The Mélodies of Francis Poulenc. A Study Guide
Alissa Deeter and Robert Peavler
Scarecrow Press (2014) xix + 375 pages
ISBN 978-0-8-8108-8414-4 (ISBN 978-0-8-8108-8414-1 - e-book)
The authors of this book appear to be very well qualified to write about the mélodies of Francis Poulenc. Both are experienced academics: Deeter is an associate professor of applied voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte while Peavler is an associate professor of voice at East Michigan University. In addition both are experienced performers: Alissa Deeter is a soprano and Robert Peavler is a baritone.
To be honest, I don’t know whether to be disappointed, frustrated or annoyed by this book: probably all three in equal measure and this is the result of the apparently self-imposed limitations of the authors’ approach.
Let me tell you, firstly, what the purchaser of this book will get. Each one of Poulenc’s songs - and there are approaching 200 of them - is considered in the alphabetical order of the name of the poets whose words are set. Each song is analysed in the same way. An English poetic translation of the text is printed, using the same translations that appeared in Pierre Bernac’s book, Francis Poulenc: The Man and his Songs. There follows a line-by-line presentation of the text in three formats: first there is given an IPA phonetic rendition of the text; then comes the French text; underneath that is a word-for-word English translation. Because that translation is word-for-word often it doesn’t correspond to the poetic translation and, indeed, there are several occasions where the translation is literal to the point of being nonsensical.
For each song the date of composition is given, the vocal range of the song is supplied as is the gender of the singer. There are, alongside the text, a few very brief notes of explanation about certain words. Some of these are helpful but some - such as the explanation that ‘comme un lait glacé’ means ‘like an ice cold milk’ - seem to me simply to be stating the obvious, since that ‘explanation’ is already there in the translations provided.
The degree of difficulty of each song is denoted by a star system of between one and four stars - half-stars are allowed - but since no explanation whatsoever is offered as to how the degree of difficulty is determined this system seems a bit arbitrary.
That, in essence, is what this book offers. What the reader will not get is any kind of commentary on or explanation of the songs. There are a few pages of introduction but these amount to just over nine pages of text in a volume that runs to 375 pages. So, there’s no musical analysis or description; not a word is said about the poets; there are no comments about what the texts, many of them very elusive, might mean; and the authors make no attempt to contextualise any of the songs. This, it seems to me, is a major, indeed crippling omission and I find it mystifying given that both authors are not only vocal teachers but also active concert singers who, one assumes, have sung at least some of this music. How useful it would have been to read some of their insights on how to perform and interpret these songs. Instead, the approach seems fixated on instilling correct pronunciation of the texts.
Now, I grant that correct pronunciation is essential, no matter in what language a singer is performing. However, surely the best ways to learn correct pronunciation are to consult a good language coach and to listen to other people speak and sing the language? The serious vocal student will combine both approaches. Furthermore, unless either the singer or his/her teacher is very well versed in the use of IPA phonetics they will not find it at all easy to use this resource. I have no knowledge of phonetics but I do speak French: I’m afraid I found it impossible to make sense of the phonetics and to relate them to the French words.
I readily acknowledge that commentary on the songs is available from several authoritative sources, including the Bernac book mentioned above and the composer’s own Diary of my Songs. However, it seems to me that for a book that is described as a ‘study guide’ this volume is worryingly one-dimensional. One longs for some of the insightful commentary that, for example, Graham Johnson provides in his lively and detailed commentary on each song in the booklet that accompanies the recent Hyperion intégrale of the complete songs (review).
At the end of the volume there are appendices. These consist of a very useful glossary of French musical terms used by Poulenc; a short bibliography; and a select discography, though this is restricted to downloads.
All in all, I’m afraid this expensive book is too limited a resource and an opportunity missed
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