Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) lived and worked in early 20th-century France, contributing a variety of compositions including French art songs or melodies. A member of Les Six, a group of composers who reacted against Impressionism in France and supported the neoclassical style, Poulenc began his music studies at a young age and found influence in the chanson tradition as well as popular styles drawn from cabarets and revues. Other members of Les Six include Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey. Poulenc spent time in Paris studying with Erik Satie who grew to be a good friend and influence on the burgeoning composer’s music. He is not known to be inventive but believed it was of the utmost importance to focus his efforts on melody. Poulenc once said, “I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart—Schubert?”
Poulenc enjoyed poetry and spent time setting many modern French poems to music. Some of his favorite poets include Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and Paul Éluard. Today, I’d like to look closer at one famous Poulenc song cycle that uses poetry by Paul Éluard: Tel Jour telle nuit. Poulenc composed this cycle between 1936 and 1937. It includes nine melodies that cover the course of a day, beginning in the morning, and ending at night. In total, Poulenc set thirty-four of Éluard’s poems, admitting that he enjoyed turning the poet’s images into musical settings.
You can listen and read the text to the final mélodie in Tel Jour telle nuit below. This last piece relates to the first in the cycle in that they share keys, themes, and contain piano postludes. Poulenc asked Éluard for assistance in titling this cycle and ended up choosing the poet’s second option, which when translated means “As the day, so the night,” which also shows contrast between the opening and closing songs.
We did the night I hold your hand I watch
I will uphold you with all my strength
I burn on a rock star of your strength
Deep grooves where the goodness of your body spout
I repeat your voice hidden your public voice
I laugh yet the proud
That you treat like a beggar
Crazy you respect simple where you bathe you
And in my head that starts softly agree with yours the night
I marvel at the unknown you become
A similar unknown like you at all what I like
Which is always new.