Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes (1926) to an anonymous 17th Century text.

This charming Serenade rocks along in a gentle 6/8 rhythm, almost more lullaby than love song. Encountered more often in its cello transcription, divorced form the text, it is a sweet, seductive little miniature: a tasty petit-fours to slip in between larger items on the menu. The text however, is extremely sexually suggestive, positively dripping in double entendre. It might be possible to argue a case for reading things into it, if taking the poem on its own. Put it in the context of the rest of the cycle – which includes Chanson à boire which was banned at Harvard (a titbit gleaned from the astonishing Graham Johnson’s Chanson-Bible: the “French Song Companion“) – it is positively obscene. What was it about Poulenc – the composer of great sacred works such as the “Gloria” and “Te Deum” and an opera about Carmelite Nuns – that would delight in shocking his audience with this miniature “Carmina Burana”? Adultery, promiscuity, masturbation and sex-toys hardly seem the stock-in-trade of the song cycle. And yet, here they are.

In The Diary of My Songs, Poulenc remarked of the Chansons Gaillardes, “I am fond of this collection where I tried to show that outright obscenity can adapt itself to music…The texts were found in an anthology of songs of the seventeenth century (an old edition).” [Adrian Corleonis] [Francis Poulenc, Journal de mes mélodies, éditions Grasset, 1964 ; réédité en 1993, texte intégral établi et annoté par Renaud Machart, éditions Cicéro et Salabert, Paris (ISBN 1993 978-2908369106)]

A shocking, seductive, multilayered little song, which, if not quite yet scaling the heights of Poulenc’s mature mélodies, is definitely worth a stop-over.

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc

Pierre Bernac and the Sérénade

The first performance of the Chansons Gaillardes was given by Pierre Bernac – then still young and relatively unkown at the start of his career –  with Poulenc accompanying on May 2, 1926, in company with the premiere of the latter’s Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano (dedicated to Falla). Bernac was unimpressed both with the sexual content of the cycle as well as the composer’s setting, and initially it even soured their collaboration and friendship. He must have overcome his initial difficulties with both the composer and his music as the two later became lovers, and Bernac actually became Poulenc’s muse. From 1934 until his retirement in 1960, Bernac was Poulenc’s preferred interpreter, giving premieres and recording many of his songs with the composer, including two numbers from Chansons Gaillardes.

South African composer Peter Klatzow recalls the singer:
“Pierre Bernac came to the College of Music in 1964 to give master classes in French art song. He was a courtly, rather formal man and I can only imagine how offended he might have been by these words. His knowledge of all French art song was formidable. I accompanied for Eiko Nakamuro (a Japanese singer) and he also asked me to accompany for some other students. He was particularly fond of Poulenc’s song “C” – explaining background and interpretation in great detail. I cherish the memory.

Pierre Fournier and Francis Poulenc recording for RAI in 1953

Pierre Fournier and Francis Poulenc recording for RAI in 1953

Pierre Fournier and the Sérénade

Poulenc formed a performing duo with the great cellist Pierre Fournier. They recorded many works together, including a delightful Debussy Sonata and many works by Les Six.  Having ignored requests for a sonata from no less a cellist than Rostropovich, Poulenc wrote a cello sonata for Fournier. They performed and recorded it together and various transcriptions of it exist. Poulenc and Fournier give a remarkably unsentimental performance. Fournier enjoys the large interval leaps and Poulenc emphasises the chord changes and rhythmic details. One wonders if the composer performed it with a straight face.

Sérénade (No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes for Voice and Piano by Francis Poulenc ) has been beautifully transcribed for Cello with Piano Accompaniment by Maurice Gendron.

* Buy a Cello Trancription of the song, Sérénade  – from the Chansons Gaillardes  (No.8) by Maurice Gendron, HERE.

* Download a Pdf of a Cello Arrangement of Poulenc’s Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes:
Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes Arranged for Cello. (Arranger unknown)

Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes, (Transcription for Cello): Played by cellist Pierre Fournier (Dedicatee of Poulenc’s Cello Sonata) and Francis Poulenc on the piano. Recorded for RAI 1953.

Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes (Anonymous 17th Century poet): Sung by Bernard Kruysen, baritone, accompanied by Noël Lee, piano.


Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes – French Text (Anonymous 17th Century)

Avec une si belle main,
Que servent tant de charmes,
Que vous tenez du dieu malin,
Bien manier les armes.
Et quand cet Enfant est chagrin
Bien essuyer ses larmes

Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons GaillardesEnglish Translation of the Text (Anonymous 17th Century)

With a hand so beautiful,
That offers so many charms,
That you must, God knows,
Handle a weapon well!
And when that infant is sad,
Wipe well its tears.

Sérénade – No.8 from the song cycle Chansons Gaillardes, (Transcription for Cello): Played LIVE by the transcriber of this version, cellist Maurice Gendron and pianist Christian Ivaldi, recorded for television in 1963