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Poulenc (1899-1963) - Suite: Les Biches

Cynics 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. 

In 1924, 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”. 

Diaghilev, 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

The five 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: 

1.  Rondeau (très lent - subito allegro molto).  The young party guests flirt and chatter, but  behind their carefree façades darker thoughts are stirring. 

Three 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 glances. 

2.  Adagietto.  The sexually ambiguous “girl in blue” drifts in, magnetises one of the athletes, and they drift off to somewhere more private. 

As 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. 

3.  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. 

4.  Andantino.  Athlete No. 1 resumes his dalliance with the “girl in blue”, their pas de deux ending as she is borne off shoulder-high. 

To 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 . . . 

5.Final (presto). . . . the room begins to fill up, and the party really starts to swing!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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