Francis Poulenc

Métamorphoses, song cycle for voice & piano, FP 121

    Description by Joseph Stevenson

    This is a quick and breezy cycle of three songs by Francis Poulenc (1899 -- 1963). If the opening and especially the last song are too rapid and breezy, the middle song is one that rises to the standards Poulenc set as one of the greatest of French song composers.

    It is not unusual that the poetess was a friend of Poulenc's -- early in his career he decided to write songs to texts of living poets whom he knew personally. His biographer Benjamin Ivry points out that like Schubert he sometimes set works of minor poets because he liked the particular writer.

    Poulenc wrote three song cycles and one separate song on poems by Louise de Vilmorin. This poet was one of Poulenc's favorite people, as he wrote in Journal de mes melodies (Diary of My Songs), his invaluable commentary on almost all his songs, "...because she is beautiful, because she is lame [she had a limp], because she writes innately immaculate French, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister." He also liked, in her poetry, its qualities of "sensitive audacity,...wantonness,...avidity which extended into song...."

    Others were not so kind. She is ranked as a minor poet, and the British novelist Evelyn Waugh called her "an Hungarian countess [she was French but had married a Hungarian count] who pretended to be a French poet."

    This cycle takes just four minutes. Part of Poulenc's motivation was to recapture his own memories of her, for she and her husband were trapped in Hungary at the outbreak of World War II and Poulenc did not know if he would ever see her again. (He did -- she returned to Paris, where she ended her days as the companion of writer André Malraux.)

    Poulenc does not seem to hold the cycle in very high regard. "I have not a great deal to say about these," he begins his uncharacteristically brief and generally unhelpful notes about this song in the Journal.

    "Reine des mouettes" (Queen of the Seagulls) is unpretentious, with airy gracefulness. Pierre Bernac (Poulenc's greatest song interpreter) points out that it is not about an actual bird but a "charming and elegant young woman blushing behind gray muslin veils." Short and light, it serves well as an introduction to the next song, but does not stand well on its own.

    "C'est ainsi que tu es" (It Is Thus That You Are) is very beautiful, quite romantic, and highly lyrical. Do not "...fear to surrender to it," advises Bernac; Poulenc simply says to sing it "without affectation." This is the one song of the set that works well in its own right.

    The conclusion, "Paganini," consists of some dazzling word play, rapid singing, and a perfunctory ending. Poulenc actually thought of it as a transitional song rather than as a concluding one, so it brings the cycle to a poor ending. He was right.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Reine des mouettes
    2. C'est ainsi que tu es
    3. Paganini

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Decca
    2013 ATMA Classique ACD 22688
    2013 MDG MDG 60317762
    2013 Hyperion CDA 680214
    2011 ATMA Classique 2642
    2011 Signum Classics SIGCD247
    2011 Hyperion 55366
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921757
    2007 Decca 000971802
    2005 Claves 2410
    2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 457657
    2000 Forlane 16730
    1999 Testament 3161
    1997 Philips 446656
    1996 Chandos 9427
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 64087
    1989 Hyperion CDA66147