Francis Poulenc’s poignant song “C” uses a text written by Louis Aragon, appearing in Poulenc’s 1943 “Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon” along with a setting of Aragon’s “Fêtes Galantes.” Both of these poems by Aragon appeared in his 1942 collection entitled “Les Yeux d’Elsa.” Aragon, originally a founder of the surrealist movement in the 1920s (along with Paul Éluard and others), moved toward more classical and traditional styles later in his life. In the 1930s and 1940s, his focus was primarily on social realism by way mostly of novels, breaking from surrealism after visiting the Soviet Union as a member of the Communist Party and eventually emerging as a leader of the French Resistance.
“Les Yeux d’Elsa” and, consequently, “C” fall into this time during which Aragon was exploring social realism in his writing to disconnect himself from his surrealist peers. However, this poem, despite its very structured 8 syllables per line and Renaissance-like form with every line ending with the same sound, “cé,” alludes to elements of surrealism from which Aragon had not yet distanced himself. In it, a narrator recalls for no particular audience (perhaps himself) the May of 1940 in which the French people (Aragon included) had to escape the invading German army.
The narrator describes the chaotic nature of event, beginning and ending with a reference to the bridges of Cé (in Angers, France). He refers to how “it all began” there, a reference to one of the many battles which took place on the same site (in 51 B.C. when the Gauls fell to the Romans, in 1432 when it was held during the Hundred Years War and in 1620 when Marie de Médici’s troops fell to those of Louis XIII) describing a “song of bygone days” and a “wounded knight.” Returning to his present, the narrator then describes the Loire river beneath; his depiction of the river carrying away overturned cars, weapons and tears along wit his thoughts evokes surrealist images, something deeply engrained in Aragon’s writing by the conception of this work. However, it is an actual description of the calamity which occurred in the haste of the invasion. Symbolically, the crossing of the bridge which is stressed in this poem can be considered a representation of leaving the past behind and moving forward, whether from the chivalrous days of knights depicted early in the poem to the unfortunate circumstances of the present or perhaps from this horrible event which the poet has just witnessed to more hopeful days.
This significant text is clearly set in Poulenc’s “C,” preserving the structure of the text with a through-composed form in 3/4 time without adding any repeats or cutting any words or phrases. The declamation is good, with the text unobscured by ornamentations or range and the unaccented nature of the French language portrayed well in the homophonic setting. However, an interesting choice of Poulenc’s in this setting was to set each mute e to a pitch of its own, despite the fact that it somewhat obscures the consistency of the Renaissance-like rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is not stressed by Poulenc, though, so it seemed to be beyond his concern (certainly not carelessness, as the intricacies in the rest of this musical setting will prove). The music, both accompaniment and vocal line, is intrinsically connected to the text in this song. While the music is undoubtedly beautiful, arguably with or without words, there is no way to decipher the deeply layered meaning of the song without the text to accompany it and renders it much less purposeful: beauty without meaning.
The vocal line is a tuneful and melancholy one, syllabically portraying the text over a wide range of Eb4 to Ab5 (long phrases which span an octave are not uncommon in this song). Dramatic in nature, Poulenc included many leaps in the vocal line intermingled with its often stepwise, diatonic motion (only chromatic where modulations are occurring), reminiscent of sobs in this mournful song.
The accompaniment begins before the vocal line with a 4-measure piano prelude. Arpeggiating the tonic of A flat minor, this sets up the key and the basis from which the melody grows shortly after. Immediately, the melody is echoed in the accompaniment (which is also begins playing in parallel sixths, shortly to depart though). While the melody continues to be upheld in the accompaniment, its arpeggiating figure is countered by pulsing chordal gestures, together serving primarily as harmonic support for the vocal line; the accompaniment phrases are the same length as those of the vocal line. A lack of noticeable rhythmic figures in the accompaniment (in favor of a more constant rhythm) gives the illusion of timelessness or standing still in time, as the narrator seems to be doing in this poem.
Without direct text painting, Poulenc uses the accompaniment to allude to the text, as there are certain moments during which the melody is left out of the vocal line. These moments occur at points of disconnect: measures 10-12 (“parle d’un chevalier blessé”) and measures 16-20 (“du chateau d’un duc insensé…”) at the noticeable disconnect between the lost times of chivalry and untouchable whimsy and the harsh reality of today; measures 26-27 (“le long lai des glories…”) at the gap between believed glories and the reality of failure; measure 29 (“emporte mes pensées”), depicting the drifting of the narrator’s thoughts on the Loire and his blurred state of mind; and measures 36-38, marveling at his “forsaken France.”
As stated, “C” begins in A flat minor. It isn’t until approximately measure 21 that the F minor key is established, having been slowly modulating there for 8 measures or so. As the poetry moves towards the present-day depiction, the tonality moves as well: declining downwards in sequences with heavy emphasis on double-flattenings, giving the impression of life as the poet once knew it falling apart into this wreckage he sees around him. Finally, the one-measure piano postlude brings the song to cadence in the major rather than minor; here, the narrator is at last recalling (in his thoughts) France’s glory after mourning it for what seems so long a time.
Poulenc marked the score of C to his liking with specific dynamic markings ranging from pp to f, often making use of diminuendos and crescendos to arrive at these points. These varying dynamics help bring dimension to the grief expressed in the poetry, a range of emotion to what could, at first glance, be considered simply a “sad song.” Beginning and remaining largely on the softer side, the increases in dynamics help to highlight some distinct moments. For example, the passage “et d’un corsage…” through “…dans los fossés” is marked f and fades back to pp, bringing this recollection of the past into the forefront of the narrator’s memory before it fades again. The phrase “et j’ai bu…” through “des gloires faussées” is mf at first and grows to f, expressing a particularly mournful sentiment and calling for extra emotional attention on the singer’s part. Similarly, “o ma France…” is marked mf, lamenting the state of France with an extra burst of tearful sorrow before fading back into submission.
The music for “C” was clearly molded to fit Louis Aragon’s text, resulting in a specific and intricate musical realization of this nostalgic and heartbreaking poem. As described, Poulenc not only set the text in a clearly understandable way; he delved into its many layers and gave poetic meaning to nearly all his musical gestures, from vocal line to accompaniment to dynamics. The accompaniment, in particular, plays a crucial role in this setting; the relationship between accompaniment and text is, in my own opinion, the most compelling aspect of this piece. As a whole, though, Poulenc created something intricate and honest with “C,” woven tightly with Aragon’s text.