Francis Poulenc has always captured my attention. With his iconic ballet Les Biches I was entranced by his portrayal of queer french society. Rhapsodie negré painted a portrait of America that I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently attended a small concert put on by Le Sérénade chamber series, featuring new music by Francis Poulenc, but additionally composers of Henri Sauget, Georges Auric, Igor Markevich, and Nicholas Nabokoff.1 The pieces were compiled from commissions of the Vicomte de Noailles. I soon found out from other attendees that it was the fourth performance of these pieces, the first being at the home of the Vicomte.2 It was at the Salle Pleyal, a very quaint recital hall, seating about 40 people.3 I saw Francis Poulenc himself, along with a few of the other composers. Roger Désormiéles conducted, and Gilbert-moran sang baritone.4 But I’m getting ahead of myself. Most of the pieces were quite nice, but it was Poulenc’s piece that really captured my attention. Le bal masque was pointed, interesting and rhythmic. I have always enjoyed Poulenc’s music, but this seemed a little different from his other works. Le bal masque portrays a turning point in Poulenc’s compositions from poignancy within frivolity to portraits of surrealism.
There were other concerts that I might’ve attended that night. Interestingly enough, Poulenc’s own Les Biches was being performed at the Opera-Comique! There were performances by the Ballet-Russes, popular performances by Yvonne Printemps and Sacha Guitry.5 None of these, however, interested me as much as seeing a rather new concert commissioned by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles. featuring these rather famous composers. It’s always interesting to listen to new compositions, and La Sérénade was the only concert that featured such music. It was an obvious choice. The concert hall itself was perfect for the occasion; intimate and rather simple. As the concert began, I enjoyed Sauget’s work for voice and small orchestra; I found it to be extremely pleasing. Markevitch’s Galop for piano and small orchestra was fun and clever.6 When Gilbert-moran walked on stage, the audience was expecting the same kind of frivolous, energy that the other pieces had presented to us. However, this was not the case in the least. Poulenc’s cantata was interesting, strange, and completely un-characteristic.
The piece began with a resounding piano chord, a descending melody, a chord played by all musicians and a loud jarring slap by the percussion. Soon after, a stumbling melodic line emerged played by the english horn. This kind of witty, percussive feeling continues throughout the entire piece, not just the opening movement. The baritone’s lines are rather jarring and extremely contrapuntal with the rest of the instruments. It’s a kind of clumsy dance between singer and orchestra, performed expertly in such a way that allowed the listener to enjoy it. The juxtaposition of the baritone with the instruments is important to notice. Poulenc still employs his characteristic frivolity and clever joy within his melodic lines, but again here is something different. The baritone fits uncomfortably with the other voices, not seamlessly as is usually observed. This is typical of surrealist works, both visual and aural. The man who named and defined the surrealism movement, André Breton, is known for his ability to place multiple objects together to create a whole that presents something to the audience that is unsettling, and bizarre. In Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, his manifesto, he defines surrealism as a fine line between reason and irrationality7; a line that Poulenc is clearly treading.
To claim that this was Poulenc’s first ‘toe-dip’ into the world of surrealism would not be accurate. He has often included aspects of surrealism into his works, with the use of individual melodies, juxtaposition of ridiculous images in his operas, and the idea of seriousness within frivolity. Les Biches is the perfect example of this. The ballet contains a completely serious plot, with traditional ballet music, and subtly silly costuming and choreography. Female dancers are dressed like men, yet are still courting their opposite gender. Male dancers are scantily clad, prancing about the stage with strange, angular arm movements. Again, it’s a contest of reality verses the ridiculous. Certainly that contrast could be regarded as a nod to surrealism. Yet here, in Le bal masqué, it’s more obvious, and more pointed. It’s the juxtaposition of texts and how he chose to set them that really interested me.
Poulenc chose poems that feature a peculiar blend of unsettling and farcical elements, accompanying them with fun and clever accompaniment. 8 The texts all deal with a certain person at the masked ball who harbors some kind of uncomfortable yet fabricated idea. The woman who is at the ball, yet not quite because she had since died, dances a gypsy waltz across the floor, while the violin clumsily trips over a waltz tune in the background; A discordant tone sounds throughout the orchestra, the piano plays a chromatic descending melody, and a blind woman’s eyes bleed because she is silent about her pain. No longer is frivolity present, and clever melodies reigning the stage. Poulenc specifically chose these texts, and purposefully used this kind of text setting. Each person at this masked ball has something fantastic, unreal and outrageous about them. Yet they still are all attendees of a social event, and are considered normal, everyday people. The music accompanies this juxtaposition of the alarming with the amusing. Such contradictory subject matter is what truly evokes a sense of surrealism. Poulenc’s usual fake serious air is gone and replaced with this amalgamation of contradictory ideas.
As I left the recital hall, people were buzzing about Poulenc’s work. Most, if not all, hadn’t heard the piece before, and were talking about how interesting the piece was. They couldn’t get over the profane circus9 that he had presented with the unsettling text of Jacob’s. I, too, conversed with a few other concert goers and they confirmed my own surrealist opinions. To me, this was a step away from the Poulenc the world was used to, and hinted at different works to come. Le ba masqué was a completely different style and abutment of musical elements and text then we’re used to. It certainly points to surrealism, and takes a sharp turn away from anything that Poulenc has done before. His next works will certainly be something to experience, for if Poulenc continues, down the path of Breton’s surrealism, he’ll surely capture the minds and imaginations of audiences everywhere.
1 “La Sérénade.” Le Figaro [Paris, France] 8 June 1932: 6. Gallica. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
2 Schmidt, Carl B. The Music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): A Catalogue. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Print.
3 “Philharmonie De Paris.” Philharmonie De Paris. Salle Pleyel, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
4 Schmidt, Carl B. “Le Bal Masque.” Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2001. 192-93. Print.
5 “Spectacles.” Le Figaro [Paris, France] 13 June 1932: 6. Gallica. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
6 Berkely, Lennox. Monthly Musical Record 62 (1932): 159. Print.
7 Breton, André. Le Surréalisme Désocculté: Manifeste Du Surréalisme: 1924. Comp. Bernard-Paul Robert. Ottawa: Université D’Ottawa, 1975. Print. This is a book that contains his manifesto with a foreward, afterward, and commentary by Robert Bernard-Paul.