Francis Poulenc Mélodies sur les poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire

Francis Poulenc
Songs on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire
La Grenouillère
Quatre Poèmes

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."

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.



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



"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 le terrible Montparnasse d'Apollinaire... - 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... 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... 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  est un modèle 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)... 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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