“Bleuet” (Francis Poulenc), written in 1939, setting a text by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) written in 1917.
This extraordinary song links the twin catastrophes of World War I and World War II. Italian born Guillaume Apollinaire fought in World War I and, in 1916, received a serious shrapnel wound to the temple, from which he would never fully recover. The war-weakened Apollinaire died of influenza during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem, which, despite its creative and unusal visual layout, is remarkably direct in its emotional communication. A narrator adresses a young soldier of 20. The battle will start at 5pm. The only question is the manner in which he will die. The heartbreakingly matter-of-fact poem was set by Francis Poulenc, in October 1939, one month after Adolf Hitler initiated World War II by invading Poland.
The song is dedicated to André Bonnélie. Poulenc had known the young man since he was a boy, and on that day, had been told that the young Bonnélie had been killed in battle. He then set to work on the poem. After completing the song, Poulenc found out that the message had been incorrect, and that the young man was indeed in good health and about to get married. Poulenc was so delighted and relived, he decided on the spot to dedicate the song to him. [Schmidt, Carl B., Entrancing muse: a documented biography of Francis Poulenc, Pendragon Press, New York, P.262]
Poulenc and his lover Bernac – for whom he wrote the majority of his vocal works – were both in active military duty. At this point, France’s losses were still minor – compared to the horrors ahead. Poulenc seems to capture a heartbreaking premonition of what was to come. The song lay too high for Pierre Bernac’s baritone: Poulenc must have been conscious of this when he wrote it. Why did he not want his beloved to be the narrator? There must have been fear that this might have been sung TO his lover. Indeed, Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod was the first to perform it, with Poulenc at the piano. [Ibid. P.388] Poulenc and Cuenod had met in 1930 at the studio of Nadia Boulanger – a name that pops up time and again in the lives of Parisian creative artists of all description.
The title is an untranslateable conflagration of images.
“Bleuet” (Francis Poulenc): Sung by Mark Padmore (tenor) and Iain Burnside (Pian0)
“Bleuet” (Francis Poulenc): Sung by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Tenor) and Graham Johnson (Piano)
“Bleuet” (Francis Poulenc): Sung as part of a complete performance of the complete cycle “Cinq poèmes d’Apollinaire”, by Bruno Laplante (Baritone) and Marc Durand (Piano). (Recorded 1978).
0.00 Dans le jardin d’Anna
3.25 Allons, plus vite
Buy a copy of the Sheet Music of “Bleuet” by Francis Poulenc (Text by Guillaume Apollinaire) HERE.
“Bleuet” (F. Poulenc), Text by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918): Lyrics in French
Jeune homme De vingt ans Qui as vu des choses si affreuses Que penses-tu des hommes de ton enfance Tu Tu as vu connais la mort la bravoure et la ruse, en face plus de cent fois tu ne sais Transmets ton intrépidité pas ce À ceux qui viendront que c'est Après toi que la vie Jeune homme Tu es joyeux, ta mémoire est ensanglantée Ton âme est rouge aussi De joie Tu as absorbé la vie de ceux qui sont morts près de toi Tu as de la décision Il est 17 heures et tu saurais Mourir Sinon mieux que tes aînés Du moins plus pieusement Car tu connais mieux la mort que la vie Ô douceur d'autrefois, Lenteur immémoriale.
“Bleuet” (F. Poulenc), Text by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918): Lyrics in English
You who have seen such terrible things
What do you think of the men from your childhood
You know what bravery is and cunning
You have faced death more than a hundred times
You do not know what life is
Hand down your fearlessness
To those who shall come
You are joyous your memory is steeped in blood
Your soul is red also
You have absorbed the life of those who died beside you
You are resolute
It is 1700 hours and you would know
How to die
If not better than your elders
At least with great piety
For you are better acquainted with death than life
O sweetness of bygone days
beyond all memory