Karen Scott's French Art Song Workshop

      August 9, 2003. The rain finally stopped and I had made a quick trip to the garden to pick vegetables and herbs. Now I was in the kitchen making a ratatouille, that French eggplant casserole with tomatoes, onions, peppers and zucchini, to celebrate Karen's very successful workshop. Last night's class explored the songs of Francis Poulenc and as I worked, WHRO's Saturday opera began: Poulenc's Dialogue des Carmélites (1957) with Tidewater's own Robynne Redmon singing Mother Marie in English with Glimmerglass Opera .

      The class was six two-hour sessions of pleasant exploration of major French mélodies. Live performances by members of the class were mixed with listening to and discussing specific songs using several recordings to understand how different singers approach the same piece. More than once when a singer in the class repeated a song he or she adjusted the tempo to make the song more effective. To a non-singer, this was an excellent experience of a true workshop.

      The comfortable format allowed for having songs repeated, reading aloud the poetry - sometimes more than once - with discussion. This was especially true of texts by Guillaume Apollinaire, whose verses are lyrical, bizarre and technically innovative. They represent the link between symbolist and surrealist poetry and were a puzzle for our group to solve.

      The Grove Dictionary defines mélodie as the accompanied French song of the 19th and 20th century, usually a setting for voice and piano of a serious lyric poem. The term mélodie was originally applied to French translations of Schubert lieder to distinguish them from the then popular French romances. Ravel credits Gounod with establishing the independently French character of the mélodie. "Gounod's best songs have a typical Gallic grace displaying perfect craftsmanship and stylistic elegance while retaining freshness and simplicity."

      Here is the most important point: "He [Gounod] was the first to render consistently and faithfully the difficult rhythms of the French language in song" (though it was Fauré who brought the mélodie to fruition). As I understand it, what makes French mélodie such a challenge for the non-native French speaker is that the sound of the language (when sung as well as spoken) is produced high in the facial mask and forward. To my ear, correctly sung French has a nasal quality. The deeper, rich sound of German and English is produced lower in the throat and chest and is very different.

      In a recent review of French songs I wrote "Just as a wave rolls onto the beach with great energy, there is also a pause and diminution in intensity as it recedes. Ideally there is an ebb and flow, gentleness following intensity, in these songs." One of the seven elements of style covered in the workshop was harmonic influence, which has to do with tension and relaxation. It was suggested that the singer learn to feel this and understand why both within the phrase and within the song it is an essential consideration. To my ear, Dubussy's musical language differs from German music more than some of his fellow French composers.

      Debussy's music should flow like a brook in a hilly countryside, at times fast and then slow and always cool and a bit detached. I first heard these songs in a recording by the English singer Maggie Teyte with Alfred Cortot at the piano. She was taught by Debussy himself and the songs have a lovely surface simplicity with the highly charged emotional content subtly presented. The pauses in this music often speak as loudly as the sung phrases. A flexibility in timing is required. If you want to hear it yourself, NAXOS has just issued a budget two-CD set Maggie Teyte A Vocal Portrait. The 1936 Debussy recording according to the September 2003 Opera News reviewer was quickly accepted as the standard for this repertory. (page 87).

      The first class explored Gabriel Fauré's (1845-1924) music and we listened to several recordings of his song Mandoline. There was a consensus that Elly Ameling's interpretation was the best we heard. As if planned, the youngest student in the class raised the question of the difference in singing an art song and an aria.

      One of the recordings had been a perfectly wonderful rendition of Mandoline by René Fleming. Her's was more dramatic with phrasing voluptuously shaped. In the final lines of the poem she stretched the time to give us a glorious vocal display. So why wasn't she our favorite?

      In art song the text is of prime importance. The voice is there to represent the meaning of the poem and with only a piano, the singer is not required to project the voice in the same way as on the opera stage. The communication can be more precise and often intimate, while arias allow the singer to showcase their voices and technique.

Notes on Other Composers

      Henri Duparc (1848-1933) chose poetry that is depressive, almost morbid. He wrote many songs but destroyed most of them. In the seventeen songs he allowed to exist there is not one cheerful or happy song. I chose a French native singer Isabella Vernet for my CD collection but the best recording we heard was Hyperion (CDA 66323) with the British singers Sarah Walker and Thomas Allen.

      Claude Debussy's (1862-1918) song cycles Ariettes Oubliées and Fêtes galantes were the focus of the class and the CD Voyage à Paris sung by Frederica von Stade with Martin Katz at the piano was a favorite. The CD booklet describes her special relationship with French Music and her French audience. The album also includes music of Satie, Poulenc and Ravel.

      Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was represented by his setting of Alphonse Daudet's poem Trois Jours de Vendage with a class performance. This was another poem that elicited lots of discussion. Elly Ameling's CD performances of L'amitie and La vie est belle were wonderful. Her CD Serenata (Philips 412 216-2) is indispensible. As I've recommended before, the CD La Belle Époque, twenty-four songs by Hahn with Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano (Sony SK 60160) is excellent.

      Ernest Chausson's (1855-1899) lushly romantic Le temps des lilas was performed in class. It is soft at first but builds, only to end on a gentle note. Chausson did not write a great many songs and few of those are well-known. Barbara Quintiliani did sing four of them in her recital at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk in 2000. Dans la forêt du charme et de l'enchantement (In the forest of charm and enchantment) was also sung in class. It was sung a second time and faster and the class agreed that it worked best that way.

      Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in southwestern France of a Spanish mother and Swiss father. He was intellectual and innovative and loved to solve musical problems. His songs are often musically challenging but not vocally demanding, staying in a comfortable range for language clarity. He set texts that were sometimes satirical, as in his cycle L'Histoire naturelles, where La Grillon (The Cricket) is found and which was performed in class. These songs are whimsical and simple in expression. Ravel said of them "...narrated in a conversational manner rather than sung." The cycle is available on Dawn Upshaw's Homage à Jane Bathori (Erato 3984-27329-2). Recorded in Paris in March 1999, the CD contains twenty-three selections of French art song with music by Milhaud, Roussel, Honegger, Koechlin and Dutilleux as well as the composers we covered in class (Satie, Ravel and Debussy).

      Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Since the class left me itching to get to know more of his 150 songs, I was happy to learn of a four CD set Poulenc Mélodies (EMI Classics ZDMD 7 64087 2). From the 1970s I have an LP of Gérard Souzay doing four cycles from this set, Dalton Baldwin is pianist, both on the LP and the CD set. Other singers include Elly Ameling, Nicolaï Gedda, Michel Sénéchal, and William Parker. The included texts are in French only, which is a disappointment to a non French speaker. In class, Hôtel and Voyage à Paris were the songs we spent the most time with. The text of Hôtel is all about wanting to stay in the room and smoke cigarettes and not go to work. For this song Sylvia McNair and Nicolaï Gedda were our favorites. If you missed the workshop all is not lost; Karen Scott promises to repeat the class soon.

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