Poulenc’s frothy, frivolous and rather sexy ballet Les biches does not seem, at first glance, to be the sort of piece to make a hardened muso well up with emotion, but it had just that effect on me about a week ago as I listened to it for the first time in ages.
“Les biches” conducted by Georges Prêtre, who is very, very good at this kind of music….
I’m doing a gorgeous French program this week, conducting the Poulenc alongside Milhaud’s wonderfully ludicrous Le boeuf sur le toit, the effervescent Ibert Flute Concerto, and Gounod’s delightful Petitie Symphonie for winds. I hadn’t done the Poulenc since I learned it in 1999, and it had probably been three or four years since I last heard it, but I as I made my way through the bracing and vivacious opening Rondeau, through the gently poignant Adagietto to the mad and rollicking Rag-Mazurka and the elegant Andantino to the splendidly bonkers Final, I just got more and more emotional.
The story of Les biches is not exactly a tear jerker. The synopsis of the ballet’s plot is as follows: “The action passes in a large white drawing room with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa. In is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely young women [“Les biches” or “the does” of the title]. Just as in 18th C prints, their play is innocent in appearance only.”
On the other hand, few composers could ever squeeze as much poignancy into a few notes as Francis Poulenc. He had a genius for distilling rich, powerful and complex emotions into simple, economical and seemingly familiar musical gestures- I sometimes think of him like a French Janacek for his ability to make 2 or 3 chords or a tiny turn of phrase bring a tear to your eye. And Les biches, playfully raunchy as it is, is not without its moments of deep feeling.
“The beauty, the melancholy of Les biches results from a lack of artifice.” Jean Cocteau
However, perhaps because Poulenc had opened the floodgates, when I went on to the far sillier Milhaud (the title translates as “The Ox of the Roof”), I found it still quite emotional to listen to. Fortunately, the ensuing recording of the Gounod, dispatched with vintage wind ensemble uniform mezzo forte, was so boring I was able to regain my composure and get back to work.
So why such a strong reaction to such frivolous music?
Well, for most of us, the last few months have been a pretty deeply unsettling time.
As I was listening to the Poulenc, I was really hit by a sense of loss. It seemed to press an emotional button in me that more overtly intense composers had missed over the last few months. As the world seems to be poised on the knife-edge of a kind of abyss none of us has faced in 80 years (perhaps longer if things go really badly) this kind of sophisticated, witty, nostalgic music was really balm for the soul.
I found myself thinking rather ruefully of the post-World War II experiment in music learning , or rather trying to learn, the lessons of history through the movement that became High Modernism. The short, vastly over-simplified, version of the theory was that the Romantic/Heroic mind-set of composers from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner to Bruckner had somehow opened the spiritual door to fascism. A new, cooler, more rational, less sensual aesthetic was called for. Music needed a lot less Teutonic testosterone and a lot more moderation and control.
It would go on to be one of the those great historical ironies that although post WW II Modernism produced many musical masterpieces, it also proved fertile ground for movements far more grandiose, totalitarian, fanatic and bellicose than anything even Wagner ever dreamed of. Wagner’s own singular mega-achievement (his four opera Ring cycle) was finally eclipsed in scale, ambition and sheer megalomaniacal madness by Stockhausen’s seven opera cycle, Licht.
Also at the forefront of the post War re-think of music’s means and meanings was Stockhausen’s French counterpoint, the great, even very great, Pierre Boulez. Boulez, himself both a composer and conductor of true genius, worked his way from being an anti-establishment gadfly, calling for the demolition of the opera houses, to becoming the very embodiment of the French musical establishment (and a man who did great work in the opera house, particularly Wagner’s own).
So the modernist rebel became something of a reactionary establishment figure, and the movement that sought to repair the damage of Wagner eventually became a Wagnerian movement. However, if Stockhausen and Boulez did not succeed in diminishing the impact of Romanticism in the 20th C musical world, Boulez at least managed to make damn sure that Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger (the talented half of Les Six) left pretty much no musical heirs.
And what a pity, because if ever there was a perfect and profound antidote to Wagnerian pomposity, it was and is the music of Milhaud and Poulenc (Honegger was a composer of fiercer temperament who perhaps lacked Poulenc’s spark of lightly-worn genius). Both Poulenc and Milhaud often managed to do what Satie hadn’t the talent, skill or the work ethic to do: to make the simple, witty, frivolous and seemingly straightforward truly beautiful and profound. Imagine a post WWII Europe in which the soundtrack was more the slow movement of the Poulenc Cello Sonata (surely one of the most beautiful essays in the genre ever written) or the opening of Milhaud’s jazzy masterpiece La Creation du monde and their musical progeny? Surely that’s music that allows us to meditate on beauty and loss without too much muscle bound misery. Surely it would have been a saner place.
The slow movement, Cavatine, from Poulenc’s 1948 Cello Sonata
As it is, today’s neo-fascists don’t have any use for Bruckner and Liszt. They’ve found industrial-scale corporate Country music and stadium rock have all the phallic energy needed for the modern totalitarian, without any messy meaning, scale or beauty.
Poulenc triumphed where Satie ( who is, I confess, a total blind spot for me. His whose music makes me want to chew my own leg off.) missed the boat. Satie went for “less is more” and ended up with ”not nearly enough” bordering on “I would have preferred nothing” or “I can never get those five minutes back again.” Poulenc went for “saying more with fewer words, speaking simply about profound things, and expressing simple ideas with profound craftsmanship” and got “total genius.”
That last point is in many ways the one that brought me to the edge of tears the other day. Yes, Les biches eschews overt profundity, but it expresses so much of life’s complexities, disappointments and pleasures with such mind boggling musical skill. What place is there in today’s culture for such lightly worn mastery of craft? I fear we’ll never again see such playful brilliance, such wise mischief.
We live in an age that is almost the opposite. Today, particularly in pop culture, but certainly to a degree in art music, we use technology to cover over huge gaps in the skill sets of musicians of all kinds. We pretend one can write great literature without a mastery of language, or a real grasp of form. In an age of autotune and micro editing, where sampling has replaced song-writing and all country music records use the same chord progression, it’s hard to imagine ever again encountering a composer like Poulenc who is so good that you never even notice his genius until you’re sobbing away listening to a one of those 10 second outbursts that make you think you’d give anything to be smoking a cigarette in a shitty apartment in 1920’s Paris, thinking about lost love and empty wine bottles and wondering when the next adventure is going to start and already knowing and accepting the heartbreak that awaits when it’s over.
Poulenc’s music is full of an intoxicating, almost desperate sense of longing, and real, aching nostalgia, juxtaposed with the most direct and unfiltered outbursts of childlike pure joy. “Joie de vivre” is a far more beautiful expression than any of its English translations, and to me, it points up the difference between mere happiness and true “joy of life.” Life is not always happy. It is full of sorrow, loss, disappointment, loneliness, terror and fear, to express, in true musical Technicolor glory as Poulenc does, joy in life, of life, is to find joy in the full mix of happiness and sorrow, delight and disappointment that we all must ultimately experience in the fullness of our lives. And so in an age where pre-packaged consumerist instant gratification and plastic instant “happiness” tries to paper over the pain of social isolation, personal hopelessness and great injustice, where autotune anthems try to down out an inner soundtrack of utter despair, vive la joie de vivre, vive la frivolité.