With this re-issue recording, soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Marc-André Hamelin explore the history of the French song (therefore, also French poetry) from Fauré to Poulenc, via Ravel, Debussy, Arthur Honneger and Émile Vuillermoz.

Most suitable for hosting a date chez soi: The Fauré songs, especially Clair de lune and En sourdine, both to words by Verlaine. The beautiful longueurs, the elaborate sound paintings, the way the piano continues the song when the voice falls silent — all build an atmosphere of intimacy and expectation.

Most erotic, no contest: Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis (La flûte de Pan, La chevelure, Le tombeau des Naïades) to the poetry by Pierre Louÿs. Gorgeous, dark, sexy text, which could be summed up as Anaïs Nin-erotica-meets-Symbolism, intertwines with the equally gorgeous music in many shades of danger and after-love-is-gone melancholy.

Most imaginative: Paganini, by Poulenc to the words by Louise de Vilmorin, in which the many notions of the violin are teased out. Violon chevalier du silence / Jouet évadé de bonheur / Poitrine des mille présences / Bateau de plaisance / Chasseur.

The funnest: Poulenc’s Fête galante, to the poem by Louis Aragon. Irreverent and playful; poetical roller-coaster, and also social commentary. Jacques Brel is its cousin.

Best sixteenth-century escapism: ‘Saluste du Bartas’, Honegger’s cycle (written by Pierre Bedat de Monlaur) about a Gascon poet who was also a lover of the Queen Marguerite of Navarre. Honegger composed it in 1941, and as a combination of the late Romantic beauty of sound and frequent if gentle dissonance, it’s only a very partial escapism.

Most catchy tune, yet you wonder if it means what you fear it means: the folkish Cœcilia (Vuillermoz, to a traditionelle song) with a cheerful tune, seemingly about a girl who falls in love with a sailor. The disturbance provided by the insistent recurring verse “Sautez mignonne Cœcilia” (Jump, pretty Cecilia). Is this about a punishment for ‘lost honour’? About an eloping girl jumping into a boat and sailing away? About a Senta of sorts?

What comes to mind while listening to Gauvin: this woman doesn’t have any breaks between registers. She is equally alto-mezzo-soprano. Seriously, people. This voice is equally muscular from the dark bottom to the stainless-steel top.

Another question coming to mind: why did the song as a viable composition form die out? Was it because the Lieder and the mélodies sustained themselves primarily through the sale of the piano and vocal scores and were performed in private homes by the bien-élevé women and men, when playing the piano and singing was important part of the general education?

Sampling table for the Fête galante is laid on its ATMA Classique page. The customarily good liner notes are by Irène Brisson.

12 thoughts on “Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur

  1. why did the song as a viable composition form die out?

    Well has it? It was certainly alive and well well into the third quarter of the 20th century. I’m having a bit of a hard time coming up with much contemporary music for voice and piano specifically but there’s plenty for voice and small ensemble. I think Simon Rattle has even gone so far as to call it the normal or dominant mode for composers expressing their most intimate thoughts.

    1. I’m sure some people still compose art songs. But the form doesn’t mean what it used to mean, I don’t think. The fact that you can’t remember any seriously important song cycle for an instrument or for a chamber ensemble composed in the last 35 years is exactly what I had in mind. (Apart from pop music, where the song did continue a different kind of existence).

      I do think that the end of the practise of piano playing and singing to the piano at home has something to do with it — I wish I had historico-sociological studies to back it up. Cole Porter’s main source of revenue was still the sheets, but how later after that? Would be interesting to know how it all petered out and transferred itself to pop culture and to a more spectatorly, less participatory ways of enjoying the art song.

      Interesting what you say about Rattle. There’s this series about the 20th-c music that he MCs, in which there’s not a single mention of art song. (Though the series does focus on orchestral music; but I can’t imagine a similar series about the art song. Or it would be a short one.)

      I am open to being convinced otherwise, though. Maybe I’m missing an entire hidden canon of recent half century, in which case I’d love to know more about it.

      1. I can certainly think of works for small ensemble and solo voice. Golijov’s Tenebrae comes to mind instantly. Piano and voice not so much though I shall do some digging. I doubt Britten made much of his income off sheet music.

        OK! digging…

        Kurtag – Kafka Fragments for sop and violin
        Ned Rorem – over 300 songs for voice and piano
        Judith Weir – various works for unaccompanied voice or voice and small ensemble

        There’s also the NMC Songbook

      2. A piano teacher of my late acquaintance once quoted me a number for pianos sold in the last decade of the 19th century and I remember it being quite staggering. Can I remember the exact stat? Of course not. But I suspect it would support your theory.

        1. Even if young ladies still required a command of the pianoforte to ensure their marriageability I wonder how many of them would be playing/singing songs by Birtwistle, Henze or Turnage even if they were to write them.

          1. Or even Kaija Saariaho. And that’s precisely my point. I think the song has a certain bourgeois quality for many contemporary composers. (There, I said it.)

            Also, we’ve stopped reading poetry, we in Western societies. That might have played a role too.

            1. Two unrelated thoughts really. I would think Birtwistle and henze in particular would tend to present technical challenges beyond the average drawing room warbler. With Turnage it mught be more a question of likely subject matter.

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