“C” poem by Louis Aragon, Monteverdi aria, as sung by Hugues Cuenod, Swiss tenor

This is a special posting. There will be many people who have not heard of Hugues Cuénod, who died in 2010 at 108. Cuénod had a light French tenor voice, and he was active in early music, when early music emerged as a category. He also seems to have sung everything in his Fach. Here are two pieces. The first is a famous poem by Louis Aragon, set to music by Francis Poulenc. The poem is called “C” because every line of the poem ends in cé in French. The second selection is an aria written by Monteverdi based on a poem by an anonymous poet. The thing to listen for in Cuénod is his diction and his extraordinary sensitivity to the words, the music, and a beautiful legato. Cuénod was an intensely expressive singer.

C

J’ai traversé les ponts de Cé
C’est là que tout a commencé
Une chanson des temps passés
Parle d’un chevalier blessé

D’une rose sur la chaussée
Et d’un corsage délacé
Du château d’un duc insensé
Et des cygnes dans les fossés

De la prairie où vient danser
Une éternelle fiancée
Et j’ai bu comme un lait glacé
Le long lai des gloires fausées

La Loire emporte mes pensées
Avec les voitures versées
Et les armes désamorcées
Et les larmes mal effacées

O ma France, ô ma délaissée
J’ai traversé les ponts de Cé

C

I have crossed the bridges of Cé
it is there that it all began
a song of bygone days
tells of a wounded knight

of a rose on the carriage-way
and an unlaced bodice
of the castle of a mad duke
and swans on the moats

of the meadow where comes dancing
an eternal betrothed
and I drank like iced milk
the long lay of false glories

the Loire carries my thoughts away
with the overturned cars
and the unprimed weapons
and the ill-dried tears

O my France, O my forsaken France
I have crossed the bridges of Cé

I am going to quote from a book entitled “Francis Poulenc, the Man and his Songs”, by Pierre Bernac, translated by Winifred Radford, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1977, pp 187-188.

“The poem, C, evokes the tragic days of May 1940, when a great part of the French population fled before the invading armies. In the horrible exodus, the poet himself, and the bridges of Cé, close to Angers, had crossed the Loire, crowded with overturned vehicles and discarded weapons, in the total confusion of a forsaken France. The poet recalls his memories in a style that is extremely melancholy and poetically touching, like an old ballad. It has inspired the Poulenc to write a song, the harmonic climate and the melodic line of which have made it one of his most deeply moving and successful works.

It is essential that both the singer and pianist should achieve a perfect legato. Poulenc emphasizes that the piano part is very difficult owing to the play of pedals and the quick succession of eight notes chords which be be ‘veiled’. Even the four bars of piano introduction, which represent the curve of the bridge, are not easy to achieve successfully. . . .As always it is of prime importance to observe with the greatest care the indications of dynamics. The two first lines are pp, the two following lines are mf, then again pp and without any crescendo for the two following lines. If the singer cannot succeed in singing the high Ab pp, it is better not to attempt this song.”

“Eri già tutta mia”, by Claudio Monteverdi (Scherzi Musicali). Recorded in1967.

Eri già tutta mia,
Mia quel’ alma e quel core,
Chi da me ti desvia:
Novo laccio d’amore?
O bellezz’ o valore,
O mirabil constanza,
Ove sei tu?
Eri già tutta mia;
Hor non sei più.
Ah, che mia non sei più.

Sol per me gl’occhi belli
Rivolgevi ridenti,
Per me d’oro i capelli
Si spiegavan a i venti.
O fugaci contenti,
O fermezza d’un core,
Ove sei tu?
Eri già tutta mia;
Hor non sei più.
Ah, che mia non sei più.

Il gioir nel mio viso:
Ah che più non rimiri.
Il mio canto, il mio riso
È converso in martiri.
O dispersi sospiri,
O sparita pietate,
Dove sei tu?
Eri già tutta mia;
Hor non sei più.
Ah, che mia non sei più.

You were once all mine

You were once all mine,
mine were your heart and soul.
Who turned you away from me?
The lure of a new love?
O beauty, O valor,
O admirable constancy,
where are you now?
You were once all mine,
but no longer, no longer,
alas! you’re mine no longer.

To me alone you turned
your lovely smiling eyes,
for me alone you loosed
your golden hair to the wind.
O fleeting happiness,
O steadiness of heart,
where are you now?
You were once all mine
but no longer, no longer,
alas! you’re mine no longer.

Pleasure on my face, alas!
you’ll gaze upon no longer;
my song, my laugh
are changed to torture.
O scattered sighs,
O vanished pity,
where are you now?
You were once all mine
but no longer, no longer,
alas! you’re mine no longer.

Hugues Cuénod, born June 16, 1902 – died December 3 or 6, 2010

The notable Swiss tenor, Hugues (-Adhémar) Cuénod, received his training at the Ribaupierre Institute in Lausanne, at the conservatories in Geneva and Basel, and in Vienna.

Hugues Cuénod commenced his career as a concert singer. In 1928 he made his stage debut in Jonny Spielt auf in Paris, and in 1929 he sang for the first time in the USA in Bitter Sweet. From 1930 to 1933 he was active in Geneva, and then in Paris from 1934 to 1937. During the 1937-1939 seasons, he made an extensive concert tour of North America. From 1940 to 1946 he taught at the Geneva Conservatory. In 1943 he resumed his operatic career singing in Die Fledermaus in Geneva. He subsequently sang at Milan’s La Scala (1951), the Glyndebourne Festival (from 1954), and London’s Covent Garden (1954, 1956, 1958).

Hugues Cuénod was a singer who sang everything, from Machaut to Igor Stravinsky. Among his finest roles were W.A. Mozart’s Basilio, the Astrologer in The Golden Cockerel, and Sellem in the Rake’s Progress. An outstanding sight-reader, with a flair for the unusual, he has left a discographic heritage of the first order. Especially noted for his recordings of mélodie, J.S. Bach and Elizabethan song. He holds the record as the oldest person to make a debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the Emperor there in Turandot in 1987 at the age of 84. He repeated the role the following season for a total of 14 performances. His very last appearance on stage was in 1994, aged 92, when he sang M. Triquet in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières.

In an interview in 1997, 95-year-old Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod talked to pianist Graham Johnson, recalling pre-war Vienna and Paris, where he frequented aristocratic salons and worked with Nadia Boulanger. After the war, the new early-music boom relied heavily on his light, unmannered, natural sound, and Cuénod made several pioneering LP’s – his 1950 recording of François Couperin’s Lamentations prompted I. Stravinsky to ask him to sing in the premiere of The Rake’s Progress. Opera has been a constant thread, but at the heart of Cuénod’s repertoire is French song – he knew and worked with Arthur Honegger, Auric, Albert Roussel, Francis Poulenc and others.