The door is opened! someone speaks! there is no one! I sense that there is someone. I light the lamp and the walls come alive; each flower on the paper has blood on its wings, each animal blood on its petals. All this comes to life and comes forth. It crowds toward the middle of the carpet, and the twilight of the fireplace is a cone. In what condition will my servant find me tomorrow! My fingers that grope in the shadows have encountered the corner of the bed. The bed is my refuge, it will not carry me off. It will not take me elsewhere! The sleeper will not be found, but in his place, a slimy beast.
This unsettling nocturne, titled Voisinage (Surroundings), was written by Max Jacob, (1876-1944), for a collection of prose poems he called Visions infernales (Hellish Scenes) and published in 1924. An intimate of Picasso and Apollinaire, Jacob was a remarkably complex character. He was equipped with an extraordinary imagination and had a lifetime of extreme poverty, amazing debauchery, and a compelling fascination with religion to pack into his writing. Nor, as we have just seen, was he unaware of the works of Baudelaire and Poe. My English version is intended to give but a basic sense of the original.
Henri Sauguet was an aspiring young musician from Bordeaux, who came to Paris in the 1920's. He studied composition with Charles Koechlin and soon joined with several other young composers to form the Groupe d'Arcueil, whose primary influence was Erik Satie. Sauguet wrote songs throughout his long career, to a variety of texts by Shakespeare, Schiller, Hölderlin, Rilke, Tagore and a broad selection of French poets.
Voisinage is typical of the six prose poems Sauguet selected from Jacob's book and reordered to create a structure that runs a challenging and satisfying dramatic gamut. The first song, Voyage, takes the singer and a companion on a surreal journey that ends with the discovery that their mysterious carriage driver is Fear. The nightmarish Voisinage is next, followed by Que penser de mon salut (Thoughts on my salvation), in which the poet evaluates his soul, finding it rich in everything that entices the devil and lacking in saving graces. Then a barcarole, Régates mystérieuses (Mysterious regatas), in which boats with fancifully carved prows sail by; their carvings seem to smile even while holding doomed men in their terrible jaws. Le petit paysan (The little peasant [untitled in Jacob's book]) tells of a sickly little boy who haunts the poet's life; is he from heaven or from hell? The cycle concludes with Exhortation, in which the cynical poet expresses fear of what lies ahead, not for himself, but for those innocents who love and care for him.
Sauguet does not modify Jacob's texts in any way, and his musical manner reflects its time and place, resembling Darius Milhaud's style in its facility and effect. Voisinage is through composed, effectively reflecting the changing emotions within the poem while employing the pattern of a dropping minor third, in the piano bass, as a unifying device. The vocal gamut for Voisinage runs from low B, in the bass clef, up to E above the staff. The range for all six songs requires only a few more low tones, running from low G up to E.
The gamut and tessitura of Visions infernales strongly suggest it was tailored to its dedicatee, basso Doda Conrad. Ned Rorem's excellent 'cycle' on Herrick poems, titled Flight for Heaven, was also dedicated to Conrad and has the same vocal profile. A second feature these works share is that each composer reordered his poet's texts to suggest a dramatic sequence unimagined by the poet: a questionable practice, particularly as the poets were deceased and could not respond.
Henri Sauguet's Vision infernales is published by Heugel Et Cie., in Paris. Its performance time is given as 13-14 minutes, and I recommend it as a particularly powerful segment for any advanced singer's recital program.
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