Faith, Poetry, and Freedom: Choral Music of Poulenc and Vaughan Williams
If music is the universal language, the roots of its expressive potency shoot deep into the soil of local history and traditions. France and England are separated by just 21 miles at the English Channel’s narrowest point – yet the striking divergence in style between Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc and Ralph Vaughan Williams is both unquantifiable and instantly recognizable. Each composer reflects the larger contrasts in temperament and aesthetic outlook associated with their respective lands, even when both are reacting to similar experiences in the dark history of the last century. At the same time, Poulenc and Vaughan Williams alike chose the medium of choral music to voice some of their most moving – and indeed universally appealing – artistic testimonies.
News of the sudden death of a close friend who was struck by a passing car in August 1936 shook Poulenc to his core and prompted the lapsed Catholic to undertake a pilgrimage to the historic shrine of the wooden Black Madonna in the southwestern French site of Rocamadour. His return to the faith of his ancestors led to a fresh outpouring of choral music. Aside from an early commission for the Harvard Glee Club and a few choral passages in a ballet score, Poulenc had left this medium unexplored before his reconversion. (He would wait until 1950 to write his first full-scale choral-orchestral work, the Stabat Mater.) Yet according to the composer’s self-assessment, he believed it was into his choral music that he had poured “the best and most authentic part of myself.”
Poulenc wrote the Salve Regina in 1941, early into the Nazi occupation of his beloved France. His heartfelt, simple setting for four-part a cappella choir seems to reach back to the solace of the Marian vision he had experienced five years before. The text of the motet itself, an antiphon associated with the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours as well as with the Rosary, pointedly contrasts the human condition “in this valley of tears” with the promise of Mary’s intercession. Especially noteworthy is the obsessive attention Poulenc gives to his treatment of the final phrase “dulcis Virgo Maria” (“o sweet Virgin Mary”), pleading for an answer to this troubled period. As the harmonies shift, they seem to flicker with momentary doubt before reaching a point of calm resignation.
Ralph Vaughan Williams also reportedly went through a change in religious conviction. But for this son of an Anglican vicar, the dial merely moved from avowed atheism to what his widow called “a cheerful agnosticism,” and he never professed Christianity. Even so, his desire to reconnect with the bedrock of English choral tradition, as he does so resonantly in the Mass in G minor, represents another kind of faith. Much as music lovers with any or no religious affiliation can be moved by J.S. Bach’s Lutheran-inspired works, Vaughan Williams here proves that a composer need not be a believer to genuinely and persuasively respond to the spiritual topography mapped out in the standard prayers of the Ordinary Mass. In fact so persuasive is Vaughan Williams’ response that this achievement is comparable to what his compatriot Benjamin Britten did for opera 23 years later with Peter Grimes, when he brought into the modern world a musical form that for English composers had been in a kind of suspended animation for centuries. Vaughan Williams had his first major breakthrough relatively late, in 1910, with the instrumental Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. His interest in the musical heritage of the Tudor era was a logical counterpart to the composer’s preoccupation with English folk music; both provided the basic ingredients from which he evolved an individual style.
And in the wake of the Great War, in which the middle-aged Vaughan Williams served on the French battlefields (late in life he went deaf as a long-term consequence of exposure to the noise of gunfire), it’s not hard to imagine a renewed urge to recover the enduring values of art. The Mass in G minor offered an opportunity to turn his focus even more intently back to choral music and to the legacy of the great Tudor composers Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and William Byrd (1540-1623). Vaughan Williams had recently become music director of the Bach Choir and also became involved with the choir of the Catholic Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the quintessentially Anglican Westminster Cathedral), for whom he wrote this setting of the Latin Mass in 1921. He dedicated the score to his close friend Gustav Holst.
Yet the music isn’t merely an archeological dig. Richard Runciman Terry, director of the Westminster Cathedral choir, remarked that Vaughan Williams had achieved a new synthesis: “In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.” By “modern” he of course had in mind neither the Viennese atonalism being hatched on the Continent nor Stravinsky’s rhythmically pioneering ballet scores. Instead, Vaughan Williams filters the modal harmony and flowing counterpoint of his Tudor predecessors through a distinctly updated feeling for contrasting vocal colors. His alignment of the eight-part double choir with four soloists allows for dramatic and spatial antiphonal effects – a choral mirror of the setup he used in the Tallis Fantasia, with its double string orchestras and solo string quartet.
The melancholy tone that permeates much of the score, beginning with the alto’s opening motif (D-C-F-E-D, an important source of musical material), bears eloquent witness to a world humbled by war. The composer further underlines this presiding atmosphere by connecting the opening Kyrie with the Agnus Dei, where he repeats this motif in the closing prayer for peace. Other passages voice the hope for an escape from humanity’s fatal pattern: the memorable “Tu solus” for solo soprano in the Gloria, for example, or the solo quartet’s capsule summary of the Passion and Resurrection in the Credo. Here and elsewhere a cautious note of optimism, of comfort in the beauty that we have not yet managed to destroy, weaves a subtle counterpoint into the texture of the Mass.
Before the cataclysmic war, and just after the Tallis Fantasia, Vaughan Williams completed a project stretching over several years. Five Mystical Songs was first performed in 1911 at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester and shows a newfound sense of confidence on the part of the composer. These songs mingle elements of his inspiration from folk sources and early music with the nonbeliever’s interest in visions of intense spirituality and his love of resonantly symbolic poetry. (Not surprisingly, William Blake was another of his favorites.) Additionally, in the version calling for orchestra, traces of what Vaughan Williams learned in a brief period of study with Ravel on the other side of the Channel are evident in some of the instrumental touches. Of the several alternatives he prepared for performances of Five Mystical Songs, we hear the version for solo baritone, four-part chorus, and organ.
Here Vaughan Williams makes his own idiosyncratic selection of texts from the Metaphysical poet and Anglican cleric George Herbert (1593-1633). In contrast to the Catholic sensibilities of Tallis and Byrd, with Herbert’s poetry he turns to the religious ardor of a later, post-Reformation generation, and his vibrant metaphors and images are powerfully individualistic. The first two songs in fact derive from a single poem (“Easter”) but amplify the composer’s use of contrasts and unexpected deployment of choral colors. In the last stanza of “I Got Me Flowers,” for example, the chorus gently hums against the solo baritone’s declamation before the two join for the final, affirmative line. Vaughan Williams’ dramatic sensibility is especially effective for the inner dialogue pitting doubt against reassurance in “Love Bade Me Welcome,” while the fourth song is set for baritone solo without chorus. Markedly different in flavor – but wonderfully apt as the capstone of the set – is the exuberant choral finale, which elicits Vaughan Williams’ musical image of a world resounding with song “in every corner.”
During the darkest years of France’s occupation in the Second World War, Poulenc relied not only on his rediscovered faith but on the hopes sustained by artistic acts of defiance. Figure humaine, which might be translated as “the face of humanity,” is a still-inspiring example of art-as-resistance that also happens to represent one of his finest achievements and a glory of 20th-century French a cappella music (see sidebar).
When the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, Poulenc improvised his celebration: “The day the Americans arrived I triumphantly placed my Cantata on my studio desk, under my flag, at the window,” he proudly wrote. Compact though it is, Figure humaine has a notorious reputation on account of the prodigious challenges the score poses for choral singers throughout, from unusual harmonic directions to articulation and fiendish intervallic leaps, as well as its intricate relationship to texts that in themselves require an unwavering concentration of focus and energy. He calls for a 12-part double choir, ideally with 7 singers to a part, which at times is divided even further. As it happened, the BBC sponsored the world premiere, and Figure humaine was thus first sung in an English translation in January 1945 (Poulenc was flown up to London to supervise rehearsals), with the Paris premiere delayed until 1947.
The jaunty image of a composer who casually tossed off pieces between dinner parties — another of those Poulenc clichés — belies how seriously he took his task, particularly when responsible for giving a musical voice to the work of one of his beloved poets. “When I set a text to music.” He writes in his Diary of My Songs, “I consider and appraise it so many times that I know very quickly the exact weight of its meaning.” Both his art songs and his choral works reveal an attitude of deep fidelity to the text and the inner workings of its sounds and rhythms. He was, moreover, especially devoted to the poetry of Éluard; to him he credited the fact that “lyricism has entered my vocal works.”
Poulenc’s arrangement of the sequence of Éluard’s haunting, Surrealist poems in Figure humaine -— originally the proposed title was from near the end of “Liberté” (“I am born to know you”) – allows him to make maximal use of contrasting effects, in emotion and atmosphere as well as in choral textures: Nos. 4 and 6, for example, are for single chorus only, while the nervous perpetual motion at the beginning of No. 2 gives way to a terrifying slow-motion vision of the purging of memories. As you listen closely to Poulenc’s musical images, you realize how carefully he has homed in on Éluard’s recurring themes of time and of a world distorted by fear, war, and oppression.
This is a world in which animals tread “on a path where death has the imprints of life” and where Death becomes “the God of love.” The dense, menacing counterpoint of No. 7 unfolds as an upbeat to the longest, climactic poem. In “Liberté” – copies of the poem were famously dropped by Allied forces as leaflets over occupied territory – Poulenc spurs on the sense of expectation with his simple four-note motif for the refrain “j’écris ton nom,” until the accumulated momentum of voices and imagery, mundane and cosmic, reaches a stop with an ecstatic, radiantly topped E major chord. Figure humaine, the often insecure composer rightly claimed, “is one work … that reassures me that I have the right to compose.”
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
The Genesis of Figure humaine
Poulenc composed this choral cantata in a six-week period in the summer of 1943 while spending time away from Paris – in an area of the Dordogne, in fact, not far from Rocamadour, which he again visited for renewed inspiration. He had been considering the idea of a violin concerto for the extraordinary Ginette Neveu but, with a combined trepidation and excitement, was drawn to the latest verboten poetry by his fellow Frenchman Paul Éluard, pen name of Eugène Grindel (1895-1952). Éluard, who would soon become a passionate Communist, had been a charter member of the Surrealist manifesto of 1924 and was on the Gestapo’s hit list. He used various pseudonyms for the poetry he circulated via private letters and clandestine chapbooks while working in the Underground in France. It was from these poems, collected as Poésie et Vérité, that Poulenc selected those to set in his cantata.
Above all it was the prospect of setting “Liberté” to music that set Poulenc’s pulse racing. He decided to position it as the culmination and gravitational focus of a sequence of eight poems he had culled from Éluard. But Poulenc realized that while the Nazi occupation lasted he would have to prepare his music “in secret” for an indeterminate performance to take place “at the so-long-awaited time of liberation.” “Freedom,” among its many other senses in the poem and the context of the war, might also be interpreted as the artist’s freedom of expression which Poulenc celebrates with the voice.