EPISODE 1: Poulenc's Calligrammes
Jeremy Boulton (operatic baritone) and Su Hee Cho (piano) perform Poulenc's 'Calligrammes' cycle as Jeremy dissects the work's finer details. Original music by John Spence. johnspence.net.au/
In 1952, four years after commencing work on his Calligrammes, the most avant-garde of today’s composers, Francis Poulenc, reflected on his setting of Guilliame Apollinaire’s poetry. He noted ‘The more I turn the pages of this volume, the more I feel that I shall no longer find what I need. Not that I like the poetry of Apollinaire any less (I have never liked it so much), but I feel I have exhausted all that is suitable for me.’
The texts of Calligrammes originate from a 1918 volume of Apollinaire’s poetry Calligrammes, Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916). Several poems in this volume are published as ideograms, including three which Poulenc set in this cycle. Of the poems selected by Poulenc, two set (‘Voyage’ and ‘Il pleut’) are of peace whilst the others are of war.
Although Apollinaire was a foreigner, he enlisted in the French army in 1914 and the poetry reflects his life as a solider and his peculiar, yet distinctive voice in depicting his experience of war.
Apollinaire was also the individual that coined the term ‘Orphism’ in 1912, an offshoot of the Cubism movement. It referred to the use of pure abstraction and bright colours. Artists included František Kupka, Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia Delaunay.
‘L’Espionne’ (The Spy) is considered by Pierre Bernarc (Poulenc’s collaborator and the artist for which this work was originally composed) to be a moment of ‘refuge’ for Apollinaire during his time at the front. In the poem he is likely referring to his fiancée at the time, Madeleine Pagés as a ‘lovely fortress’ that he was only able to hold in his arms for one hour of a single day. The most lyrical of Poulenc’s settings in this cycle, it is littered with specific dynamics prompting a generous palate of colours from the performer.
‘Mutation’ marks a seismic shift in mood from its predecessor. The poetry of Apollinaire conjures a patchwork of seemingly disconnected images from weeping women, marching soldiers, a lock gate keeper fishing, shells exploding to the white chalk of the trenches of Champagne. Each image establishes a contrasting mood and dynamic, often suddenly and without preparation. The repeated ‘Eh! Oh! Ah!’ motif suggests the various reactions to these images as they are considered. The poet is (somewhat) resolved at maintaining his love for his sweetheart, despite the chaos immediately surrounding him.
‘Vers le sud’ (Towards the South) is a ‘poem of regret’ for happier days based around his time in the south of France with his mistress Louise de Coligny Chatillon. The repeated references to the pomegranate tree, its flowers, and the text ‘our hearts hang together on the same pomegranate tree’ is littered with the symbolism of Greek mythology where the pomegranate is often considered a symbol of sexual awakening. A [perhaps] cruel irony is achieved with the tonal mixture of minor to major chords that bookend the piece.
‘Il pleut’ (It Rains) is printed in five almost vertical and parallel lines suggesting rain (pictured). Poulenc states ‘From the technical point of view, it is in the field of subtlety of pianistic writing that I was experimenting here, attempting in ‘Il pleut’ to achieve a kind of musical calligram.’ The piano part is incomparably more complex than the one for the voice and right at the mid-point of the cycle, it is clear Poulenc attempts to reverse the roles of pianist and vocalist.
‘La grâce exilée’ (Exiled Grace) is poignant in its central metaphor – the colours of nation’s flags taking the place of the exiled love and beauty of Apollinaire’s lover, Marie Laurencin who left France for Spain at this time. Affectionately, Apollinaire likens Laurencin to an Infanta – a young Spanish princess. A charming and affectionate, yet melancholic atmosphere is created in this most brief song.
‘Aussi bien que les cigales’ (As well as the cicadas) is described by Poulenc as ‘half-way between a chanson (ribald or folk) and a true mélodie.’ He is addressing his comrades in this poem (perhaps those of an artillery regiment at Montpellier) in a somewhat drunken, outrageous manner. He compares the men in the regiment to cicadas whose existence is to dig, ‘piss’ [sic] and drink. He jokes that the only task his comrades are capable of is the latter. A line that reads bizarrely ‘pissez utilement’ (to-piss usefully) refers to how cicadas ‘use excess fluid to help moisten and remould their tunnels & cells’ and ‘they might, in some cases, even use it to keep ants from attacking’, likening the men in the trenches to mere insects in the mud. The final climax featuring a typical coda in Poulenc’s style sees a dramatic change to a slow tempo to convey the shining of the sun into the dark and damp trenches as the men (or cicadas) emerge into the light, heralding in a new day.
‘Voyage’, (Journey) the final piece in the cycle is referred to by Bernarc as one of the two poems of peace along with ‘Il pleut’. Poulenc writes fondly and extensively of this closing piece: ‘By the interjection of unexpected and sensitive modulations, ‘Voyage’ goes from emotion to silence, passing through melancholy and love.’ ‘The end is, for me, the silence of a night in July when, on the terrace of my childhood home at Nogent, I heard in the distance the trains ‘that were leaving on holiday’ (as I used to think then).’
Thank you to the panel of the Demant Dreikurs German Song Contest for awarding me the scholarship for this year yesterday at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney. It’s been a difficult year for artists, so having this competition continue in a COVID safe manner this year was very encouraging. Congratulations to all of my colleagues who joined me on the day for a lovely afternoon of Lieder.
You can catch up on the whole competition below. Below is the video from the point my entry. (01:02:08)
by JEREMY BOULTON
ACO Transfigured | 7PM Wednesday, 9th September 2020 | City Recital Hall, Sydney.
To say that it was ‘relieving’ to attend a live concert at this point in Australia’s battle with COVID-19 would be the understatement of the year.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) are the first orchestra to return to City Recital Hall and are amongst the first orchestras in Australia to return to live performances at all. Managing Director, Richard Evans remarked that the ACO had received 2.5 million views on YouTube as part of its popular ‘HomeCasts’ online performance series.
ACO’s Transfigured program brought a sense of normality back to the lives of patrons – at least for those lucky enough to nab one of the coveted sold-out seats (arranged in socially distanced pairs throughout the venue).
The one-hour program featured an (albeit, brief) appearance by William Barton (voice, didgeridoo and guitar) leading one of his earliest works, Didge Fusion as well as Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major Op. 44, No. 1 (arranged by Richard Tognetti for string orchestra). The program closed with the haunting, pre-Second Viennese School sound-world of Arnold Schönberg in Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1917).
The ACO players were met with rapturous applause (topped only by the subsequent entrance of Artistic Director and Concertmaster, Richard Tognetti) as they took their places before their own music stands – a visibly noticeable absence of desk sharing due to social distancing. Tognetti expressed his gratitude for ‘live humans clapping’. He paid tribute to the ACO’s ‘beloved, dear friends in Melbourne’ who presently face the worst of Australia’s battle with COVID-19 under stage four restrictions. Tognetti highlighted the stark parallels between Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht and the Melbourne lockdown in the sense of a ‘barren, cold night’ translating to a sense of ‘hope and devotion’.
William Barton opened the program with un-amplified steel string guitar harmonics in Didge Fusion that seemed to seep into every crevice of the City Recital Hall. An ever-changing texture became quickly apparent, layering sparse soli entries from (most interestingly) the second desk players. The featured musicians reminded the ACO audience of the high quality of musicianship that extends throughout the entire ensemble with the effortless execution of wide vibrato as well as tremolo passages. As the ensemble united to create the ACO’s signature tutti sound in the closing section of Didge Fusion, its virtuosity was put to the test in Tognetti’s full arrangement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major.
This quartet of Mendelssohn’s carries stark similarities in its loving and romantic sentiment to Alexander Borodin’s more common second (and final) quartet. From its opening exposition, an atmosphere of joy and romance was swiftly established. The ACO’s interpretation wholeheartedly embraced the youthful and sentimental aspects of the work, particularly in the opening and closing movements, creating a suitable warmth in both timbre and mood throughout the ensemble. An eager audience applauded [without fail] immediately after the first movement, thrilled at experiencing the return of the ACO’s sound Angel Place. As the ensemble closed in on the second and third movements, Tognetti’s arrangement became increasingly demanding of the ACO players who were unrelenting in their approach throughout the work. Whereas some string quartet expansions for string orchestra will omit difficult phrases for its non-principal players, Tognetti’s arrangement of this quartet allowed the orchestra to boast the ability of its players to tackle such technically challenging music. Seldom were virtuosic parts allocated to only the principal players as solos. Mastery of ensemble was on display with a seamless transition from a tutti cadence into a quartet soli section within the second movement. It is without doubt that the ACO’s drive to remain active during the pause in live performances with ensemble recordings has proved invaluable to maintaining their ensemble.
The music of pre-non-tonal Arnold Schönberg, (a composer usually associated with his non-tonal colleagues of Second Viennese School, Anton Webern and Alban Berg) was handled with precision by the ACO players. Their tunings were notably pure in exposed sections which helped ensemble colours come through in muted con moto sections of the work. Stefanie Farrands’ (Principal Viola) solo was phrased with extreme care as she achieved appropriate colours in this programmatic score. The ensemble’s niente was also very notable, with an exposed and slightly reduced (in numbers) ACO for this program revealing its true capabilities.
The ACO were their usual tight, expressive and musically innovative selves in Transfigured. The completely sold out performance demonstrated that Sydney audiences are as eager as ever to attend the concert hall and experience fine Australian music making at its best. Social distancing was closely followed by all patrons begging the question – could more concerts go ahead safely with similar or increased capacity? It’s appears almost certain that this is something that audiences are crying out for.
It’s great to be working with Steel City Strings in the role of Manager. I take my hat off to Yve Repin OAM who has created some very big shoes to fill during her excellent leadership. It’s great to be able to still have Yve in the organisation to help me adjust to this role. I’m looking forward to facilitating concert promotions and being part of the team at a time where my performance work is limited.
A bit about Steel City Strings from their website:
Steel City Strings is a Wollongong-based string orchestra of musicians from the Illawarra, Shoalhaven, and Southern Highlands of NSW regions. Since its inception in early 2015 as a not-for-profit incorporated association the orchestra has delighted music lovers by presenting fine music from a range of genres in nine concerts per year in townships across our broader region.
Led by Conductor Luke Spicer and Artistic Director Kyle Little, the orchestra provides performing and professional development opportunities for musicians in the South Coast and Southern Highlands as orchestra members, as soloists and as composers.
2019 was a big year for the orchestra winning the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in a Regional Area, playing on an episode of The Bachelor and recording Ann Carr-Boyd’s works for strings. An ensemble from the orchestra played with William Barton at the 2019 Illawarra Business Chamber Awards which was leading to further collaboration this year.
The orchestra provides an important platform:
Are you a true music nerd?
Do you enjoy the music of Bartok?
Do you find his orchestration fascinating?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you may find this interesting... well, maybe anyway!
I’ve decided to release this pre-recorded analysis assignment that I did as a student for my orchestration class at the Sydney Conservatorium last semester in case it’s of interest to anyone.
(Not endorsed by Sydney Conservatorium and not an official teaching material. My own thoughts and analysis.)
Read my latest contribution to ClassikOn where I have interviewed experimental music duo, Sumn Conduit about their new release, 'TRACK'. The work was conceived in real time in October 2019 at Carriageworks, Sydney.
Each year on June 21 falls Make Music Day. The day has grown as a global celebration of music making across more than 1,000 cities around the world.
It all started 38 years ago in France. In 1982, Jack Lang and his staff at the Ministry of Culture dreamed up an idea for a new kind of musical holiday. They imagined a day where FREE music would be everywhere, all around the city: street corners, parks, rooftops, gardens, and store fronts.
This year, Wollongong City Council commissioned four local artists (one being Dear Violet, a trio) and myself as Music Director/Producer to get together to write and produce a song to encourage people to participate in Make Music Day - this year, from home and by attending live music outdoors with social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In three days, the artists, sound engineer, video production team and I put together a the song, recording and music video to send our message across Wollongong to residents of encouragement to make music!
Here is the final result! Music video available on YouTube and streaming available on most platforms, including Spotify.
Thank you to Wollongong City Council for backing in artists in a time of low-no paid professional work by commissioning this song for broadcast on TV, radio and social media.
RADIO INTERVIEW: ABC Illawarra Drive with Lindsay McDougall
During the semester, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music decided to push ahead with it's scheduled Mozart Requiem performance online via a YouTube playlist.
Alongside my colleagues, I featured in two movements as the bass soloist: the 'Benedictus' and the 'Offertorium'.
An excellent achievement led by Liz Scott.
Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown period, 500 opera singers, instrumentalists, conductors and even language signers have being recording and submitting their parts from Verdi's 'Va, pensiero' chorus to Nofar Yacoubi, an Israeli soprano residing in Italy.
The highlighted green parts on the world map in the video displays the countries that were involved in this mammoth project and all who contributed to this incredible achievement.
Enjoy the video below and congratulations to all involved.
You can read my piece on this project via ClassikOn with some updated thoughts.