Cinq Épitaphes, by Pierre Vellones (1889-1939)

The appreciation of a clever epitaph appears to be universal, and here is a fine collection of them, most written by unknown French poets of the 18th century. The subjects are a bit predictable, but the music is fresh and filled with fun. There is the husband delighted to finally be free of his wife, a devout person who views death as carrying things just a bit too far, the sluggard who happily will never have to do any more work, and the coward who suffered death many times before finally losing his life. And for a clever finish, this little double entendre  jibe at the ever vulnerable medical profession (another universal, it seems):


Il a rendu son âme à Dieu
Le célèbre docteur Mathieu,
qui rendait la ville déserte!
La mort fait une grande perte.

He has given up his soul to God,
The celebrated Doctor Matthews.
He has left the town deserted!
Death itself must mourn his loss.

Clearly Doctor Matthews was notorious for the large number of patients who died while under his care, but I fear my English version does not do justice to that subtle double meaning of the last two lines. Better translations doubtless exist, but I've not been successful in locating them.

Expect nothing profound from Vellones here, just spirited fun. What art there is, arises from his ability to work up a song of reasonable length and satisfactory contour from such a brief text. No quatrain provides much material from which to build a significant musical structure, but this one offers less than most, as its last line--with its pince-sans-rire  double meaning--must necessarily be held in reserve and not used prematurely.

The composer wanted his text to be clearly understood and did all he could to insure its delivery. He set the vocal line in a range that can be clearly articulated, employed multiple repetitions of each line, and used such an insistent syllabic figure that even an audience of visually impaired lip-readers could not fail to get the message. Everything is pumped out at forte dynamics, palpably bursting with delight at intentionally accenting the opening articles of the various lines. The originality of expression and uniqueness of Vellones musical style is immediately apparent here, as it is throughout the set.

Vellones wrote these epitaphs for medium voice and this song typifies the entire set with its range from low C-sharp, up to top line F, with a single low A at the final cadence. The tessitura of all the songs lies very comfortably within the treble staff. The composer also created an optional orchestrated accompaniment for these songs, but I know nothing of its features or if it is still available from the publisher.

Pierre Vellones' name and reputation are not well known, and I should tell you he was a Parisian composer who wrote chamber and symphonic music as well as film scores, songs and music for the piano. Highly regarded by his more famous contemporary, Maurice Ravel, Vellones is now best remembered for his works for saxophone. His compositions often featured unusual instrumental combinations--including ondes Martenot and exotic percussion instruments. His vocal catalog includes settings of The Song of Songs  (poetry of Lahor set for soprano, tenor and speaker, with flute and bassoon), various sets of songs on verse by such poets as Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Paul Fort and a set of ancient Chinese love songs. Should you wish more information than this, the Association Pierre Vellones (8, rue de Monbel, 75017 Paris) will be happy to answer your inquiries.

This collection of epitaphs was clearly intended to be performed as a set, and a recitalist planning a program should certainly consider performing it as being representative of the music of France between the two world wars. Or grouped with songs by such composers as Koechlin, Ibert, Ravel and Delage, it could provide a most refreshing view of the contemporaries of Les Six.

The set of Cinq Épitaphes  was published by Rouart, Lerolle & Cie., in Paris, in 1936, and is available through Éditions Salabert. An LP recording of the set exists, made by basso Jules Bastin on the Belgian label, Terpsichore, in 1982.


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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