Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

At their recent sold out Chamber Society concert here in Ottawa the King's Singers included a short cantata by Francis Poulenc as part of their Christmas programme.   Written in 1944 it is based on four poems that Paul Éluard sent him later in the winter of 1944.  Éluard was fighting for the Resistance and at the time was in hiding with other fighters and Jews who had been give cover at the mental asylum at Saint-Alban.   Poulenc lived in Paris during most of the occupation but was under constant surveillance because of his homosexuality and as a suspected Resistance supporter.   Earlier he had written Figure humaine, a cantata based on eight of Éluard's poems which had been banned for its final sentence: I was born to know, to name you: Liberty.    Needless to say the authorities squashed any attempt to perform it in France.

Un Soire de Neige is filled with hidden references to the life of the Resistance fighters:  the wolves refer to the German soldiers in their gray uniforms hunting down their prey.  And the elements of the winter are as cruel and unforgiving as the enemy.

The piece was written for six mixed voices or choir acapella: the Netherlands Chamber Choir's version is remarkably fine.  The songs will follow one after the other automatically on separate videos.

Un Soir de Neige A Snowy Evening
I. De grandes cuillers de neige
De grandes cuillers de neige
Ramassent nos pieds glacés
Et d’une dure parole
Nous heurtons l’hiver têtu
Chaque arbre a sa place en l’air
Chaque roc son poids sur terre
Chaque ruisseau son eau vive
Nous nous n’avons pas de feu
I. Great snowy spoons
Great snowy spoons
Pick up our icy feet
And with a harsh word
We confront stubborn winter
Each tree has its place in the air
Each rock its weight on the earth
Each stream its living water
But we have no fire
II. La bonne neige
La bonne neige le ciel noir
Les branches mortes la détresse
De la forêt pleine de pièges
Honte à la bête pourchassée
La fuite en flêche dans le coeur
Les traces d’une proie atroce
Hardi au loup et c’est toujours
Le plus beau loup et c’est toujours
Le dernier vivant que menace
La masse absolue de la mort

II. The good snow
The good snow, the black sky
The dead branches, the pain
Of the forest full of traps
Shame to the hunted creature
Flight like an arrow in its heart
The tracks of a ferocious prey
Onward, wolf, and it’s always
The finest wolf and it’s always
The last one alive threatened by
The absolute weight of death
III. Bois meurtri
Bois meurtri
bois perdu d’un voyage en hiver
Navire où la neige prend pied
Bois d’asile bois mort
où sans espoir je rêve
De la mer aux miroirs crevés
Un grand moment d’eau froide a saisi les noyés
La foule de mon corps en souffre
Je m’affaiblis je me disperse
J’avoue ma vie j’avoue ma mort j’avoue autrui.

III. Bruised Woods
Bruised woods,
lost woods of a winter’s journey
Ship where the snow takes hold
Sheltering woods, dead woods,
where without hope I dream
Of the sea with its gutted mirrors
A surge of cold water gripped the drowned
Making the crowd of my body suffer
I grow weak, I am scattered
I confess my life, I confess my death, I confess the other
IV. La nuit le froid la solitude
La nuit le froid la solitude
On m’enferma soigneusement
Mais les branches cherchaient leur voie dans la prison
Autour de moi l’herbe trouva le ciel
On verrouilla le ciel
Ma prison s’écroula
Le froid vivant le froid brûlant m’eut bien en main

IV. Night cold loneliness
Night cold loneliness
They locked me in carefully
But the branches were seeking their way into the prison
Around me grass found the sky
They locked and bolted the sky
My prison crumbled
The living cold the burning
cold had me right in its
Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

The composition, dated December 24 to 26, 1944, carries the dedication:
Pour le Noël de Marie-Blanche [de Polignac] tendrement, Francis, 25 décembre 1944. Excusez cette cantate sur la neige, tout à coup pleine de boue.

For  Christmas, to Marie-Blanche [de Polignac] tenderly, Francis.  25 December 1944. Excuse this mud-caked (somber) cantata on snow.

The Wikipedia link to the biography of Éluard makes for a fascinating reading and a left click on the link at the first reference to him (above) could prove interesting.

December 17 - 1790: Discovery of the Aztec calendar stone.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Chilling poems in more ways than one. You educate me as usual!

David said...

Figure Humaine is one of Poulenc's absolute masterpieces. You could do worse than get the Tenebrae Poulence disc which contains an unbeatable, electrifying performance of it and also has (I think off the top of my head) Un soir de neige.

Ur-spo said...

I have never heard of this; what a treat. thank you for sharing it.