Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Songs of Henri Duparc

Matisse: Luxe, calme, et volupté
Henri Duparc (1848-1933) is a special case. He lived until the age of 85 but composed nothing for the last fifty years of his life. His essential output consists of just seventeen songs, plus a couple of short orchestral pieces. All these works were composed in the space of fourteen years. Surely someone who wrote so little can hardly be ranked among the great French composers? Ah, but several of those seventeen songs are counted among the greatest of all French songs.

Try Extase. In just three minutes of music, Duparc conveys a Wagnerian sense of yearning mingled with thoughts of death - the essence of Tristan und Isolde. A heavenly melody, gorgeous modulations, a beautiful postlude, Extase is as sensual a song as you will ever hear and one of my favourite songs of all time. 

Duparc's setting of Baudelaire's great poem, L'invitation au voyage, is also very special. The phrase "...beauté, Luxe, calme, et volupté" can be applied to describe Duparc's song as well. The music begins in the minor, gently shimmering, evoking longing and "the irritation of melancholy", but when the poem turns to Baudelaire's vision of paradise (expressed in the famous phrase quoted above) Duparc responds by switching to the major - an effect like sudden sunlight flooding a dark scene - and repeating those words as if lost in dreaming. Genius! 

Duparc's harmonic sense can partly be put down to the influence of his famously chromatic (and Wagner-besotted) teacher César Franck, though his own vivid experiences of Wagner's music had a significant impact too. Another of Duparc's sensual sublimations of Wagner's influence, Élégie, is a particularly masterly song  - a setting of Thomas Moore about an Irish revolutionary who dies for his ideals, that mingles mourning with inspiration. The song soars magnificently to its hopeful climax ("Shall long keep his memory green in our souls") before ebbing away.

There is much more to Duparc though that sublimated Wagnerian harmony. Duparc's melodic gift was far from Wagnerian (or Franckian). Another lovely sad song, Chanson triste, his earliest masterpiece, is a fine example of that. It floods the listener's senses with beautifully-shaped melodic lines, as well as caressing arpeggios and mouth-watering modulations. Its vision of the moonlight of a summer's night streaming from a lover's heart is realised to perfection.

Duparc was certainly a master at conveying sorrow through music, as the early but beautiful Soupir  (dedicated to the composer's mother) and the late, intense Lamento (what gorgeous chords!) show, but he could also summon up feelings of deep restfulness, as in the enchanting Phidylé and could also be dramatic, as in the somewhat Der Erlkönig-like Le manoir de Rosemonde and, even more so, in the stormy, quasi-operatic La vague et la cloche. 

Another song with a touch of Schubert next. In the unusually Pre-Raphaelite Au pays où se fait la guerre, where a girl yearns for her lover's return from the wars, the yearning passes - as yearning often does - from melancholy to sensual desire and keen anticipation. 

The hyper-self-critical composer rejected three of his early songs, but posterity hasn't enough pieces by Duparc so they are now widely performed. The songs in the composer's Salon des Refusés are Le galop, Romance de Mignon and Sérénade. I'd got along with him regarding the first two of these songs but Sérénade is delicious. 

The early Sérénade is not to be confused with the later Sérénade florentine, another of my favourites, a gently, lilting love song with an exquisite, subtly-phrased melodic line and an ever-changing emotional flow. Duparc is a true master of broad, flowing melody.

One of the composer's most passionate masterpieces is the wonderful Testament, a song where Duparc approaches the (still-to-come) mature style of Hugo Wolf. Anxious tremolos tremble throughout the piece, which contains passages of the sweetest lyricism and outbursts of the most dramatic kind, capturing all the shifts of mood in the poetry.

The texts and translations of the poetry set by Duparc can be found here. It's always worth reading the poem as you listen to a song. Part of Duparc's achievement - his responsiveness to every nuance of a poem - cannot be grasped unless you do so. You can, of course, just enjoy the beauty of the songs without understanding a word of what is being sung (all opera lovers know that!), but the experience is immeasurably deepened if you do know what is sung about, especially when the composer is Henri Duparc.

Ah, Henri Duparc, his broad, flowing melodies, his magical harmonies, his beautiful accompaniments...

Before ending with another of his greatest songs, and not just for the sake of completeness, you might also wish to hear his only duet, the oriental La fuite. The urgent early stages are all about conjuring up the mood of "Fuyons, fuyons!" ('Let's flee! Let's flee!') but as the girl Kadidja mentions her eyelashes ("Mes cils te feront de l'ombre") the key changes to the major, the agitated figuration is transformed into a magical shimmer and the soprano's line soars rapturously - a beautiful moment. The song continues to alternate in this vein before the voices join together. Ah, if only Duparc had written an opera!

To end, his final song before the long silence fell, La vie antérieure. Another great Baudelaire's poem transmuted into great music. From the solemn and mysterious evocation of the"vastes portiques" and "grands piliers" of the opening section, with its all-powerful chords, through the evocation of the "rolling waves" through its rolling piano figuration, building towards the magnificent, radiant climax at "C'est là, c'est là que j'ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes" - one of the most uplifting moments in the whole song repertoire -, the erotic languor that follows and the final achingly sad recall of "le secret douloureux", this song has everything, yet it lasts only a little over four minutes. Such is the genius of Duparc.

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