Filiations – Les compositrices de la Conservatoire de Paris: Oxford International Song Festival

In a review in Le Temps in 1937, Florent Schmitt commented, ‘It was, if I may say, the great feminine week: at the Concerts Lamoureux the Concerto of Mlle Jeanne Leleu, at the Concerts Pasdeloup the Chansons majorquines of Mme Renée Staelenberg and the Overture of Mme Germaine Tailleferre […] In Strasbourg A. Bachelet initiated his audience to the subtle comedies of Trifaldin, the ballet of Mme Yvonne Desportes.’[1]

Schmitt’s phrase, the ‘great feminine week’, reflects the considerable educational and professional opportunities in interwar France for musiciennes.  ‘All-female’ concerts – programmes, performers, and both – were common in Paris after the First World War.  In fact, the city had been an important and enabling centre for female musicians as far back as the seventeenth century, and in the post-war years, women musicians, performers, composers and teachers flourished, benefitting from the education available to them at the Paris Conservatoire.  They had been admitted from the Conservatoire’s opening, and from 1850 were also able to attend composition classes.  From, 1861 they were also permitted to compete from the Conservatoire’s composition prizes.

This is the context that informed this lunchtime recital by the French soprano Clarisse Dalles and the pianist Anne Le Bozec.  They presented a programme of songs by three female composers – Nadia Boulanger, Henriette Puig-Roget and Elsa Barraine – each of whom made a significant contribution, as performers, composers and teachers, during these years.

I have not previously heard Clarisse Dalles perform.  The Festival programme describes her as one of the most exciting young voices in France today.  Having heard this recital, I’m not going to dispute that!  Dalles began her musical studies at the Versailles Conservatory, and switched, aged 15, from piano to voice when she joined the Maîtrise de Radio France – and subsequently the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and the Philippe Jarrousky Music Academy.  She won the Young Hope Prize at the Gordes International Competition of lieder and melodies; received the Présence Compositrices prize at the Marmande International Competition; and the prize for the best duo at the International Competition of French Melody in Toulouse.  She was named Adami Classical Talent Revelation 2022.

So, there was a lot to hope for here.  And, Dalles and Le Bozec, the latter herself an alumni of the Paris Conservatoire, more than lived up to that promise.  It’s one thing to say that it’s good to hear French song sung by a French singer, but Dalles lifts her native language into new realms of expressivity, directness and musical impact.  It’s not just that her diction is superb, it’s that every word, every nuance, brings forth a new colour, shade, dynamic, weight, while phrases unfold with fluid naturalness, and loveliness, never mannered.  Her soprano has a beautiful timbre.  She can be fierce and she can float. In this recital there was not a moment when she and Le Bozec were not communicating with directness, by turns, and as fitting, sensitive, subtle and intense.  Le Bozec was a brilliant partner at the piano keyboard, making complex textures lucid, setting the tone, supporting, developing, never once overwhelming – playing with a remarkable lightness of touch when required, but also punchy and incisive at emotional heightening and drama.

The duo began with a sequence of songs by Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979).  Dalles shaped the sometimes narrow-ranging vocal lines thoughtfully and with touching nuance, responsive to Boulanger’s melodic sensitivity to French prosody (and reminding us that she was a pupil of Fauré).  Le Bozec exploited the harmonic digressions which underpin the composer’s expressive idiom, and lucidly established the mood for each song.   

‘Elle a vendu mon coeur’ (She has sold my heart), was by turns light and intense, capturing the ironic tone of the text by Camille Mauclair (the programme suggests that Boulanger sets Séverin Faust in this song but I think that’s not right – though I’m willing to be corrected!).  There was restlessness, flexibility, and fierceness – the latter vibrantly present in the accusation “Tu feras pleurer, colporteur” (You will make people weep, O pedlar).  Dalles shaped the song exquisitely, returning to the same sustained pitch at the stanza conclusions, but varying the hue, and thus emphasising the nonchalance with which the beloved has sold the lover’s heart and the pain that this has inflicted.

‘Soleils couchants’ (Sunset) was beautifully simple (though that’s not to suggest such simplicity is easily conjured).  Here the evenness of Dalles’ soprano was a huge asset, and Le Bozec’s rhythmically and melodically rocking accompaniment offered a complement to the precision of the vocal line.  ‘Les lilas son en folie’ (The lilacs are inflamed) was impassioned but never hyperbolic.   And, then, in ‘Cantique’, a song of Fauré-infused religiosity, quiet, steady piano chords supported a vocal line which gleamed, bringing vibrancy to Maeterlinck’s poem: “Il n’est péché que vive/ Quand l’amour a pleuré” (No sin can live/ When Love has spoken).  At the close, Dalles showed us that she can bring striking meaning to a sustained high note at the close – here, somehow both ecstatic and peaceful.

The weighty chords of ‘Le couteau’ (The knife) contrasted with the ironic softness of the vocal line as Dalles declared, “Il y faut un baiser” (A kiss is needed), then retreated further “Une belle, une belle l’a planté” (Her fair mouth planted it).  But, the fierceness of final stanza, “Couteau, reste en mon coeur” (Knife – remain in my heart), plunged down in the final line, “Mais j’ veux pas l’oublier! (But do not wish to forget her!), gutsy even feverish against the fortississimo stabbing chords which are piano’s last word.

Anne Le Bozec and Clarisse Dalles

I confess that I am (or was) not familiar with the music of Elsa Barraine and Henriette Puig-Roget which comprised the latter part of the programme.  Some research tells me that Barraine (1910-99) was taught by Paul Dukas, and truly was a musical prodigy, winning second prize in the Grand Prix de Rome in 1928 and then the Premier Grand Prix the following year, at the age of just 19 (and thus mirroring the achievement of Lili Boulanger, who had won the prize in 1913, just a few weeks short of her 20th birthday).   

Dalles and Le Bozec captured the sensuality of Barraine’s settings of Sully Prudhomme and Armand Foucher in ‘Ne jamais la voir’ and ‘Pastourelle’, respectively.  In the latter, particularly, Dalles’ rich middle voice was employed with deep expressiveness.  ‘Chant de Marionette’ was playfully irregular, asymmetrical and incisive: the insouciant precision was impressive.  Two settings of Tagore concluded the Barraine sequence, the fluidity of the melody and harmony perfectly expressing the mysticism of the text.  ‘Je ne réclaimais rien de toi’ presents many challenges with regard to structure and the duo were equal to them, creating a wonderful blend of poetry, imagination and sincerity, conveyed through different timbres and layers of sound.

Gide’s translations of Tagore made for a natural link to the final sequence of songs by Henriette Puig-Roget (1910-92).  Puig-Roget composed about a hundred songs, alongside choral, piano and organ works, pieces of chamber ensemble, symphonic compositions and pedagogic pieces, though only a small proportion of her oeuvre has been published.  Her settings of twelve poems from Tagore’s L’Offrande lyrique are heady but still retain the stamp of French classicism.  Dalles and Le Bozec, presenting a selection from Puig-Roget’s Le temps de solitude, found a balance between the Bengali poet’s oriental perfumes and the Gallic poise of Gide’s translations which is respected by the composer.  Despite the extended phrases, heightened – almost precious – expression, and prevailing meandering mood, the performers displayed an elegance and control that were captivating and moving.

These French musiciennes undoubtedly need to have their voices heard, and Dalles and Le Bozec will ensure that they are listened to and recognised – they have apparently recorded this programme, which will be released in January 2024 in the Présence Compositrices label.  It should be on your Christmas wish-list.

Claire Seymour

Clarisse Dalles (soprano), Anne Le Bozec (piano)

Nadia Boulanger – ‘Elle a vendu mon coeur’, ‘Soleils couchants’, ‘Les lilas sont en folie’, ‘Cantique’, ‘Le couteau’; Elsa Barraine – ‘Ne jamais le voir’, ‘Pastourelle’, ‘Chant des Marionnettes’, ‘Je suis ici pour te chanter des chansons’, ‘Je ne réclaimais rien de toi’; Henriette Puig-Roget – from Le temps de la solitude (Douze melodies sur des poèmes de l’Offrande lyrique de Tagore)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford; Thursday 26th October 2023.

[1] See Laura Hamer, Female Composers, Conductors, Performers: Musiciennes of Interwar France, 1919-1939 (Routledge 2018)