Friday, August 6, 2010

"C" from Poulenc's Deux Poemes de Louis Aragon

20th century French chanson changed immensely and rapidly due to internal and external factors affecting France, the greatest of which were the two World Wars that were truly centered around France. These wars brought the full spectrum of power and destruction that human beings were capable of to a new apex. This, however, led to a new apex in artistic motivation, inspiration, and insight that musicians and, specifically, composers were cable of. From Ravel's 5 Mélodies populaires grecques to the later music of Erik Satie, the immense insight gained by experiencing the extremes is immediately apparent, whether the subject was war, love, loss, or laughter.

Poulenc's Deux Poemes de Louis Aragon was published in 1944, during of one of the bloodiest periods of time in France's already tragic history. The Nazis had been occupying the country for about 4 years at this time, France's infrastructure was almost non-existent, millions of French citizens and soldiers had died, with more yet to perish, and France was beginning to resemble a ruinous wasteland akin to that of Warsaw, which had just been completely destroyed. This isn't to say France was coming out of any golden period of their own; World War 1 had just ended 21 years earlier, and the failure of the Third Republic to effectively run the country had made the French national morale quite low before the Germans entered France in 1940 at the beginning of World War 2.

Poulenc, personally, was also quite troubled. A devout Roman Catholic in his later years who also was considered the world's first openly gay composer, Poulenc was a successful composer and a member of the legendary group of composers, Les Six. Louis Aragon, meanwhile, was a surrealist poet and novelist who was also an avid supporter of the French Communist Party. The Deux Poemes were written early in Aragon's life, suggesting his fully radical ideals had not completely set in yet.

Let us take a look at the first of the two songs, "C".

Here is a translation!

J'ai traversé les ponts de Cé I have crossed the bridges of Cé

C'est là que tout a commencé It was there that it all began

Une chanson du temps passé A song of times past

Parle d'un chevalier blessé Speaks of a wounded knight

D'une rose sur la chaussee, Of a rose upon the road

Et d'un corsage délacé And of a bodice unlaced

Du château d'un duc insanse, Of the castle of a mad duke

Et des cygnes dans ses fosses And of the swans in its moats

De la prairie où vient danse Of the meadow where will dance

Une éternelle fiancée An eternal fiancée

Et j'ai bu comme un lait glace, And like cold milk I drank

Le long des laïcs de gloires fausses The long lay of false glories

La Loire emporte mes pensées The Loire carries off my thoughts

Avec des voitures versés Along with the overturned cars

Et les armes désamorcées And the defused weapons

Et les larmes mal effacée And the tears not rubbed away

Oh ma France, ô mon delacee; Oh my France, oh my abandoned one

J'ai traversé les ponts de Cé. I have crossed the bridges of Cé.

With the ever-growing complexity of surrealist art in the early 20th century, which is ever-apparent in the text and music of this piece, I believe some historical context would be helpful in the analysis of this song.

The title of the song, "C", or "Ce", is taken from the name of a commune in France called "Les Ponts de Ce", or "The Bridges of Ce" which is part of the text in the first line of the song. Les Ponts de Ce has been the site of an extreme amount of decisive battles throughout history, beginning with the nearby Battle of Tours in 732, which pushed the Umayyad Caliphate, the reigning Islam kingdom in the world that time, back into Spain. The battle is considered to be one of the turning points in modern Western history. Ce is very close to Tours, and no doubt saw conflict. Ce also saw decisive battles during the Hundred-Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries, and also saw the end of a civil war in the 17th century. Basically, Ce has seen it's fair share of bloody conflict throughout history. Again, note the time in which Aragon wrote the text to the song, and when Poulenc set the text is without a doubt the bloodiest expanse of time in modern history.

The challenge with this piece will be analyzing it mostly without the score. However, the aspects of the music I will cover are, for the most part, easily aurally identified.

Here is a great recording by Sally Matthews that you can use while reading along;

Listen to the first 15 seconds or so. If you had to describe what "shape" the musical line takes in this period, what would you say? Hopefully an arc form. What tangible object does an arc resemble?

A bridge.

One facet of the music not quickly apparently for most is that the piece is in A-flat minor, a not-often chosen key for composers. While the piece takes after Poulenc's composition style with great chromaticism, the tonic prevails throughout. The relative major to A-flat minor is C-flat major. At important points in the piece, Poulenc chromatically inflects the melody and the accompaniment to include C-natural. It would seem as if Poulenc has created a musical play on words, due to the name of the piece, "C". Throughout the piece there is a constant battle between C-flat and C-natural, possibly representing the sorrow that has impacted the physical Les Ponts de Ce for over a millenia. This convergence of our phonetically based languages (French, German, English) and the universal musical language is incredible; Poulenc has found a way to represent the non-musical in a musical way, taking two languages and making them into one.

Another interesting facet of the music is the rhythmic structure of the accompaniment; every subdivision at the eighth-note level in every measure is represented in the piece; in short, there is no rhythmic "space" in the piece. This holds true save for 4 places; 3 of them are in the last 4 measures. The one place where there is an eighth-note "missing" is after the words “eternelle fiancee”. This is, musically and textually, the turning point into the area where the contrast with earlier conflicts seen in Cé are contrasted with conflicts of the present day for Aragon and Poulenc. I will also go a step further and say that the rhythmic pattern of continuous eighth-notes represents a march, an all-too familiar characteristic of war seen both in medieval times and modern times. This march, however, seems to represent the common man's march through the struggle to survive war as a citizen.

A close look at the text reveals the contrast between the ancient battles at Les Ponts de Ce and the conflict in the modern world in which Aragon and Poulenc lived. The song is quite a powerful statement as to the devastating effects of war and conflict on normal people, whether they be musicians, businessmen, children, or teachers.

Of course, I haven't analyzed all of the aspects of the piece, so please comment with your own insight, especially if you have access to a copy of the score!

Next week is Aria Week! GET PUMPED.


  1. wow. thank you for your insight! this is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and ingeniously-written songs in the entirety of classical art song. your perceptions provide a unique glimpse into the possibilities of interpreting this piece. thanks for sharing!

  2. Absolutely love this analysis. I'm singing/performing this piece and some of the things you said, I NEVER would have thought of. Thank you so much for your insight. :)

  3. Interesting blog post, and I'm glad to see my translation used! The permanent link is here: (By the way, there are a few typos in the French above.)

  4. This song came to my attention when it was mentioned in the comic strip 9 Chickweed Lane - the story of Edie Ernst. I wanted to learn more about it and the impact it had on the fighting men. "Ce" sounds as if it is the French equivalent to Meggido or Har-Meggdion in Israel - a last battlefield.