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Dramatic Soprano

Régine Crespin, 2 poems of Louis Aragon (Poulenc)

By August 18, 2023No Comments

Francis Poulenc, (born Jan. 7, 1899, Paris, France—died Jan. 30, 1963, Paris), composer who made an important contribution to French music in the decades after World War I and whose songs are considered among the best composed during the 20th century. The following mélodies were published as “Two poems of Louis Aragon” in 1943″.

Poulenc was largely self-taught. His first compositions—Rapsodie Nègre (1917), Trois Mouvements Perpétuels, for piano, and Sonata for Piano Duet (1918) and his settings of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem Le Bestiaire and Jean Cocteau’s Cocardes (1919)—were witty pieces with streaks of impudent parody. Humour remained an important characteristic of his music, as in the Surrealistic comic opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947; The Breasts of Tiresias), based on a farce by Apollinaire.

In 1920 the critic Henri Collet grouped Poulenc with five other young French composers, calling them “Les Six.” The others were Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey; although they reacted in the same way to the emotionalism of 19th-century Romantic music and the Impressionism of Claude Debussy, they were in fact united by friendship more than by aesthetic ideals. Poulenc studied with the composer and teacher Charles Koechlin from 1921 to 1924. His ballet Les Biches (English title The Houseparty) was produced by Serge Diaghilev in 1924. He composed his song cycles Poèmes de Ronsard and Chansons gaillardes in 1924 and 1926. There followed more than 100 songs, chiefly on poems by Apollinaire (e.g., “Banalités,” 1940), and Paul Éluard (e.g., “Tel jour, telle nuit,” 1937).

In 1934 Poulenc appeared as piano accompanist to the baritone Pierre Bernac in the first of many recitals over several years, an experience that deepened his understanding of the song as an art form. His songs, which range from parody to tragedy, are admired for their lyricism and for their sensitive integration of vocal line and accompaniment. His Concert champêtre for harpsichord (or piano) and orchestra (1928) was written at the suggestion of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Like many of his keyboard works, it mingles the light, urbane character of 18th-century French keyboard music with 20th-century harmonies.


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


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

Fêtes galantes (Louis Aragon)

On voit des marquis sur des bicyclettes
On voit des marlous en cheval-jupon
On voit des morveux avec des voilettes
On voit les pompiers brûler les pompons

On voit des mots jetés à la voirie
On voit des mots élevés au pavois
On voit les pieds des enfants de Marie
On voit le dos des diseuses à voix

On voit des voitures à gazogène
On voit aussi des voutures à bras
On voit des lascars que les longs nez gênent
On voit des coïons de dix-huit carats

On voit ici ce que l’on voit ailleurs
On voit des demoiselles dévoyées
On voit des voyous On voit des voyeurs
On voit sous les ponts passer des noyés

On voit chômer les marchands de chaussures
On voit mourir d’ennui les mireurs d’œufs
On voit péricliter les valeurs sûres
Et fuir la vie à la six-quatre-deux

Fêtes galantes

one sees dandys on bicycles
one sees pimps in petticoats
one sees brats with veils
one sees firemen burning their pom poms

one sees words thrown on the rubbish-heap
one sees words carried aloft
one sees the feet of the children of Mary
one sees the backs of cabaret singers

one sees gasogene powered cars
one also sees handcarts
one sees fellows whose long noses hinder them
one sees eighteen-carat fools

one sees here what one sees elsewhere
one sees girls gone astray
one sees ruffians, one sees voyeurs
one sees the drowned passing under the bridges

one sees shoe makers out of work
one sees egg candlers dying of boredom
one sees reliable values in jeopardy
and life fleeing in a slapdash way.

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.”

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.

“Even the most tragic periods are not without their absurdities. This ludicrous and cynical poem recalls, the form of a parody of the hard days of the occupation – the many kinds of restrictions, the deterioration of certain expressions and certain true values. It is not typically French ‘to be ready to laugh at everything for fear of being obliged to weep’?

Poulenc has set this txt to music ‘in the style of a catchy cabaret song’ with, as he says himself ‘commonplace harmonies and the rhythms of the bazaar.’ Its buffoonery is given free reign and interpreters can enjoy themselves with it, on condition that they maintain the tempo: incroyablement vite ♩ = 152 at least (dans le style des chansons-scies de café-concert).”

From Graham Johnson’s book “Poulenc, the life in the Songs”, Liveright Publishing Corporation: 2020 New York, pp.296-297

“The title of Aragon’s poem turns on its head the idea behind the courtly Fêtes galantes poems by Paul Verlaine (inspired by Antoine Watteau’s paintings) of the outdoor parties in the gardens of Louis XV’s Versailles, where wooing and flirtations were governed by elaborate etiquette. Here, everything is up for grabs. Aragon jeers at the loss of elegance in a nation that has prided itself on that very quality, even if nonchalance remains indestructible.

A way to interpret the poem is to imagine everyone heaped together on one, long, crammed road. And when that happen? In June 1940, the entire Parisian population was apparently convinced (inaccurately, as it turned out) that the arrival of the “Bosch” would lead to bombardment and large-scale destruction, and left the city en masse -which seems to me exactly what Aragon describes here, with the relish of Schadenfreude. There is a grim calling to account: descendents of “aristos” whose japes on the lawn of Versailles typified a feckless existence are now forced into a game where their power and privilege count for nothing, and where they must compete for survival with the working class.

Poulenc, still enlisted at this time, was not involved in this bizarre exodus, which resulted in almost surrealist reversals of normality amid an unprecedented mixture of humanity. Poulenc’s decision to cast his song in the implacable rhythm of a chanson-scie (a music-hall genre featuring obsessive repetition – in this case the “On voit” beginning each line) softens Aragon’s contempt, and finds an excuse for hoopla of the we-are-all-in-this-together variety. Once again the composer trades a left-wing sneer at the suddenly downgraded aristocracy and bourgeoisie for something more genial. For Aragon, the “true values in jeopardy” reveals his hopes for the coming Bolshevik revolution, whereas for Poulenc, the whole scene is a blip in the comédie humaine.”