Mirages: Roderick Williams and Roger Vignoles explore the ‘art’ of French song

The repertory of French mélodie must comprise many thousands of songs.  The genre, which developed in the early 1800s and reached full maturity in the second half of the century, was inextricably bound up with the lyric poetry of the day – initially, the Romantic poetry of writers such as Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, and later the Symbolist poems of Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Fort, Guillaume Apollinaire and others.  Between 1840 and his death in 1893, Charles Gounod composed over 150 mélodies and practically every French composer who followed him contributed to the genre, the songs of Fauré, Duparc, Debussy and Poulenc perhaps bringing the mélodie to its artistic and expressive peak. 

And, yet, by performers and audiences alike, in British recital halls at least, the French mélodie often seems neglected or misunderstood.  Roderick Williams’ and Roger Vignoles’ new disc, Mirages: The Art of French Song, released this month by Champs Hill Records, is thus a welcome opportunity to revisit familiar masterpieces and encounter new rarities, as the baritone and pianist set songs by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc alongside music by André Caplet, Arthur Honegger and Williams himself.

In conversation, I ask Roderick about the title of the disc: what does he understand the ‘Art’ of French song to be, or mean?  He begins by explaining that he thinks of it in terms of an “allying of art and song”, of visual and musical expression: “When one thinks of French impressionism, one tends to see visually at first.  And, Roger Vignoles is himself also a fine painter.”  But, more than this, in contrast to German lieder which have a certain ‘solidity’, a distinct shape and character which the informed listener anticipates, a French song is more elusive, impalpable.  “There’s a sort of perfume – so now I’ve brought in another sense,” laughs Roddy.  “It’s harder to grasp, a ‘mirage’, an apparition.  Audiences’ reactions to French song might seem to suggest that they are more fun for the performer than for the listener!  But, this very intangibility is a delight … mysterious, shining.”

Does the ‘art’ also allude to the vocal technique required to communicate this aesthetic to the listener?  “Well, several French artists have given performers ‘route maps’ – Poulenc, Boulez, for example.  ‘This is how it must be done, and there’s no room for discussion.’  Pierre Bernac’s The Interpretation of French Song sets out ‘the rules’ that must never be broken.  But, my performances definitely break them – if I were to meet Bernac I can imagine being greeted by a wagging finger!”

I tell Roddy that I am often disappointed when I hear English singers sing French song or opera; the language seems to present enormous challenges, more so than other languages, and often the enunciation is quite poor and unidiomatic, the musical result somewhat halting and flat.  The sound of Roddy’s voice singing English or German texts is so familiar to me that I confess I did have some doubts about how he might negotiate these French poems.  But, in fact his diction is superb: both lucid and authentic.  Is he a fluent French speaker? 

“Well, I studied French and German at school but I didn’t realise how important they would be in my career, or I’d have paid more attention!  I’ve never lived longer than a month or so in another country.  And, I have that very English reticence about ‘chatting’ in another language, which requires one to ‘let go’.  Now, at 56, if I want to learn another language, first, it’s going to be really hard work, and second, it would be to the detriment of the other languages that I need to sing.  For example, there was one occasion when I was in Italy, singing an opera in Russian.  Do I put my effort into improving my Italian so that I can chat in the bar post-rehearsal, or should I try to extend my knowledge of Russian so that I can get to know the Russian Chorus better?  But, I love hearing people speaking different languages, switching naturally between them – and overhearing people speaking in a language that sounds a bit like Spanish, but isn’t Spanish, recognising that it’s Portuguese, but then wondering if it is the Portuguese that is spoken in Brazil?”  Roddy continues, “So, I think that when I sing in German, or in French, you hear a different Roddy Williams to the one you hear singing in English.  To some extent I imitate the stereotypes.” 

I mention that when listening to Mirages, one of the qualities that strikes me is the rhythmic freedom, the fluidity, of the vocal line.  It’s immediately apparent in the opening song, ‘Cloches d’aube’ (The bells of dawn), of André Caplet’s Cinq Ballades Françaises in which there is a wonderful contrast between Roger Vignoles’ crystalline etching of the piano’s affecting, twinkling bells and the sensuous ‘drift’ of the harmonies and easy meandering of the vocal line – as when Roderick softly murmurs the poet-speaker’s call to the elusive little bell tune, lines which seem embody the very spirit of the ‘Art’ that he has just described: “Si lointain, monotone et perdu, si perdu/ petit air, petit air au coeur frais de la nue.” (So distant, unvaried and lost, so lost, little tune, little tune, in the fresh heart of the sky). 

Caplet exploits the heady evocativeness of Paul Fort’s ballades to the full.  In the final song, ‘L’adieu en barque’ (Farewell from a boat), the piano’s rocking oscillations conjure the oars’ lapping motions and catch the glint of the light as “the swallow bears the gold of evening to the sky’s bluest blue”, an image which Roderick floats gently aloft with soft warmth.  These songs seem to me to be not ‘formless’ exactly, but free and ‘dreamy’.  Similarly, he himself has remarked the ‘declamatory freedom’ of the four songs which form his own Les Ténèbres de l’amour and I ask if this is something that he is aware of or strives for? 

Roddy answers by recalling an incident when he was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and working on Massenet’s Grisélidis: “There was a passage where the rhythm was simply repeated quavers, one bar of monotone quavers, and then another on a different note, and so on, and the vocal tutor was horrified by the way I was singing the phrase – unvaried, almost leaden repetitions because that was what was on the page.  But, I realise now, especially singing Poulenc, that it’s a sort of recitation.  One’s not singing a tune so much as communicating the melody of the poetry, the rhythm of the words.  Rather like jazz.”  He develops his point by considering it in the context of composition, noting that a composer setting a text in English will probably begin by working out the stresses and aligning the verbal patterns with the bar-lines – “because you don’t want to em-pha-sise the wrong syl-la-ble” – but the French “throw out such rules and adopt an approach to linguistic stresses which is totally alien to us Brits.  It creates a sort of ‘liquid rhythm’, a language like silk.”

Les Ténèbres de l’amour, which sets four poems by Paul Verlaine,were composed in 1994 for the baritone Henry Wickham and pianist Susie Allan.  Richard Stokes’ characteristically detailed and eloquent liner article includes Roddy’s own explanation that the songs were designed to form a complementary contrast to Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson which the duo were including in a Park Lane Group recital at the Purcell Room.  I wonder if there are any particular challenges when performing one’s own compositions?  “Well, when you compose, you’re effectively singing the songs in your head,” Roddy replies, “so that can make them easy to memorise and perform.  But, now, after a gap of many years, I can approach them more objectively.”  He suggests that, as performers and scholars, we often ‘over-analyse’ the music, trying to seek out the ‘reasons’ informing compositional decisions, and to determine the intended ‘meaning’, when in fact a composer may simply have been guided by impulse or intuition.  “Over the years songs will be interpreted in myriad different ways.  Looking back, when I composed these songs I was a young man and new little about Verlaine’s poetry, or about life.  I responded to the poems instinctively.”

The twenty-one poems that form Verlaine’s La Bonne Chanson were written during the winter of 1869 to the spring of 1870 and are addressed to sixteen-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, whose well-to-do mother prided herself on being a patron of the arts and mingling with the esteemed musicians, painters and writers of the day.  Verlaine eventually won the heart of the innocent and initially disinterested Mathilde, and they were married later in 1870.  Roddy has explained that, in selecting poems that had not been set by Fauré, he ‘chose verses that reflected Verlaine’s impatience at the length of his engagement to Mathilde’ and that he wanted his music to reflect the contradictions within the poetry, the ‘heat of pent-up passion and frustrated sexual energy, mixed with doubt, anxiety, paranoia and depression alongside flashes of hope, love and occasional contentment’.

Certainly, there are profound shadows and darkness in these songs, which cohere into a continuous whole, linked by piano interludes.  The opening song, ‘La dure épreuve va finir’ (The harsh ordeal is going to end), which Roddy describes as a sort of “accompanied recitative” begins with a thunderous piano plummet, and seems more infused with the painful bitterness of the beloved’s former words than with the faith that ‘days of alarm’ are now past, although, as the poet-speaker submerges himself in his inner thoughts, there is an alleviation and brightening of the final imagining of the day when she will return. 

I comment that while the poems do express unrest and impatience, I feel more strongly a positive energy, an anticipation of the happiness and fulfilment that Verlaine expects to enjoy with Mathilde?  Of course, there’s no one way of reading a poem, as Roddy rightly points out, and he elucidates further on the irony of the poems, which his music expresses.  For, despite his lyrical sensitivity, Verlaine was also a violent alcoholic, often succumbing to wild impulses.  Shortly after the marriage, Verlaine received a letter from the sixteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud asking if he could present his poems to Verlaine.  He proved to be an insalubrious and provocative houseguest, but Verlaine became infatuated with the younger poet, entering into a three-year relationship which did not end happily: in the heat of passion, Verlaine shot his lover which resulted in only a minor injury but earned Verlaine a two-year prison sentence.

“I found this hilarious,” laughs Roddy, “as if the poems were a kind of ‘posturing’.  The songs are a sort of ironic wink to history.  But, there are explosions of joy in the songs too – the sun does come out, particularly in the second song.”  Here, the tumbling and swirling piano captures the frisson that results from the ‘radiant beam of joy’ rippling through the poet’s heart and is echoed by the confident lyricism of the vocal line, which takes off in melismatic flights as if fuelled by imminent ecstasy.  And, the cycle ends with hope, and the image of the beloveds secure and defiant against the injustices of the world.  The poet-speaker’s closing declaration of gratitude to the beloved, “A qui tout mon coeur dit: merci!”, exploits the simple sonorities of the words and pushes the vocal line high, the final syllable an almost abstract ‘sound-feeling’.  I point out that Roddy doesn’t make it easy for the singer here.  “No, Henry didn’t thank me for that one!” he grins.

The recital programme is eclectic, well-known songs by Ravel, Poulenc and Debussy rubbing shoulders with brief melodies by Caplet and Honegger.  There are further amorous entreaties in Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, and I comment that I particularly enjoy the ‘sincerity’ of Roddy’s characterisation of the deluded chevalier, especially in the opening ‘Chanson romanseque’.  “Yes,” agrees Roddy, “the intention was that the listener would hear these songs as totally lacking in irony.” 

I admit that I’d never thought of Arthur Honegger as a composer of mélodies and had been surprised to discover that alongside the familiar instrumental works and large-scale oratorios, the Swiss composer had in fact written almost 50 songs.  Honegger is quoted as saying, ‘For me, the music a song is always dependent upon the poetic model.  It must join so closely with the poetry, that they become inseparable and one can picture the poem in wholly musical terms’, and Le petit cours de morale (which were premiered by Bernac and Poulenc) certainly fulfils this ambition.  The five songs which form this ‘miniature song-cycle’ set poems which are presented in Jean Giraudoux’s fanciful novel, Suzanne et le Pacifique (1921), in which the eponymous young girl wins a round-the-world trip which offers her a chance to escape the quotidian; when her boat sinks, she survives and becomes a sort of female-Robison Crusoe on an enchanted island in the Pacific.  The poems – six-line Alexandrines – are placed within a single chapter of the novel, italicised and set apart from the main text as if they are were Suzanne’s private reflections, and each feminine ‘portrait’ concludes with a moral.  Honegger’s pithy settings are incredibly subtle, their Cocteau-esque simplicity both exquisite and droll.

What led Roddy to Petit cours?  “I think these songs must have been suggested to me.  Each song is witty and beautiful.  Each has three or four ideas, any one of which could form a whole song.   Who are these five girls?  What do the morals mean?”  Roddy refers to the second song, ‘Adèle’, the ‘longest’ at just seventeen bars, which tells of an eccentric (‘un original’) who falls into the English Channel at Dover, clings to a reef and whose calls to the lifeguard go unheeded: “Idlers die like that, Adèle,” preaches the poet-speaker, laconically.  “What’s the moral of that?” laughs Roddy.  “Don’t fall in the sea at Dover?”

Certainly, these songs are mischievous.  London and loneliness are the elusive focus of the first song, ‘Jeanne’, pointed by the dryness of the Bach-like counterpoint and prancing staccato bass.  The flurrying piano swirls conjure the treacherous waters in the aforementioned ‘Adèle’, but the introduction of the ‘Tristan chord’ punctures the melodrama and a banal postlude signs off abruptly.  It seems to me that there is a sort of ‘cabaret’ quality about Honegger’s miniatures – which, Roddy points out, must form the shortest song-cycle in musical history – a comic tension within their brevity which is essentially performative.  How does a singer, especially one such as Roddy who engages with audiences so generously and openly in performance, go about communicating the ‘theatre’ in these tiny musical morsels in a recording?  “There’s inevitably something ‘missing’,” reflects Roddy, “after all, that’s why we go to live performances.  During the recording process, when I have to listen to the edits, I sometimes worry that despite having ‘given it my all’ in the studio, it will sound as if I’m reading a bus timetable!  So, I just try to sing the songs with all the gestures and visual elements that would be part of a live performance, and hope that somehow it comes across.”

Honegger is also represented on Mirage by Saluste du Bartas (1941).  This is another pithy cycle – Roddy notes wryly that Honegger has the most songs on the disc but takes up the least time – setting six lyrics by Pierre Bédat de Monlaur which depict various episodes in the life of the sixteenth-century Gascon poet-turned-soldier, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, and his love for Queen Marguerite of Navarre.  The narrator introduces the listener to this ‘Gascon of proud mien’ with affectionate melodiousness.  A lovely charm colours his first glimpse of the Queen; he departs to seek his fortune with the rush of youth driving his perky canter and a confident sweep in his voice.  The elegant melody of the closing ‘Duo’ is borne on comforting cushiony chords, drawing the listener into the lovers’ solipsistic fervour.  These are precious, touching songs. 

Roddy explains that it was Roger Vignoles who suggested including Saluste du Bartas in their programme.  “The last recording that we made at Champs Hill was of Brahms’ only song cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, which tells the same kind of story as Honegger’s cycle.”  Brahms’s setting of fifteen songs from Ludwig Tieck’s 1796 novella Liebesgeschichte der schöne Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence presents a sort of medieval fairy-tale of the love affair between the Neapolitan Princess Magelone and Peter, an impetuous but noble young French count. “I liked the contrast between Brahms’ huge oil canvas and Honegger’s delicate watercolour,” says Roddy, an image which is a fitting return to the visual metaphors with which our conversation began.

Mirages: The Art of French Song was released on 21st January 2022 by Champs Hill Records.

Claire Seymour