I had a very moving experience recently while teaching a voice lesson to a student named Andrew Lenox, an exceptionally gifted young singer who is also very good on stage. I am always looking for things which allow him to flex his expressive muscles and sing as vividly in “classical” music as he does in musical theater, (Andrew is not alone in being more expressive in the latter than he is in the former- although he is exceptional in how hard he’s willing to work to improve his singing in this regard.) Anyway, I love giving Andrew pieces which call for more than pretty singing, but which also demand that he fully engage his considerable gifts as an actor and communicator.
Just before Andrew’s most recent lesson, I came across the tattered copy of a song I uncovered when I was in graduate school, 25 years ago. My voice teacher, Richard Grace, did not believe in spoon-feeding his students, so when it came time for me to put together the repertoire for my graduate recital, I was basically told to head down to the University’s music library and to not come out again until I had chosen every song that I would sing. All I really had to go on was the fact that I had to sing a program which would include four different languages – and also that I needed to sing challenging pieces, and if some of them were well off the beaten track, so much the better.
I had two or three songs in mind that I had heard before that I thought might be neat to include, and one of them was an exquisite French song called “Priex pour Paix” – “pray for pieace” by 20th century Frenchman Francis Poulenc. I had heard that sung on a faculty recital at Luther by a voice teacher (and former Sunday School teacher of mine) named Bruce Tammen. . . and the memory of that from almost five years earlier still haunted me. So I went looking through Poulenc song books until I finally came across the song- and I knew that I had the start of a memorable set if I could find some other songs by Poulenc which were also around the theme of peace. . . or songs which dated from that same period of World War II when Poulenc composed songs that were his own statement of defiance against the Nazi horror which had gripped his nation and so much of Europe.
For awhile I had no luck – and then I suddenly came across a song titled “Le Disparu”- which means “The Disappearance”” – and just a glance at the first page told me that this song was for me. I could see very jazzy looking chords – and the opening French words were simple enough that i could translate them without looking them up: Je n’aime plus la Rue St. Martin. . . I no longer like Saint Martin Street. . . depuis Andre Platard la quitee . . . since Andre Platard left there. . . The poet, Desnos – who would ultimately die in a prisoner camp shortly before the end of the war – wrote this poem to lament the disappearance of one of his good friends, Andre Platard, who was part of the French resistance. The story of his sudden disappearance was far from unique- this heartbreak occurred again and again across France, and in some cases the fact that no one knew anything about where they had been taken or what exactly had befallen them was almost the hardest part. One didn’t know whether or not to mourn. Would they ever be seen again? What would it feel like to live with that kind of uncertainty? What a remarkable inspiration for a poem – and for a song.
I checked out the volume, practically ran upstairs to a practice room, and immediately fell in love with the song – and all these years and many songs later, this song remains among my top three all-time favorite art songs. Part of what I especially love about it is that Poulenc has fashioned music that has a strong jazz feeling to it- as though this song might well have been sung in one of Paris’s open air cafes. . . infused with that unique melancholy that French composers and writers and singers so movingly convey. I knew I had to sing this song on my recital – and I did . . . and as a matter of fact, this song set meant so much to me that I asked the audience to refrain from applause at the end of it- so anxious was I to allow the poignancy of the moment to linger in the air.
Anyway, I have looked many times since for this song but to no avail . . . so the one and only copy I own of it is this admittedly illegal photo copy I made of that volume in the UNL music library – and when I think of the truckloads of music and paperwork that I manage to mislay in the course of a single year, it is nothing short of miraculous that I still have this now tattered photo copy a quarter century after I deposited coins in that UNL copy machine. And the other day, for the first time in my teaching career, I decided to introduce this song to one of my students.
It was the oddest thing because in all of my years of teaching, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to crying in a lesson – except for the time when I accidentally closed the lid of the piano on my right thumb! This time it wasn’t physical pain that brought tears to my eyes, but rather this overwhelming sense of coming full circle. Here I was, sharing this wonderful, moving song with Andrew- and in that moment I was also 25 years younger, sitting in that UNL practice room, playing through this song for the first time and feeling a shiver of delight move through me that is still there to some extent. And as we worked through it, I could see Andrew falling in love with the song much the same way I first did a quarter century earlier . . . and I suddenly felt like some sort of musical match maker. And I was so pleased…. because nothing dashes my spirits quite so much as when I share a song with someone, thinking that they will fall head over heels in love with it – only to have them say “it’s okay” or “maybe it will grow on me.” I think part of why I hate it when that happens is that I pride myself on being able to match up singers and songs exceptionally well (I don’t do everything well in my teaching, but I am very good at that) and to have my cartwheels greeted with a shrug is downright painful.
But there was absolutely no shrugging in this case . . . Andrew loved the song as I knew he would, and together we will have a fantastic time exploring all of the intricate miracles that are found in this piece. And I strongly suspect that the longer Andrew sings this piece, the more he will love it. . . which is what all of this is really about. . . learning new songs and loving them. To be part of that magical equation is a privilege and pleasure for me.
pictured above: a part of the first page of “Le Disparu” – which means “The Disappearance.” The lyrics again are:
I no longer like St. Martin Street since Andre Platard left there. We spoke often together, over bread and wine. He was my friend and my companion. There is no use to imploring the Saints, either. They cannot help. Time passes, but nobody knows a thing. Andre Platard has left St. Martin’s Street.” By the way, there really is a St. Martin Street in Paris, and when we were there in 2000, I had Kathy take a photo of me standing beneath the street sign. Somehow, being on that actual street drove home for me the horrific, heartbreaking reality from which this poem drew inspiration.