Le Bestiaire (A Bestiary) is a title most of us associate with the charming group of six songs written by the youthful Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) on the poems of Apollinaire. It is a particularly useful set of songs for teaching, being a relatively simple introduction to Poulenc's engaging manner and requiring only a modest vocal gamut.
But there is another setting of these poems that is equally useful and interesting and, moreover, complete. This one written by Louis Durey, arguably the least well known of the Les Six group. When the two composers discovered they were actively setting the same poems they were delighted by the coincidence, and Poulenc reacted by dedicating his settings to Durey.
The poetry that attracted the composers was a collection of enchanting quatrains the brilliant Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) had created--in the manner of a medieval bestiary--for a joint project with the artist Raoul Dufy. It was a fascinating venture: Dufy made a large woodcut to match each poem and the whole was published in 1911, in lavish, art-book format. The result was a financial failure but an artistic delight. The Metropolitan Museum of Art published a superb reproduction of this Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d'Orphée in 1977, and any time taken locating a copy is well spent.
La Puce (The Flea) is representative of Apollinaire's epigrammatic manner:
Puces, amis, amantes même,
Qu'ils sont cruels ceux qui nous aiment
Tout notre sang coule pour eux.
Les bien-aimés sont malheureux.
Fleas, friends, even lovers,
How cruel they are who love us.
Our very life's blood gets spilled for them.
It's the loved-ones who are miserable.
The poet would go on to write far more substantive verse to be sure, but his ability here to use a variety of fauna as a point of departure for something he wants to say, and to do it with breathtaking charm and concision, is a tour de force that must be admired.
The music of La Puce is Durey at his best. Marked Mordant (biting) it opens with a stinging little piano figure that will be heard again, to neatly round the form when it is used as the closing cadential figure. Durey's writing is brilliantly tight and tidy. The scansion is syllabic and superb, and a scurrying figure in the piano--suggesting the 'lover' looking for another place to nibble on his 'loved one'--quickly rises to a fortissimo climax loaded with sharp meaning. A brief lento captures the turn of thought in the poem's final line. All this is done in thirty measures and not many more seconds, while using only a ninth of vocal range.
Durey elected to set all twenty-six Le Bestiaire poems, and did so with a marvelous economy of style and abundance of imagination. Written for unspecified voice, the vocal line rarely leaves the treble clef throughout the entire set, dipping but once to a low B, and rising several times to a high G and even, once, to an A-flat. Durey's respect for the poetry is unfailing, and he even maintains the poet's sequential ordering. Alas, this proves rather unsuccessful from a musical standpoint, as Apollinaire's book lacks an effective dramatic structure. Does it suggest that Durey wanted these songs to be performed as an unbroken set? Probably. But I find it much more practical to view this work as a collection, selecting the items I want to use without regard for the whole.
Is Durey's Bestiaire as good as Poulenc's? There are many who have expressed surprise that Poulenc's earliest settings (he was only nineteen when he penned them) already display so many characteristics of his highly personal style. But to me the surprise is the stylistic similarity of the two composers, and I actually tested this in a recital some years ago. Anticipating a knowledgeable audience, I mixed a number of the Durey and Poulenc Bestiaire settings together into a single section (I also included the delightful La souris Poulenc set--belatedly--in 1956). I asked my audience to listen with the goal of unscrambling the puzzle--matching composer to song. They took up the challenge with gusto, but even the most knowing were humbled by the impossibility of the task!
Durey's Le Bestiaire was published in 1921 by J. & W. Chester, Ltd., in London.
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