Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Accords mystérieux

Yesterday on Twitter I posted as a puzzler the following series of chords, which have been crossing my path lately, to see if anyone could recognize them. I don't think I would have been able to ID them if they'd been handed to me out of the bleu, but they are quite gripping in effect and I love playing them.

I provided two audio versions, one with me feebly playing on my out-of-tune piano (the composer asks that they not be arpeggiated, so playing them softly is tricky) and the other "performed" by a synth piano. Here are those audio helps:
  • Real Piano: - >
  • Synth Piano: - >
There were a variety of guesses, but no one actually ended up ID'ing the actual composer. If you'd like to know who it is, scroll down....

That's right, it's the great Francis Poulenc who, along with Scriabin, ranks at the very top of my own subjective plus-minus scale. (Basically, this means I think I tend to like these composers considerably above their reputations. Haydn and Verdi are my other extremes - admittedly great composers who just don't excite me as much as their reputations would suggest.)

Like Scriabin, Poulenc has a great flair for creating sensuous sonorities, nowhere moreso than in the best ad for nicotine that Philip Morris fortunately never thought to use. [Note: This is not the source of the chords above...keep reading.]

By the way, Poulenc's "Hôtel" is possibly the most perfect song ever (unless it's this), Apollinaire's words roughly translating as: "My room is shaped like a cage / the sun puts its arm through the window / but I who would like to smoke / to make smoke pictures / I light at the fire of day my cigarette / I do not want to work / I want to smoke."

[Excuse me while I virtually step outside for a minute...]

But the chords shown at the top of this post are darker and more mysterious than those lazy smoke rings - less jazzy and more opaque. They are found in the middle of a tiny song found in the middle of Poulenc's gorgeous cycle, Tel jour, telle nuit. Here is Paul Eluard's complete text, with Pierre Bernac's translation next-door.

Une roulotte couverte en tuiles
Le cheval mort un enfant maître
Pensant le front bleu de haine
A deux seins s’abattant sur lui
Comme deux poings
Ce melodrama nous arrache
La raison du cœur.
A gypsy wagon roofed with tiles
the horse dead a child master
thinking his brow blue with hatred
of two breast beating down upon him
like two fists
this melodrama tears away from us
the sanity of the heart.

If you can figure out what that's about, good for you. But those wonderful chords hover over the 3rd and 4th lines and create a palpable sense of...something even vaguer that interests me more. Here are all 48 seconds of this very strange little song*, with the composer at the piano accompanying Pierre Bernac. (Poulenc is known for quirky endings to songs, but even for him, this ending is unsettling.)
Since I've declared that these chords (and words) are mysterious, I'm just going to let them speak for themselves and, at least for now, not try to analyze them. They are what they are. Dense, dissonant, desultory, and ineffably beautiful.

 [*Note: You can buy that song and 24 more hours of glorious Poulenc for only $30 on iTunes!]

UPDATE: An astute student (go, Joel!) noticed that the penultimate chord from the mystery progression above is none other than the "Tristan chord" - one half-step higher. The French couldn't escape Wagner, no matter how much they wanted to....

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