveal his dislikes : the three Gs that are (Van) Gogh, Gauguin and (El) Greco. The challenge of Le Travail du peintre consists of expressing not only Éluard’s poem, but also the artist and his style. One will remember the haughty pride of Picasso who imposes himself in C major on an unthwarted rhythm. In a waltz of heterogeneous musical objects, Chagall expresses the dancing spatial breakdown of pictorial elements. In Poulenc’s view, Braque gives rise to the most detailed melody of the set. For Gris, there is a lack of ornamentation, a certain dryness for Klee, an explosion of light in Miró, and then Villon seems to take up again with Picasso, confirming that Le Travail du peintre is intended as a cycle. The painter’s ‘work’? Only Picasso really responds to this project as concerns the poetic text. Honour to whom honour is due, and of carrying off the whole!

One name, however, was missing for Poulenc : that of Matisse. But Eluard did not admire him as much, and the composer remained faithful to the memory of his poet. However, we would indeed have liked to hear the portrait of that artist whose work, evolving towards a lightening and a purification always inspired Poulenc in his musical writing : "going from the complex to the simple line".

Spanish parenthesis

Fascinated by the Spanish music that Falla introduced him to, and shocked by the assassination of poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s supporters in 1936, Poulenc dedicated his Sonata for violin and piano along with Three Songs - which did not satisfy him much more - to him. Should it be French or Spanish? Poulenc hesitated, making Adelina à la promenade (Parisian jota) and Chanson de l’oranger sec (sarabande) sprawl over both sides of the Pyrenees! The fact remains that L’enfant muet cherchant sa voix is a beautiful sketch of melodic research.

A certain french taste

The Poulenc of Paris and Nogent appeared to us in La Grenouillère; here he returns with unfailing humour in Nous voulons une petite sœur, an irresistible art/popular song. This furnishes the occasion for recalling the fondness of one who would so have liked to be Maurice Chevalier for "exquisite bad music" because, for him, this distinction between genres had no meaning. "From my childhood on, I associated, without discernment, in a common love, the bal musette and the Suites of Couperin", Poulenc confided to Stéphane Audel. If, quantitatively, his songs tend more to the art side, it is worth remembering how much Poulenc revelled in popular music and the café-concert.

Like the Poèmes de Ronsard, the Chansons gaillardes (1926) show Poulenc searching for "half-erotic half-elegiac" French roots, without ever lapsing into vulgarity. All his songs illustrate his feeling for words, a delight in transparent declamation that would be the outline of a picture in which the piano would take on colour and substance.

Lucie Kayas

La voix humaine

"I love singing for singing…" Francis Poulenc

In Francis Poulenc’s output, instrumental music occupies less room than vocal music in all its forms : voice with piano, voice with instruments, voice and orchestra, a cappella choruses… It is not arbitrary to state that the composer, as much in love with poetry as with singing, found in the human voice the instrument best suited to express that which was most profound, most essential in him, be it sensual or spiritual, sacred or profane.

From his beginnings in 1918 and 1919, Le Bestiaire and Cocardes prevailed over the Mouvements perpétuels and the Sonata for piano four hands. The composer was then entirely himself in his songs, but also in the Sonata for 2 clarinets, since wind instruments, which call upon breath, are closer to the human voice.

In "My Songs and Their Poems", a lecture given on 20th March 1947, Francis Poulenc admitted that he had passionately loved poetry since childhood : at the age of 10, he already knew Mallarmé’s Apparition by heart. In the course of the same lecture, he said: "I love singing for singing" (Italian singing, Pierre Bernac would specify). While he loved poetry as a child, the musician also knew how to appreciate the qualities of singers. A Journal de vacances ("Holiday Diary") from 1911-12, in À bâtons rompus, published by Actes Sud, informs us that, at the age of 12, Francis Poulenc had attended a performance of Tosca and judged Léon Campagnole and Arlette Bergès with a discernment that was quite rare for one so young : "I had quite a fine time, I assure you, for everyone played very well. Campagnole, very much à l’italienne, which was marvellous. Moreover, he has a splendid voice. As for Bergès, she has quite a pretty voice and considerable diction. She was quite good, especially in the last two acts, for her voice is a bit piercing in the upper register…"

Francis Poulenc treated the human voice in all its states : voluble or floating, capricious or elegiac, frivolous or serious. He married it to poetry and liturgical texts with an amorous intelligence that was never mistaken. He courted it, and for that, it repaid him in kind.

Jean Roy

Laurent Naouri


In 1986, after completing his engineering studies, Laurent Naouri decided to devote himself to singing. Trained at the CNIPAL (National Centre for the Professional Insertion of Lyric Artists) of Marseille, then at the Guildhall School of Music in London, he gained stage experience in the course of his studies, before making his actual début at the Théâtre Impérial in Compiègne, in 1992, in the title role of Darius Milhaud’s Christophe Colomb.

From that time on, engagements have multiplied in a highly varied repertoire ranging from Claudio Monteverdi to contemporary composers. For his 1996 début at the National Opera in Paris, he portrayed Thésée in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, conducted by William Christie. Since then, he has appeared at both Parisian houses, the Palais Garnier and the new Opéra-Bastille, in Manon, Le nozze di Figaro, L'Enfant et les sortilèges, Handel’s Alcina, and Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and Platée.

These have been followed by numerous new roles : Evgeni Onegin (title role); the four evil spirits in Les Contes d'Hoffmann; Hidroat in Gluck’s Armide; Mephistopheles in La Damnation de Faust; Fieramosca in Benvenuto Cellini; Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande with Bernard Haitink conducting and Anne Sofie von Otter as Mélisande; Orphée aux Enfers (Jupiter) with Natalie Dessay and La Belle Hélène (Agamemnon) with Felicity Lott, both under the direction of Marc Minkowski.


Steinway Concert Grand



guillaume apollinaire

La grenouillère

Chanson d’Orkenise
Fagnes de wallonie
Voyage à Paris

Quatre poèmes
Avant le cinéma

Vers le sud
Il pleut
La grâce exilée
Aussi bien que les cigales


Chansons gaillardes textes anonymes du 17e siècle
La maîtresse volage
Chanson à boire
Invocation aux parques
Couplets bachiques
La belle jeunesse

Federico García Lorca

Trois chansons
L’enfant muet
Adelina à la promenade
Chanson de l’oranger sec

Paul Éluard

Le travail du peintre
Pablo Picasso
Marc Chagall
Georges Braque
Juan Gris
Paul Klee
Joan Miró
Jacques Villon

La fraîcheur et le feu
Rayon des yeux...
Le matin les branches attisent...
Tout disparut...
Dans les ténèbres du jardin...
Unis la fraîcheur et le feu...
Homme au sourire tendre...
La grande rivière qui va...

Jean Nohain

Nous voulons une petite sœur


"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°252

Francis Poulenc, qui avouait avoir associé "dés l'enfance dans un commun amour, le bal musette et les Suites de Couperin", donne du fil à retordre à ceux qui veulent chanter ses mélodies. A l'écoute des poètes de son temps, proche d'Apollinaire et d'Eluard, il a trouvé dans la structure même de leurs œuvres matière à nourrir son inspiration, qui procédait par incises, à la manière des cubistes.C'est dire que dans un même vers, dans une même phrase mélodique, un sentiment et son contraire peuvent coexister, qu'il faut guetter le clin d'œil dans les plus profondes déclarations et éviter de se lancer à corps perdu dans les plus gouailleuses des mélodies. Le baryton Pierre Bernac, que Poulenc considérait comme son interprète idéal, a laissé de nombreux témoignages de cet art entre chair et cuir, dans lequel le phrasé et l'articulation comptent davantage que la beauté du timbre. Nombre des mélodies, particulièrement celles à la tonalité sombre, réclament cependant une plénitude vocale dont le baryton hollandais Bernard Kruysen a fait preuve dans des interprétations qui sont restées comme des modèles.
Pour l'interprète moderne, la tâche est d'autant plus ardue que c'est un monde disparu, une sensibilité oubliée qu'il s'agit de faire revivre. Laurent Naouri, qui a été formé au bien-dire baroque et s'est révélé, sous la baguette de Bernard Haitink, être un Golaud étonnamment mûr dans le 
Pelléas et Mélisande de Debussy, s'y risque aujourd'hui et résout à bien des égards la quadrature du cercle. Son timbre chaud, qu'il sait alléger, son goût pour les mots et son talent à révéler ce qu'ils cachent ou suggérer ce qu'ils omettent, son humour fin et savamment distancé contribuent à retrouver cet esprit parisien qu habite aussi bien le terrible Montparnasse d'Apollinaire que l'évocateur Travail du peintre d'Eluard (magnifique "Braque"!). Ce programme qui parcourt le riche univers mélodique de Poulenc (avec les Trois chansons de Lorca, qu'il n'aimait pas mais qu restent touchantes dans leur volonté de saisir un monde étranger) est accompagné par le pianiste David Abramovitz. - François Lafon

"MusO Bonheurde MusO n°10

Laurent Naouri (en) chante Poulenc.
Saluons d'abord la présentation très soignée des produits du label indépendant Harmonic Classics, installé en Bretagne. Les livrets sont très complets et les prises de son exceptionnelles. Enregistré à l'Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, le disque des chansons de Francis Poulenc par le baryton Laurent Naouri accompagné de David Abramovitz est une des meilleures interprétations disponibles du cycle pour baryton sur les textes de Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Eluard et Federico García Lorca. Chaque chanson dépeint un tableau différent et il n'est plus nécessaire de décrire combien le compositeur est passé maître dans l'écriture vocale. Toutefois, Poulenc a parfois tendance à se laisser porter par ses habitudes d'écriture et Laurent Naouri réussit à donner originalité et vivacité à chacune de ses pièces, même les plus courtes. La Chanson de l'oranger sec, sur un texte de Lorca, lui donne l'occasion de mettre sa diction badine, grave mais toujours exemplaire au service du texte et de ses inflexions. On a toujours aimé le timbre de Naouri, notamment dans Debussy, Glück et Offenbach. Dans Poulenc, il est d'un humour enchanteur : sa Chanson d'Orkenise et la très amusante Nous voulons une petite sœur sont des modèles du genre. On admire également son polymorphisme vocal : dans Hôtel, le baryton montre qu'il peut être extatique, ses aigus sont d'une impressionnante précision (par exemple dans L'anguille) et le ton est exceptionnellement allègre et vif dans les Chansons gaillardes. On aimerait bien voir Laurent Naouri chanter sur scène ce programme extraordinairement savoureux qui a rarement connu interprétation si remarquable.- P. Guilmot
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