Chansons d’Amour:
April in Paris

April 2009

Program Notes

P R O G R A M

Revoici venir du printemps

Claude LeJeune (c. 1528-1600)

* * * * * *

Trois Chansons Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

1.  Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder!

2.  Quant j’ai ouÿ le tabourin         

3.  Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain    

* * * * * *

Mille regretz  

Josquin des Prez (c 1450-1521)

La, la, la, je ne l’ose dire   Pierre Certon (c. 1510-1572)
Un gai berger Thomas Crequillon (c. 1500-1557)

* * * * * *

Naissance de Vénus (The Birth of Venus) Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)

1.  Les Heures

2.  Vénus

3.  Le Vent

4.  Les Heures

* * * * * *

Pleurez mes yeux

Dominique Phinot (c. 1510- c. 1556)

D’un extrême regret   Jacques Arcadelt (1505-1568)
Bonjour mon coeur   Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

* * * * * *

Trois Chansons  

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

1.  Nicolette

2.  Trois beaux oiseaux du paradis   

3.  Ronde

Chanson d’amour

 

Wayne Shanklin, arr. Paul Hart

 

INTERMISSION

 
Calme des nuits Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Huit chansons françaises (Eight French songs)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

1.  Margoton va t’a l’iau              

2.  La belle se sied au pied de la tour

3.  Pilons l’orge                                 

4.  Clic, clac, dansez sabots           

5.  C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince

6.  La belle si nous étions

7.  Ah! mon beau labourer       

8.  Les tisserands

* * * * * *

Reprise:  Revoici venir du printemps

Claude LeJeune

April in Paris

Vernon Duke & E. Y. Harburg,
arr. Gene Puerling

 

I N T R O D U C T I O N

Bienvenue! We are pleased that you’re here for our celebration of all things French—well, okay, maybe not Camembert cheese, but at least many things French that are a cappella. You’re going to hear music from the brilliant French Impressionists of music, Debussy and Ravel; music composed after World War II, from Poulenc and Milhaud; a little bit of French-inspired popular song; and reaching back almost 500 years, a healthy sampling of the Renaissance chanson. We hope that you’ll leave today with not only glorious sounds lingering in your memory, and the personalities of our singers resonating in your heart, but also an appreciation of the breadth and depth of French music written for vocal ensemble.

Why such a wide span of history on one program? As with music from so many places in Europe and America, the French a cappella repertoire has had two glorious periods of flourishing: the French Renaissance and the twentieth (and a little nineteenth) century. In order to have a full sense of French music for voice, it seemed fitting to go back to the beginning.

Well, we’re not going all the way back. There were songs of courtly love in many parts of France as early as the fourteenth century, and troubadour songs two centuries before that. That music was highly rarefied, intended for exclusive audiences. But starting around the 1530s, there was a true explosion of music for the middle class to sing and hear and enjoy, and that is where we are starting our musical journey today.

The French do like to do things their own way. Even 500 years ago the chansons had their own character, distinct from Italian or English madrigals or German part-songs. I continue to be tickled by how the sounds of each language, and the images that each language evokes, create music with such an individual cultural stamp. Even in the case of multi-lingual composers like Lassus, who wrote in French and Italian and even German, his madrigals are not the same as his chansons, and I like it that way!

The Germans didn’t make it easy on the French in the 19th and 20th century, and I don’t just mean in terms of military or political life. The influence of Wagner on classical music was so dominant that the French (and the English, if you remember last fall’s concert) had to strive valiantly to preserve and create something that felt truly their own, that was not just derivative of German music from Beethoven through Wagner and even Brahms. I wonder if we would have had the Impressionist composers working so hard to create their own musical styles if it hadn’t been for the powerful force of the Germans, but I’m glad in the long run that it happened.

One learns new things every day. In preparing these program notes I learned something surprising. I had already known that the justly famous Trois Chansons by Debussy are on texts by Charles d’Orleans. However, because so many of the texts set by the Impressionist composers were written by their contemporaries, such as Paul Verlaine and Mallarmé, I blissfully assumed that Charles was just another one of the guys on the Parisian scene who called himself by a rather lofty name. Was I wrong! As it turns out, Debussy, early in his career, somehow found himself acquainted with the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans. Not a Parisian bohemian at all, Charles (1394-1465) was wounded at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and imprisoned in England for the next 24 years, during which he wrote most of the poems, numbering more than five hundred, for which he is now famous.

A note is in order here about historical language change and dialect. Those familiar with modern French may notice that the Renaissance chansons are being sung in a different pronunciation of the language (sometimes described under the collective title “old French”). Although you’ll see modern spellings in the program notes, we’re using “old French” which in particular uses different vowels in some places. If one were singing a 16th-century chanson in its “original” form, then, for example, a word like “moi” would be pronounced “mweh” instead of “mwah.” We hope that you enjoy this slightly different version of the language, which fits the music like a glove.

Most of all, we are grateful that you are here.

Please visit with us after the concert, and enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director

 

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Claude LeJeune: Revioci venire du printemps

What would a concert in April be without rejoicing in the springtime? Claude LeJeune’s timeless song captures beautifully the sprightly, evocative verse of his contemporary poet, Baïf. Together with other poets and musicians working in Paris in the late 1500s, LeJeune and Baïf pioneered a kind of music called musique mesurée, or “measured music.” The idea is simple: the length of notes in the music directly spring from the accent or stress in the words. Rather than engage in a florid melisma for its own sake, and rather than using other forms of word-painting as might be found in the Italian or English madrigal, here the music stays close to the poetry in time and feeling. The effect is almost that of a poetry recitation, which just happens to be taking place in delicious chords.

* * * * * * *

Claude Debussy: Trois Chansons

Debussy, along with Ravel, changed the sound-world of classical music forever in much the way that his contemporaries, Monet and the visual Impressionists, changed the art world. Debussy was inspired by the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. His aesthetic was one that sought in music a concentration of feeling, which is evoked at times by silence more than anything. It was Debussy who gave the famous quote, “Music is the space between the notes.”

Debussy was not a slave to the Wagner-worship of his day. He worked out instead his own musical truth in fluid orchestral works, such as Prelude to the afternoon of a faun and Jeux, in solo songs, in his pathbreaking opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and also in a few lovely choral works. TheseTrois chansons have become icons in the world of classical choral music.

Debussy finished the first and last of the Trois chansons (Three songs) in 1898; the second one was written ten years later. All are on texts by Charles d’Orléans. The first song, “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder,” is flowing, flexible, and limpid, with an in-the-moment quality that will be familiar to audience members who are versed in his instrumental music.

The Spanish influence in the second song seems to stem from the single word “tabourin”; around the same time, Debussy was working on the three orchestral movements he called “Ibéria” (“Spain”) that went into the larger work, Images. Here, the choir’s largely staccato lower voices act as a Mediterranean backup band for the soprano solo. Make no mistake; the narrative voice of the poem is being well pleased indeed.

The cycle concludes with an angry outburst at Winter (“Yver”), whom the poet calls a villain. The poet is annoyed at all the bad things, especially cold forms of precipitation, that Winter throws at human beings. Of particular note is the line that says, “On vous deust banir en éxil” (“We must banish you into exile”), where the tempo slows and the harmonies make one sit up and take notice, before the opening words repeat themselves in a final curse.

* * * * * * *

Josquin des Prez: Mille regretz

The greatest composer of the middle Renaissance, Josquin managed to do things with a four-voiced musical texture that no other composer could achieve at the time and that few have been able to match since then. Equally renowned for his sacred and secular works, he worked in Italy for much of his career as did many of the best composers of his age.

“Mille regretz” is one of the best-loved songs attributed to Josquin. The song’s topic is a timeless one, that of sadness at parting with a beloved. The bad news for Josquin-lovers is that two of the most prominent scholars in the field have recently wondered if the attribution is really secure, leaving the piece in sort of a music-historical no-man’s land. Fortunately, the music itself is compelling enough that it can be enjoyed regardless of who actually composed it. While all four voice parts are a pleasure to sing and to hear, the top voice in particular has a poignant, plangent quality that ranks among the finest of all Renaissance melodies.

For the record: Josquin’s chanson “Baises moy” appears on our CD Mathurin Forestier: Masses.

Pierre Certon: La, la, la, je ne l’ose dire

We now move from poignant sadness to simple lust and juicy gossip. Certon’s chanson tells us that marital fidelity is sometimes difficult to maintain, as in this case of a man whose wife will “go off with anyone.” The narrative voice comes off as breathless, where the narrator is almost unable to get the words out at first. Perhaps you would do the same if pointing out such a woman.

Thomas Crequillon: Un gai berger

While Italian madrigals tend to be more indirectly suggestive, French Renaissance chansons can be quite explicit in the sexuality of their poems. One step further in the bawdy direction we’re headed is this little ditty. In keeping with typical banter of the period between shepherds and shepherdesses, the shepherdess here first rejects the shepherd’s advances. However, there is a surprise a little later when, instead of protesting his offer because it is immoral, she informs him that he needs “a lance” of certain qualifications in order for the game of love to begin.

* * * * * * *

Darius Milhaud: Naissance de Vénus (The Birth of Venus)

Darius Milhaud said in his autobiography, “I am a Frenchman from Provence, and by religion a Jew.” He drew great inspiration from his homeland even when he was away from it, as he was from 1940 to 1947. One of the most prolific composers of his generation, with 441 works in his catalogue, Milhaud had much contact with the Parisian musical establishment and the avant-garde but refused to be confined by their tastes. He gravitated quickly toward polytonality in his early works. His ear also was much influenced by South American music (to which he was exposed in his role as secretary to France’s minister in Brazil) and by North American ragtime and jazz. He used folk melodies regularly and created some of his best works when inspired by such material.

The short cantata Naissance de Vénus was composed in 1949. In four movements, the work sets poetry by Jules Supervielle, who was born in Uruguay and spent most of his life in France. The poem is inspired by the painting by Botticelli called The Birth of Venus, created around 1485, which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the painting, Venus is shown as having emerged from the sea and standing on a seashell. The waves hold the shell up and thereby also the naked Venus. Standing to her right is one of “Les Heures” (the Horae, or goddesses of the seasons), who hands Venus a cloak. On Venus’s left is “Le Vent,” the wind or more specifically the Zephyrs, of which one is a young man with powerful breath who blows Venus to shore, where she can inhabit the earth.

Little information is available as to the reason for Milhaud’s creating this work. In any event, the music is in turn serious and playful, lyrical and direct.

* * * * * * *

Dominique Phinot: Pleurez mes yeux

The music of 16th-century French composer Phinot was influential, especially for his sacred music. According to Pietro Cerone, a contemporary: “had there been no Phinot . . . Palestrina’s music would not have been possible.” Phinot was a pioneer in writing music for more than one choir.

Both Palestrina and Lasso admired Phinot’s work, which included more than 90 motets as well as secular chansons. This chanson mourns the loss of a woman, whose identity is not known. She was, evidently, struck down in the flower of her youth and beauty, causing the poet to blame the arrows of Father Time for her untimely death.

Jacques Arcadelt: D’un extrême regret

Like Josquin, Arcadelt was born north of the Alps and migrated to Italy, where he was renowned as one of the foremost madrigalists of his day. His song Il bianco e dolce cigno was part of the inspiration for Gibbons’s famous madrigal, The silver swan. As with most of the leading composers of his day, Arcadelt was active in all genres of vocal music including chansons, and this is one of his best.

Somewhat unusually, this chanson is not through-composed, but has an ABA form, where the opening music returns for the third and final stanza.

Orlande de Lassus: Bonjour mon coeur

Few musicians have so leapt onto a scene, impressing everyone with a breadth of talent and quality, as Orlandus Lassus did in France and Italy the 1550s. One thinks readily of parallels with Mozart, who also excelled in virtually every musical genre of his day. Lassus also went by the Italian name of Orlando di Lasso and the French nom of Orlande de Lassus. His works range from the silly and flippant to the truly profound; music theorists of his day remarked that Lassus’s music made the words come to life as before the eyes. Lassus seems to have truly understood the persuasive character of music and made use of his training in rhetoric to achieve dramatic effects in the generation before the creation of opera. His responsories on the book of Job are masterpieces of drama with a stark economy of means, and his many settings of the Magnificat are a staggering achievement unto themselves. It is regrettable that so much of his music remained until recently in “old clefs,” difficult for most people to sing except for scholars; partly as a result, his music has been far less frequently performed and recorded than that of his contemporary Palestrina, though in many ways Lassus was the more accomplished and adventurous composer.

His lovely song Bonjour mon coeur shows influences from the Italian madrigal, especially musicians like Arcadelt who were publishing madrigals as early as the 1530s. Simple chords bring the words into sharp focus, with a few surprises in the rhythm, perhaps to keep the beloved interested.

* * * * * * *

Maurice Ravel: Trois Chansons

Early in his career, Ravel attempted to write some choral music, which he entered into the competition for the Prix de Rome. The result was not a success, leading to some speculation that this setback kept him from writing more choral music later on. The cycle of Trois Chansons was much more successful and remains the only a cappella choral music that he ever published.

Ravel wrote these three songs between December 1914 and February 1915, while he was waiting to be enlisted in the army. They were published in 1916 but only received their first performance a year later. Ravel wrote these three poems himself. They reflect a joy in language, particularly present in the first and third songs. The first song, “Nicolette,” is a variation on the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Ravel was a member of a group that called itself the Apaches. He dedicated “Nicolette” to his friend and fellow Apache, the poet Tristan Klingsor. Of these songs, Klingsor once wrote:

He [Ravel] has given himself the purest of his heart with the Trois chansons. I do not only speak of the music, of the lovely arrangement of voice, nor of the melody which is truly close to popular song; I speak of the texts themselves. Ravel loved childish enchantment. . . . This mathematician of the orchestra retained [in these songs] the ingenuity of a great child. Folklore is resuscitated in the poetry of Ravel, with its familiarity, its strangeness, its singular reconciliations. How could one speak dryly about it?”

The middle song is more somber, a reflection on war for which Ravel was himself preparing. In the solo soprano line is the Ravel that may be more familiar from his repertoire for solo voice and piano, a combination of simplicity and powerful expression rarely matched by others. The part-writing here is virtuosic, creating specific effects to highlight the poetry. The final movement seems almost like a choral recitation of part of an Umberto Eco novel, with its long listing of bizarre and menacing creatures in the forest.

* * * * * * *

Wayne Shanklin, arr. Paul Hart: Chanson d’amour

This is the greatest hit by composer, arranger, and producer Wayne Shanklin, who wrote several popular songs and contributed music for a number of films. Chanson d’amour was recorded twice in 1958, then covered by the Lettermen in the 1960s. The song’s revival by the Manhattan Transfer in 1976 made quite a splash, spending three weeks at the top of the UK pop charts in 1977. In addition, the song appears on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). We are singing the arrangement made famous by the King’s Singers, arranged by the capable Paul Hart who has also set many tunes by the Beatles for a cappella voices.

I N T E R M I S S I O N

Camille Saint-Saëns: Calme des nuits

Saint-Saëns was a rather conservative composer. This piece is considered one of his finest achievements and certainly one of the most popular, often used as an encore since it creates its mood so strikingly. In a slow tempo and with deliberate harmonic shifts, the piece is not unlike some of the grand a cappella motets by Bruckner. Its ending is shatteringly beautiful, as the music repeats over and over the line, “possessed by the love of quiet things.” 

Francis Poulenc: Huit chansons françaises (Eight French songs)

Born into a family that ran a successful pharmaceutical company (today it is the Rhone-Poulenc corporation), Francis Poulenc is now known, in the words of critic Roger Nichols, as follows: “While, in the field of French religious music, he disputes supremacy with Messiaen, in that of the mélodie he is the most distinguished master since the death of Fauré.” Poulenc was never very adventurous harmonically, and one of his greatest contributions to music was his recovery of Gregorian melodies at a time when the avant-garde was moving decidedly away from anything tonal. Nichols notes that “he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked, and exhausted.”

These songs are a cappella settings of older or folk poetry, sometimes—as in the case of Pilons pilons lorge—using echoes of an old folk tune. Poulenc’s intent seems to have been to continue the secular chanson tradition found earlier on this concert, as exemplified by Lasso, LeJeune, Arcadelt and others (including Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Janequin). The songs are sometimes sweet, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, and always French in character.

* * * * * *

For the record: More French repertoire is available on the following Chicago a cappella CDs:
Eclectric includes Morten Lauridsen’s “Contre qui, rose”
Forestier: Masses includes two complete mass settings by French Renaissance composer Mathurin Forestier
Christmas A Cappella: Songs from Around the World includes the French carols “Il Il est Né, le Divin Enfant” and “Noël nouvelet”

* * * * * *

The Oak Park performance of Chansons d’Amour: April in Paris is dedicated in loving friendship to Walter R. Bloch (1938-2008). In addition to being a devoted fan and generous supporter of Chicago a cappella since 1995, Wally was a valued Board Member with the International Visitors Center of Chicago. One of the programs that Wally was most connected to was the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment program, serving on the Fulbright Advisory Board and providing hands on guidance and direction in arranging interesting educational programs for the scholars throughout the year. In addition, he was directly connected to the scholars, frequently inviting them to his home for dinner and spending time with them to learn about their topics of study which was directly in line with Wally’s life-long learning. He demonstrated his belief in Citizen Diplomacy through his work with the Fulbright scholars and the many other international delegates in our city through the International Visitors Center of Chicago. We are delighted that the 2008-09 class of Fulbright scholars and their families, along with Wally’s wife Marguerite, are joining us at this concert. To learn more about the Citizen Diplomacy that Wally practiced, visit the IVCC website at worldchicago.org.

* * * * * *