Hello again, and welcome back to our second blog post looking ahead to our concert of French music this Saturday, 9th March, in the apt setting of Exeter College Chapel, heavily influenced as it is by French Gothic architecture.

In this post I’m going to take a brief look at the respective Trois Chansons of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) – in both cases, regrettably, the only works they wrote for unaccompanied choir. Both sets hark back to an earlier golden age of French song, and update the genre for the modern era.

Debussy sets three lyrics by the fifteenth-century poet Charles d’Orleans, who was imprisoned in England after the Battle of Agincourt. The set was published in 1909, though the first and last were written at the very end of the previous century, and each has an individual character befitting the tenor of their texts. The first is a languorous love song in praise of a beautiful lady; the second has a distinct gypsy-like quality, with a sonorous alto solo resonating above a rhythmic, wordless accompaniment for lower voices that evokes the tambourines and dancing of the May-time celebrations (as in the musical form ‘tambourin’); the third, both in humour and in earnest, scolds Winter for its villainy in spiky, biting imitative entries; these contrast with the soft and pleasant verdancy of Summer, represented by a lyrical, homophonic (ie. all moving together) quartet.

Image of girl picking flowers, PissarroBy the time Ravel wrote his set in 1914-15, the Great War was upon France. Ravel, who served as an ambulance driver, responded characteristically by retreating for solace to a time of former French glory.  He uses styles and techniques of early chansons, but executes them with modern chromatic harmony. The lyrics are his own, and as with the Debussy, each song faithfully reflects the character of the text. The first, which has a caustic humour and wry nod to the story of Red Riding Hood, is about a young coquette named Nicolette, who is wooed by three very different suitors. You may or may not be surprised by the one she chooses! It’s a wonderfully inventive and engaging piece. The second is a gorgeously lyrical fable about three birds of paradise, each appearing in one of the three colours of the French flag, and mostly sung by solo voices over wordless choral accompaniment. The last is an absolute tour de force in the shape of an old French form – the Ronde – and framed as a battle between youth and age: the older generation warns the youngsters not to go down to the woods today as they might meet all manner of sprites and bogeys (every one imaginable, from a cyclops to a necromancer, and even some we’ve never heard of – aegypans anyone?!), and the youngsters retort that they won’t be heading to the woods any more, as the misguided oldies have frightened all the creatures away. It’s a veritable tongue-twister for the choir – listen hard and try to identify as many supernatural beings as you can!

Together with Lauridsen’s sumptuous Chansons des Roses and Saint-Saens’s elegant, almost classical part-songs, this really is a programme not to be missed, and we very much hope that you will join us on Saturday. Till next time!


© Alice Stainer