The ‘greatest’ song-writer?
How can anyone say any individual is the ‘greatest’ composer of any genre? Part of the definition of true greatness is that while one is listening to a work one becomes temporarily convinced that the composer is the greatest of all; the ability to sweep one up in their consciousness is part of whatever it is that greatness constitutes. Only by stepping back can we get a bit of distance on the matter, on the relativities between composers, and then discover that each is actually quite different, that some of the differences are incomparable, and that at the very top it’s really just a question of personal preference.
Of the greatest song-writers obviously Franz Schubert remains pre-eminent. His uncanny melodiousness in songs like Ave Maria, his pioneering of the form with his innovations such as making the piano an equal partner with the voice and his two extraordinary song cycles, and his radical adventurousness in songs such as Der Leiermann and Doppelganger, show that he contributed more to the form than any other, and set up most of the parameters for what might be achievable. Robert Schumann also is clearly one of the top few; his Mondnacht is transcendent and showed that Schubert hadn’t said the last word by any means.
Then we come to composers like John Dowland and Gabriel Faure, both utterly distinctive and as good as they get. Some might add Claude Debussy to this group, and of course Gustav Mahler was no slouch either, nor was Richard Strauss, although these latter two mostly wrote more extended songs with orchestral accompaniments. Like Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Leider, these are really more like ‘movements’ with lead vocals; Mahler’s Der Abscheid is perhaps the exemplar of this approach. If we allow these as ‘songs’ then we must also logically allow something such as J. S. Bach’s Erbarme dich, mein Gott! (from the St Matthew passion) as a song also, and if we do this then we might have to also acknowledge it as perhaps the greatest ‘song’ of all (it’s simply luminous). But such debate is not my focus here.
Some will protest that I’ve ignored contemporary songwriters and focussed only on classical composers. Yes, I concede the point, but my reason is that few modern songwriters have advanced the form. George Gershwin perhaps, with his ‘blue’ strains, a stylistic addition really, and some of the high-brow pop songwriters such as Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell have added something that wasn’t there before. But most have merely repeated what others have done. Paul McCartney, for all his melodiousness, has only added to the sum of beautiful songs that are contained within the harmonies and forms that Bach set up. McCartney even admits as much when he says that Yesterday sounded at first to him like something he’d heard before, an Elizabethan tune perhaps, and that he actually asked friends and others if they had ever heard it and perhaps could tell him who wrote it. But some other of his songs such as She’s leaving home and My love are much more adventurous and right up with the best of the field. Some of Cole Porter’s and Hoagy Carmichael’s songs are too.
Then there are individual songs, often in extraordinary performances, such as Smoke gets in your eyes (recorded by the Platters), Girl from Ipanema (written by Carlos Jobim), Wuthering Heights (by Kate Bush), September Song by Kurt Weill, and Whiter Shade of Pale (performed by Procol Harum) that have added much that is unique and distinctive also. But these are mostly one-offs; their composers never did anything quite that good ever again. Still, there are quite a few such songs. And of course we’d have to acknowledge that John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, which added nothing to the art-form in any technical sense (melody, harmony, rhythm, form) nevertheless is brimming with X-factor. Brian Wilson’s Good Vibrations, also took the form in profound new directions and deserves to be mentioned alongside Schubert and the rest.
Some of the South Americans such as Carlos Guastavino and Ivo Cruz were extraordinary also. As well, there is Reynaldo Hahn, most of whose output was fine put merely pleasant, but in one utterly unique song, En Sourdine, blitzed the field!
Then there is Henri Duparc, whom few would include among the absolute greatest, but whom I will argue for as the equal of anyone.
Duparc (1848-1933) wrote quite a bit in various forms while a young man, but in 1885 at the age of 37 he suffered a mental breakdown and destroyed many of his compositions, leaving us only a few bits and pieces and ten of the most ravishing songs ever composed. Eroticism is right to the fore with Duparc; Wagner is often spoken of as an erotic composer, as having introduced eroticism to classical music, but to my mind Duparc beats him hands down! Duparc was greatly influenced by Wagner, whose fame rests on other innovations. Duparc merely took from Wagner what he needed and developed it, but the result is uncanny.
Using texts from the symbolist poets – Charles Baudelaire and others – that were mostly highly-suggestive love poems, Duparc wrote in a rapturous, almost somnambulant style that leaves little to the imagination (I’m talking about his music here, not just about the words of the poems that he set). His melodic fecundity, his twists and turns – there are surprises every few bars – and his sophisticated understanding of form, gives a great elevation to his songs; they seem at once to be coming from within one’s loins yet also from high above. But above all it is his tunefulness that most seduces us, with a disarming casual ease reminiscent of the best three-chord pop songs. This is Moon-in-June territory, but very high-brow!
For example, in the song Extase, which is really about sexual ecstasy, one can almost pin-point the moment of penetration – I’ve got it occurring on the phrase ‘mort exquise,’ (exquisite death) – and subsequent orgasm – I’ve got that occurring at the climax of the piano run that follows ‘bien aimee’ (my beloved). The final two lines perfectly describe post-coital stupor (‘on your pale bosom my heart sleeps a slumber as gentle as death’), after which the piano recapitulates the melodic phrase of ‘mort exquise’ as a yearning throw-back to the desire to do it all over again. Melodically, this is almost pornography! But there’s also a reverential aspect to it, a real sense of the sacred awe of sex. It’s an utterly unique song.
I shall now briefly discuss each of his surviving masterpieces. First I’ll introduce the specific performance I’m working from. I’m using the Naxos album Duparc: Songs for Voice and Piano by Paul Groves and Roger Vignoles. It also has a few other of Duparc’s surviving songs on it, which I shall ignore.
To begin, Serenade (text by Gabriel Marc), is filled with yearning and nature metaphors. The words (first verse: ‘If I were, my beloved, the breeze with scented breath, to brush your smiling mouth, I should come fearful and charmed…’) are highly evocative, and after several variations on the through-composed pattern of the verses, the song ends with a little post-coital bliss and some longing and (‘I seek to please you, moan and sigh. I am a man, and what can I do? Love you…’) and the piano repeats the little figure that began the song, but this time slowly fading away. Melodically the song contains several unexpected twists and turns, none of them especially wild but creating a sense of development and forward movement towards a climax which occurs on the words ‘et soupirer’ (and sighing) after which there is a small pocket of reflection and surrender. To me the overall shape of the thing is what gives it its intelligence and elevation, while the internal twists and turns give it its bump-and-grind qualities.
Chanson triste (Sad Song; text by Jean Labor) is again a song of variations on a set of through-composed verse structures, the little twists and turns giving it its sense of on-going movement, with mini-climaxes and pauses and re-focussings every couple of phrases. There is an enormous amount of variation in this song. It builds towards a set of climaxes before again subsiding into bliss with the piano tailing off. The words basically convey a ‘give-me-what-I-want-and-I’ll-shut-up’ message (I don’t think that’s too unkind). But it’s the small melodic changes and modulations and developments that are most intriguing; the song re-boots several times, heading off into slightly different directions on each occasion, before succumbing to an ecstatic denouement.
L’invitation au voyage (Invitation to the voyage; text by Baudelaire) is generally considered his masterpiece. It begins in a minor key and then moves to another a semi-tone beneath (Ebm to Dm), which is a structure containing great tension. The voice cycles around and through this several times in the first two verses, the piano accompaniment is especially florid, and it all builds to an ecstatic climax where ‘all is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.’ The words by Baudelaire are absolutely stunning! The second verse concludes: ‘the charm, so mysterious, of your treacherous eyes shining through their tears,’ and Duparc more than does them justice with his pulsing and dancing melodic development, before the last couplet surrenders to ecstatic oblivion. But then he adds another two verses and a final couplet in a similar manner as before but with even more florid piano work; the voice becomes more insistent and the melody more thrusting, before once again lapsing into the sweet death with a repetition of the phrase ‘all is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.’ This is eroticism of a very high order.
Phidyle (text by Charles-Marie-Rene Leconte) is almost as good, and contains a phrase that may be the most beautiful melodic fragment ever written. It culminates the first verse and is repeated again later; it occurs on the words ‘Repose, o Phidyle? (‘Rest, o Phidyle’), after which the melody takes a surprising change of direction, before building towards another round of the whole thing. Some say the song loses its way a bit after that, which it probably does, but like the others before it, it is rapturous, and the second and subsequent repetitions of ‘Repose, o Phidyle’ add to the magic. There is a sense here of waves crashing over one in the throes of ecstasy, like the kiss scene in From Here To Eternity (Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr).
Florentine Serenade (text by Jean Labor) is a masterpiece of melodic development, with so many unexpected changes as to make anyone quite lose track at first hearing. The song is full of yearning, all too brief. While less dramatically erotic than the others, there is a tremendous sense of spaciousness and timelessness to this song, which in turn gives it a feeling of eternity. A microcosm of something greater than ourselves.
Soupir (Sigh; text by Rene-Francois Sully-Prudhomme) begins with evocative piano-work and a plodding, exhausted vocal on the first verse ‘Never to see her nor hear her, never to name her aloud, but, faithful, always to wait for her, always to love her.’ Then the mood gains a little hopefulness through the second verse, and even becomes slightly demanding before lapsing into sadness again. The piano almost leads here, setting the tone in advance of the voice (or so it seems to me). Unusually for Duparc, the first verse is repeated again at the end, this time even more despairingly than at first.
Extase (Ecstasy; text by Jean Labor) has already been discussed above. Additionally, there is a slightly extended piano part at the very beginning which locates the song in some pre-existing narrative that is only hinted at but which stands for the relationship between the lovers as it already exists, and when the vocal comes in it does so seamlessly on the end of the piano part, seeming to be merely a continuation of the piano line already established. This is a remarkable technique, demonstrative of Duparc’s extraordinarily close interweaving of vocal and accompaniment. Schubert pioneered this, but in Duparc one is sometimes left wondering what performer really had the lead and which was the accompaniment.
La vie anterieure (My previous life; text by Baudelaire) repeats all the above; here the yearning is almost professionalized! A plodding beginning marked by regular beats establishes a mood of pensive reflection – ‘I lived long under vast porticoes…’ – before a series of changes lead towards a declamatory announcement of the spectacular and transcendent nature of the poet’s previous existence, where ‘naked slaves, all perfumed, cooled my brow with palms…’ The piano work here is quite muscular and again almost leads in places. The through-composed vocal line is ever fluctuating and developing, and at the end an extended piano piece fades the scene.
Lamento (Lament; text by Theophile Gautier) is much the same for the first two verses, until a stronger style kicks in. The first two verses describe a tomb and the misfortune of being forgotten. In the third verse the poet declares that he will never again visit that tomb. The details are all omitted so the music has to accommodate a certain ambiguity, and the sudden declaration, so it is hesitant and tentative through the first two verses, then takes over and leads and builds to the poet’s third-verse declaration ‘Never again near that tomb will I go…’ with an unusual piano rhythm at the end of the third verse, before it too acquiesces to inevitable defeat.
Elegie (Elegy; the text is a French translation of an English poem by Thomas Moore), contains all the variation and sophistication of the others but although sensual and tuneful is not really erotic or suggestive. It is fine but probably not as good as the others, though it certainly has its moments.
And that’s it for Duparc.
To anyone raised on popular music, the feature of Duparc’s writing that is most extraordinary is his continual development of the melodic structure. Unlike pop songs which typically have a verse form that is repeated, then a bridge or chorus form, then the verse repeats yet again, (AABA, or ABABA, or the like) Duparc gives a few bars of this, then a couple of that, then the piano steps up or the tempo changes or whatever, then a new element is introduced, then another, then another, and perhaps finally a couplet or a recapitulation or a climax, before another mood change that describes fulfilment or denouement or surrender or whatever; each segment is different from all the others. Superficially his songs look like stock forms but only because that’s how the poets wrote them, with identifiable verses and so forth. But Duparc takes each poem to bits and reassembles it into numerous sub-components, assigning different melodic strands to each small group of phrases, and always keeping in mind the direction that builds towards a climax, with forward movement and punctuated rhythms. There’s so much change and variety everywhere that really what he achieves is an utterly unique musical language.
There are several ways of determining the relative standings of the great composers. One is to simply add up the number of their masterpieces; according to this logic Josef Haydn would be on the front rank because he wrote so many masterpieces in his long life. Or one may cite only those masters who led the way at the crucial turning points of musical development; Wagner and Debussy would be included in this list. Or one might go for the truly original voices; Chopin would have to be included here.
How, then, are we to value a composer who lived to 85 but who left us only a handful of songs and whose oeuvre has not been developed or continued by any of the others who followed him?
I believe that there is something utterly unique to Duparc; Faure picked up on it but took it in a very different direction, and Schubert and Schumann certainly hinted at it. Before Duparc there had been many through-composed songs, going at least all the way back to Dowland. But no one had previously developed such through-composition into such large, inter-locking, stage-by-stage structures punctuated by interludes and variations and pianistic effects as Duparc did. This shows the influence of Wagner, whose operas unfolded like this but on a much grander scale. To take the Wagnerian principle of eternal melody and to crystallize it into fragments and to tie these all together into narratives, and with such tunefulness, that was Duparc’s genius. His eroticism may not be to everyone’s taste, but his microscopic focus and elevated overview took his writing further than anyone else has ever gone, or is likely to ever go. We listen to Duparc and recognise where Mahler got his Der Abscheid from, and indeed, it is a mightier work, but Duparc got their first.
Henri Duparc is truly, truly unique.