Poulenc’s “Rapsodie nègre”

Unsatisfied with his early attempts at composition, Poulenc destroyed his first pieces – Rapsodie nègre, from 1917, is the first one to survive. He dedicated the score to Erik Satie, a mark of the composer’s allegiance to a growing avant-garde musical movement that would flourish through the 1920’s.

Many aspects of Rapsodie nègre reflect Poulenc’s distance from the dominant movement during the war to cultivate a pure and untainted, “classical” French culture, including a suggested allegiance to Schoenberg through the use of an unconventional ensemble of flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano, very similar to the scoring for Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano). Most obviously, though, Rapsodie nègre eschews classical French purity to draw upon an exotic African theme – one much in vogue in Paris at the time, as jazz and ragtime bands were taking Paris by storm and having a significant influence on “art” music. Jazz idioms appeared, for example, in a ragtime section of Satie’s 1917 ballet Parade, and in Darius Milhaud’s 1923 jazz ballet La Creation du monde (which used an African creation story as its plot). Yet, Poulenc avoids any obvious connection to popular jazz and ragtime styles in favor of a primitivistic, quasi-Oriental sound, beginning with the first movement with pentatonic melodies in parallel fifths. The third movement, “Honoloulou,” uses a baritone solo in an obsessively repetitive descending tetrachord pattern, to a text purportedly by Liberian poet Makoko Kangourou in a “language” of nonsense syllables (“Honoloulou, poti lama! / honoloulou, honoloulou, / kati moko, mosi bolou” etc.). The book in which Poulenc found the text has never been located, and the “Liberian” poet was almost certainly a hoax).

Like much of Poulenc’s music through the 1920’s and beyond, Rapsodie nègre exhibits a fascination with evocations of the distant past, in this case inflected with the additional distance of the primitive. At the same time, the music continually makes one wonder how seriously Poulenc is treating this theme – as with the unending repetitions of the bariton’s tetrachords in the third movement, which ultimately sound somewhat absurd. In this sense, the piece shows an aspect of Poulenc’s aesthetic that would recur again and again through the 1920’s, in which he conjures up an idealized past bracketed with the ironic detachment characteristic of the Parisian avant-garde.

-Allie Kieffer

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