Vocalise, by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Can a vocalise be a song? That depends on how you define 'song', and I intend to favor a broad definition here, lest any other prevent me from including a vocalise in this series. For there is a large collection of extraordinary vocal works--many written by important composers--which is not well enough known in this country. It is filled with worthy works that are unsung only because they have the misfortune of being titled 'vocalises', and it is my hope here to heighten awareness of their existence and quality.

I am referring to the ten volume Répertoire Moderne de Vocalises-Études  that was published over a number of years by the firm of Alphonse Leduc in Paris. The list of composers who contributed to the collection reads like a Who's Who of the important musicians in Paris between the two World Wars; a particularly important place and time for modern music. To drop just a few of the better known names: Fauré, Villa-Lobos, Copland, Ravel, Pizzetti, Nielsen, Gretchaninoff, Kilpinen and five of the Les Six  composers.

It appears most every composer who taught or studied at the Conservatoire National de Musique  at that time was invited to contribute to the project. It was one A.L. Hettich, a professor of music at the Conservatoire, who oversaw the project and edited the collection. His is the operative name to use when searching for this material in most libraries.

The purpose of the collection, Hettich explains in a preface, was to provide material that could be used in the study of singing 'modern' music. These were studies in tone making and execution and engaged the singer in what was, at the time, contemporary music, experiencing the advanced harmony and increasingly interesting writing then current. It should quickly be noted that only tonal harmony was admitted; no atonalists were invited to participate.

Francis Poulenc's Vocalise  ( number 89, from volume 9) is a fine example of the quality of the Leduc collection, and a delightful instance of his personal style. It was written in 1927, which places it early in the composer's catalog, right after his marvelously wanton Chansons gaillardes .

Vocalise  is a rather vigorous piece for high voice, marked andante con moto. It offers a variety of vocal opportunities, most of them sung at forthright dynamic levels. The gamut runs an octave and a fifth--from bottom space F, up to B above the treble staff, and the tessitura is centered in the upper fifth of the staff. An interesting variety of approaches to and departures from high notes are featured; there are several extended portamenti  to high G, a high B initiated fortissimo, and several fortissimo  high B-flat phrase endings. The phrasing is always clearly marked and the melodic line, often disjunct, features fifths, sixths and octaves. All this is admirably supported by Poulenc's facile and debonair harmonic manner and a most satisfying sense of form--capped by the return of the opening melody as a brief canon between the voice and piano in the closing measures.

While it is not necessary to demonstrate that this vocalise is really a song, there is some basis for such a notion: that it was premiered by Jane Bathori (a very important singer, much admired by Debussy and Ravel) lends it some import. And that she subsequently programmed it on a recital--as an 'Air sans paroles'--along with the Air vif  and Air romantique  from Poulenc's then unfinished set Airs chantés, lends it still more authority. Poulenc made it clear he thought it worthy by including it in the catalog he compiled for his Journal de mes mélodies  (Grasset, 1964). And I could also point out that internal evidence implies the piece may even have some programmatic content, for Poulenc asks for a 'plaintive' sound at one point.

Still, it appears some do not consider vocalises as important compositions or worthy equivalents to song, and their attitude threatens to endanger this fascinating species. Pierre Bernac, for example, in his Francis Poulenc, The Man and his Songs  (Norton, 1977) acknowledges the existence of this Vocalise, but declines to discuss it. Vivian Wood, in her dissertation, Francis Poulenc's Songs for Voice and Piano  (Washington U., 1973) mentions the Vocalise  but once--and in a surprisingly erroneous sentence. Nor is Vocalise  included in the 'complete' CD recording of Poulenc's songs issued by EMI FRANCE. (To heighten that inconsistency, EMI does  include Fauré's Vocalise  in their recording of his complete songs.)

I leave it to you to explore Hettich's fascinating collection of vocalises and make your own decision about their worth. I am certain those who do so will find their time and effort well rewarded.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633