Suite française 2

December 17 2011

Poulenc (last post) did write some Christmas music, the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël of 1952 for mixed chorus to Latin texts. But here is something else that is Christmassy, at least in parts, and deeply-felt, the Suite française of 1935 for woodwind (two oboes and two bassoons), brass (two trumpets and two trombones), percussion and harpsichord. This is a set of arrangements of tunes by a sixteenth-century French composer, Claude Gervais.

The movements are Bransle de Bourgogne, Pavane, Petite marche militaire, Complainte, Bransle de Champagne, Sicilienne and Carillon. One can imagine the lovely Pavane, Bransle de Champagne and Sicilienne played outdoors in a French or Swiss town in winter.

Milhaud’s marvellous and very different Suite française would use folk tunes. What was Gervais’s relationship with popular music? Why doesn’t one speak of French “folk music”, or does one? Is it because the word folk is too German?

I wrote about the Milhaud in an earlier post. No YouTube example there, though there are many indifferent performances. It has a life in high school and other bands which is far away from official recording studios, in so far as those still exist. I’d like to hear it done by the Trinity High School Band, Euless, Texas.

Some of the best of the neoclassical arrangements between the wars were made of the music of composers who were rather unknown, at least outside their countries. Pergolesi, I would bet, was not well-known when Stravinsky made Pulcinella. Poulenc uses Gervais. Milhaud in one work uses Anet. In another Campra. Respighi uses obscure sources for Ancient Airs and Dances. In England, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite was based on based on tunes in Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie, a manual of Renaissance dances.

I have a theory (which I need to develop, I’m sure it’s not original) that there were two great ages of the tune. The first was in the sixteenth century. It produced the greatest and most elemental tunes. Think of the Old 100th (sixteenth-century French and still sung every year at Concord, Massachusetts), Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (German, circa 1600), Vom Himmel hoch (Luther), many others. And these tunes by Gervais which Poulenc is setting. The second age was after 1800, and especially after 1850, and it produced a kind of apotheosis of the tune, especially in Tchaikovsky and Puccini. In the great age of counterpoint and in the classical era that followed it the tune was, relatively speaking, in abeyance. (I am distinguishing “tune” from “melody”.)

Claude Rostand memorably described Poulenc as monk and delinquent, le moine et le voyou. The Piano Society website writes of Suite française that it “displays Poulenc’s inimitable blend of the archaic and the anarchic”. The astringency of that blend is slightly reduced by the version I’m about to embed. It is described as an arrangement for brass (Empire Brass) and organ (Michael Murray). In other words, we have lost the woodwind. At least, I think we have. The harpsichord is there, though not mentioned by the uploader. So is some percussion. The result is something warmer. The effect of losing the woodwind is to give the harpsichord no foil. Did Poulenc make the arrangement?

What classic film used Poulenc’s music? Alfred Hitchock’s Rope of 1948. Hitchcock has always been big in France.

One of the protagonists obsessively plays the first of the Mouvements perpétuels for piano of 1918. In doing so he makes the film obsessively memorable. (He was played by Farley Granger, who died this year. As did the screenplay-writer, Arthur Laurents.) And Leo Forbstein and/or David Buttolph combined that mouvement perpétuel with a fragment from the Pastorale, the first of Trois pièces for piano, also of 1918, in a Hollywood, and somehow wholly Hitchcockian, take on the material for full orchestra for the opening credits. Here it is.

Here are Poulenc and Jacques Février in the first movement of the two-piano concerto, with the ORTF under Georges Prêtre. The rest of the work is clickable at the end. Poulenc is the one with the hairy hands.

Poulenc accompanying Jean-Pierre Rampal in the second movement of his flute sonata of 1957:

Both those sequences are on an essential EMI DVD called Francis Poulenc and Friends. You can watch him taking questions from a Parisian audience at the Salle Gaveau.


This ramble on Poulenc was supposed to be a prelude to something on Nutcracker, inspired by Gavin Plumley’s wonderful current series of posts on it at Entartete Musik and recent article in the Guardian. He is right to insist that one looks at Tchaikovsky freshly. A book that does that (I know there have been questions about Volkov’s academic integrity now and then) is Solomon Volkov, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, conversations between Volkov and Balanchine about Tchaikovsky which took place in New York in the early ’80s, towards the end of Balanchine’s life. Some of it is disarmingly simple. There is a chapter on the Nutcracker.

“Sometimes people say to me [routinely], ‘I love the music of such-and-such composer.’ My feelings for Tchaikovsky were different, even as a child. […]

“I was small and knew nothing about music theory. But I liked all of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. When I looked at his pictures, I liked his face. I liked everything about him, everything Tchaikovsky had ever done in his life.”

Another way to refresh one’s ideas about Tchaikovsky, equally far from analysis and theory, is through his letters. In addition to the letters, one should read David Brown’s anthology of personal reminiscences of Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky Remembered.

Gavin begins his Guardian piece: “Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote music for the soul.” He’s right, but Balanchine might not have liked that sentence or one about the Nutcracker’s “soulful message”.

“Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of gentle lyric music, but there are also stormy passages, almost Dostoyevskian. […] But in Tchaikovsky it’s in harmony, it’s all proportional. [Mozartian.] You can study at length how he did it, what tricks of the trade he used. And people say – soul! I don’t understand what that is – soul in music. Tchaikovsky was right to laugh at it. When people like something, they say it’s dushevno, soulful. They confuse two completely different words – dushevnyi, ‘soulful’, and dukhovnyi, ‘spiritual’. Tchaikovsky’s music isn’t soulful, it’s spiritual.”

9 Responses to “Suite française 2”

  1. Many thanks for this David. “I don’t understand what that is – soul in music.” What an unbelievable quote. And particularly when it comes after a post on Poulenc and Tchaikovsky. The word soul at the beginning of my article is, of course, chosen in isolation rather than based on Balanchine’s abstract semantical argument! To call Tchaikovsky spiritual overstates the case. Yes, the Nutcracker does portend the afterlife, but most of his dramas are entirely fixated on human emotions, human circumstances and human reaction. Like Poulenc he manages to suggest something eternal through more tangible means.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Agree with all the above. Balanchine is just being Stravinskian, I think!

  3. davidderrick Says:

    A tune is a discrete thing. Melody is its context. Few people can remember a tune by Telemann, any more than they can one by Birtwistle. Of course some tunes which have been identified as sixteenth-century may in reality be older.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    One year on … I think and thought that Gavin is simply misusing or unduly confining the word “spiritual”.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Claude Rostand’s characterisation of Poulenc may derive from a remark somebody made about Balzac.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s