Listening Guide: Eau Française (French Water)

Nuit d’Eté – M.E. Gignoux (1870-1900)
text by A. Gignoux

This romantic work (both in era and affect) is comprised of a dense texture and progressive harmony. A constant, polarized, rhythmic counterpoint sets the tone for a piece that is approached very differently from each the vocalist, violinist, and pianist. Composed by a female pianist about whom so little is known, this work is extremely rare; our performances (3/24/17 & 3/31/17) may very well be the Philadelphian premiers – if not US premiers – of a composition older than a century. Listen for:

•The active piano ostinato, indicative of the racing heartbeat of the narrator as he anticipates the meeting of his beloved

•A soaring, lyrical vocal line, reminiscent of the inflection of spoken words

•Cascading sextuplets in the piano part of the climax, representing the euphoric words, “where the soul exhales its prayer and flees to immortality”

•Meter changes midway through the piece, reflecting the lilting and peaceful fantasy of a summer night – and then a return to reality and the realization that the vision is, in fact, a dream


“Come, in the woods, my beloved,
Ah! Come! The night descends from the heavens;
The air is pure, the breeze perfumed,
We are going to make happy dream.
Ah! Come! Ah! Come, come!

Come, so that your young girl’s voice,
Will mingle with the sweet chirping of the nightingale beneath the arbor,
And we’re pulled along gently toward this beautiful land of light,
That one names immensity,
Where the soul exhales its prayer and flees to immortality!

There, we will forget the sufferings and troubles of the world;
It’s the joy that inundates us in the spacious fields of nights.
But alas! At the heart of my dreams,
I saw all brightness grow pale.
It finishes itself, in eternity.
This time of delight, so brief,
This fantasy of a summer night.”


La cathédrale engloutie, L 117 – Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Ethereal, timeless, and highly evocative, the “Sunken Cathedral” is the tenth prelude of Debussy’s first of two volumes. The piece references the Breton “Legend of Ys,” in which a cathedral emerges from the ocean on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Impressionism is at its peak in this beautiful demonstration of the extreme registers of the piano, and open, parallel harmonies. Listen for:

•The opening, registral rise of parallel harmonies, representing the emerging cathedral

•Tonal ambiguity, created by the use of the pentatonic scale (as in Asian folk music, which inspired the composer)

•Pianistic virtuosity of very dense chords, performed rapidly

•The stark contrast of major/minor “arrivals” to the pentatonic modes


Banalités, FP 107 – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
text by Guillaume Apollinaire

I: Chansons d’Orkenise

Pensive, but energized music, the first song of the cycle depicts a profound exchange at the city gates. Listen for:

•Poulenc’s disjunct sense of melody and progressive harmony, evident in the piano part

•The text, comparing the different and yet very similar circumstances of two people entering and leaving a city, respectively

•A fast, shimmering sextuplet that returns several times, representing the vitality of the city

•A stark change in character and harmony that occurs when the sentries of Orkenise explain that for both the carter and the tramp, the way ahead is dark

•Pervasive, quartal harmony in the piano part, bookending the song


“Through the gates of Orkenise,
A carter wants to enter,
Through the gates of Orkenise,
A Tramp wants to leave.

And the guards of the city
Rush up to the tramp:
‘What are you taking out of the city?’
–‘I’m leaving my entire heart there.’

And the guards of the city
Rush up to the carter:
‘What are you bringing into the city?’
–‘My heart to get married.’

So many hearts in Orkenise
The guards laughed and laughed.
Tramp—the road is dreary,
Love is dreary, carter.

The handsome guards of the town
Knitted superbly;
Then the gates of the city
Closed slowly.”

II: Hôtel

The second song depicts a glamorous but lazy scene in which the narrator smokes from a hotel room. Listen for:

•Expansive, lofty chords (quintal harmony) in the piano part

•The synthesis of either very narrow or broad melodic intervals that evoke a sense of laziness


“My room has the form of a cage.
The sun reaches its arm through the window.
But I want to smoke and make shapes in the air,
I light my cigarette on the fire of the day.
I do not want to work; I want to smoke.”

III: Fagnes de Wallonies

Both beautiful and tragic, the text is set to frantic, agile music. Listen for:

•Driving eighth notes in the piano and vocal lines that instill a sense of urgency, as the narrator reflects on his sadness

•Frequently changing meter and keys, evoking volatility and fear


“So much sadness seized my heart
On the desolate moors,
When, weary, I rested in the fir forest,
[Unloading] the weight of the kilometers
While the west wind growled.

I had left the pretty wood,
The squirrels stayed there;
My pipe tried to make clouds in the sky,
Which stubbornly stayed pure [blue].

I did not entrust any secret, apart from an enigmatic song,
To the humid peatlands.

The clear heather, smelling of honey
Was attracting the bees,
And my aching feet trod on the blueberries and cranberries.
Tenderly she is married,
North, North!
There life twists, in strong and twisted trees.
There life bites bitter death
With greedy teeth,
While the wind howls.”

IV: Voyage à Paris

A bright, fast-paced waltz, this movement is reminiscent of a pop song. Listen for:

•The opening piano melody – a much faster version of the opening of the second movement – that establishes a subtle musical connection between the two songs


“Ah! How charming it is to a leave a gloomy place [country]
For Paris.
Pretty Paris,
[Which] one day Love had to create.”

V: Sanglots

Concluding the work, the final movement represents a profound juxtaposition of two poems, set to music in two different keys and characters. Listen for:

•The lilting and shimmering introduction in the piano part, representative of the “calm stars,” as mentioned in the first line of text

•The postlude, resembling that of the second movement with the same musical gesture


“Our love is ruled by the calm stars,
For we know that within us many men breathe
Who cam from very far and are one [united] beneath our brows.
It’s the song of the dreamer
Who had torn out his heart
And carried it in his right hand…
Remember, dear pride,
All of these memories:
The sailors who sang like conquerors,
The chasms of Thule, the tender heavens of Ophir,
The accursed sick, those who flee from their own shadows,
And the joyous return of happy emigrants.
Blood poured from this heart,
And the dreamer went on thinking of his wound that was delicate…
You will not break the chain of these causes…
…and painful; and was saying to us:
Which are the effects of other causes.
‘My poor heart, my broken heart,
Just like the hearts of all men…
Here, here are our hands which life has enslaved.
‘…has died of love or so it seems,
has died of love and here it is.
And such is the way of all things.
‘Then tear out yours as well!’
And nothing will be free until the end of time.
Let us leave everything to the dead,
And hide our sobs.”


Sérénade – Louis Diémer (1843-1919)
text by Gabriel Marc

An explicit duality is elucidated in two halves of this spirited work. First, in minor key, the narrator cynically compares her relationship to the life of a bee or butterfly – flying from flower to flower – suggesting a more seductive and carefree approach to love. But in the second half, now in major key, the truth emerges as she longs to be “the rose in her lover’s hand, withering and dying with time, but happy to be close to his heart.” Listen for:

•The call and response between the violin and voice, creating “dialogue” with a wordless voice

•A series of expressive, melismatic, violin/vocal “sighs,” concluding each verse

•The lush, cascading nature of the piano part in the second (major key) half


“If I were, o my lover, the breeze of perfumed breath
To brush past your laughing mouth, I would come, timid and charmed!
If I were the bees that fly or the seductive butterfly,
You would not see me as frivolous
If I were to leave you for another flower!

If I were the charming rose that you would place your hand on your heart,
So near to you all trembling, I would wither and die of joy.
But, in vain, I look for ways to please you,
I have moaned and sighed,
For to be loved — what can I do?
To love you, to say it and cry.”


Poéme, Op. 25 – Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)

Half epic tone poem, half violin showpiece, the Poéme is a monument of the violin and orchestral repertory alike. The piece is saturated with dense harmony and drama, characteristic of the late Romantic period (c. 1870-1900), but flirts with the progressive sound that would ultimately become known as “impressionism.” Imagine the ocean from the shore in the dark of night: immense and intimidating, but equally beautiful and inspiring. Listen for:

•The opening violin cadenza, handed off from the piano exposition; the violin and piano do not actually play together for many minutes – sparsity gradually becomes density

•The ways in which the opening violin theme returns throughout the piece

•Occasional, extreme dissonance, immediately resolved with an unexpected harmonic shift

•The full, orchestral nature of the piano part (created from the original orchestral score)

•Extremely virtuosic violin passagework: fast runs up and down the instrument; and double stops, including fingered octaves (playing in two octaves at once)


Violons dans le soir – Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
text by Madame la Comtesse de Noailles

This strange composition is based on words, stranger yet! What deceptively begins as peacefulness shortly turns to turbulence as the musical ferocity parallels that of the text. The “violins in the night” are clearly an allegory for something; perhaps they represent temptation and human nature? Decide for yourself as Saint-Saëns’ famously idiomatic violin writing assaults this otherwise peaceful art song. Listen for:

•The gentle, lilting, and distinctly French-sounding piano introduction – like falling water droplets

•The subtle entrance of the violin, seamlessly integrated into the existing texture

•A gradual shift in character as the violin part begins to stand out more and more

•Acute text setting: Peaceful words are set to serene music, and intense text is always accompanied by persistent, bravado violin playing

•The violin cadenza near the end of the piece, seemingly without context

•The final, chromatic descent between the voice and violin in unison


“When night has come,
All is calm at last in the heat of nature,
Here is born beneath the tree and divine sky
The most vibrant torture.

On the silver gravel, in the calm woods,
The violins become enthused:
These are the bursts of cries, of sobs, of kisses
Without constraint and without pause.

It seems that the bow rears and twists itself
On the glistening strings,
As these are the calls of pleasure and of death
And of mercy.

And the burning bow wraps itself in languor
Moans, suffers, caresses,
A voluptuous dagger that penetrates the heart
Of an exhausted intoxication!

Bows, be cursed for your burning chords,
For your explosive soul,
Red chains who, in the shadows, tear from our corpses
Scraps of living flesh…”