Poulenc (1899-1963) - Suite: Les Biches
would say that, where the Arts are concerned, a businessman's altruism
is constrained by profit potential, while an impresario makes the
Arts his business, nurturing talent specifically in order to prosper. But
any piffling considerations of motive go right out of the window when you
look at the likes of Serge Diaghilev, who fostered such as Stravinsky,
Debussy, Ravel - and Poulenc.
Diaghilev approached the then relatively unknown Poulenc with the idea
of doing a thoroughly modern take on Les Sylphides (which
at sweet 17 was hardly in its dotage). But Poulenc had his own ideas:
taking his cue from the “anything goes” pictures of Watteau, he imagined
the damsels with whom Louis XIV gambolled in his “Parc aux Biches”, and
did a thoroughly modern take on that. Incidentally, a “biche”
is not what it sounds like, the nearest English equivalent being
“female deer”. Poulenc envisaged a contemporary drawing-room party
suffused with “an atmosphere of wantonness, which you sense if you are
corrupted, but of which an innocent-minded girl would not be conscious”.
ever aware of the cash value of a soupçon of sauciness, grabbed
it with both hands. Thus was Poulenc's fame secured. His evolving
“mosaic” style, admirably suited to such frothy yet ambiguous confections,
became further refined in Les Biches where even in mid-phrase the
music flicks between innocence and sophistication. It also winked mischievously
at numerous dignitaries - Scarlatti, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, even at
Stravinsky - bringing the sort of jocularity kept strictly private
by Saint-Saëns right out into the public spotlight. But of course,
in the Paris of the 1920s this sort of thing was hardly cause for scandal:
if anything it was de rigeur!
numbers of the delightful concert suite have been lifted virtually intact
from the full score, omitting only the overture and three numbers featuring
an off-stage chorus. The same themes keep popping up all over the
place, largely because Poulenc the mosaic-maker pinned thematic tiles,
badge-like, to certain characters. For your amusement, I've combined the
numbers of the suite with a brief synopsis:
Rondeau (très lent - subito allegro molto). The young
party guests flirt and chatter, but behind their carefree façades
darker thoughts are stirring.
strapping lads, athletically garbed, enter and “preen themselves like roosters
in a chicken- yard”. Reflecting the chorus' conclusion that love is like
a cat stalking its prey, the lads are wary of the girls' admiring
Adagietto. The sexually ambiguous “girl in blue” drifts in, magnetises
one of the athletes, and they drift off to somewhere more private.
the chorus comments on the need for girls to wed well while boys seem more
concerned about the pleasures of wine, tobacco and courtship, said girls
flirt with the remaining two athletes. The “girl in blue” and the first
athlete drift back in, still absorbed in one another.
Rag-Mazurka (presto). Flaunting yards of pearls and a meaningfully
long cigarette-holder, the Hostess makes a Big Entrance. All watch
as she, “no longer young, but wealthy and elegant”, puts on the style.
When she slides seductively onto a couch, the two unattached athletes compete
for her attention. Having toyed with their advances she runs off - with
the two athletes in hot pursuit.
Andantino. Athlete No. 1 resumes his dalliance with the “girl
in blue”, their pas de deux ending as she is borne off shoulder-high.
the accompaniment of verses concerning bouquets of flowers, innocent kisses
- and marriage, two girls “who have a special relationship” dance
together (Poulenc had in mind something similar to Proust's Albertine and
her petite amie). However, they are intimidated and flee as . .
(presto). . . . the room begins to fill up, and the party really
starts to swing!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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