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Richard Turp: In Defense of a Tradition

I often feel that I’m fortunate to have been born (though not raised) in Montréal. I returned to my hometown some 27 years ago after two decades spent in Europe, primarily in the UK. I love the scale, the ambiance, the joie de vivre of Montreal. Best of all, I love its duality: a francophone city within an Anglophone context and continent. At its most winning, Montreal is a fusion of European, primarily French culture and elegance, and North American energy and enterprise.
In a real sense, Montreal is a reflection of who and what I am. I was born a francophone and grew up in an Anglophone environment. This probably helps explain why I appear to be more comfortable than most with Montreal’s so-called ‘two solitudes’.

I trained as a singer with a tenor father whose absurd facility in six languages left me in no doubt as to the importance of linguistic and stylistic excellence when performing either on the operatic stage or recital platform. Though he performed widely in a host of repertoires, my father, the tenor André Turp, was especially renowned for his championing of the French repertoire. Before dying some two decades ago he had expressed alarm at the standard of much of the singing of French he heard. Since his death, his alarm has been transferred to me and has grown into somewhat of an obsession. As an artistic director of a recital series and a summer festival, I have, over the last fifteen years, had the privilege and good fortune to present many singers, Canadian and non-Canadians, francophone and non-francophone. During the period, I have abandoned several projects in French if certain singers were not available. I have preferred to change programs rather than present unidiomatic performances and endure unconvincing interpretations of French repertoire. I have also taught at several institutions and have been regularly distressed by a student’s lack of basic knowledge and appreciation of French.

What is both mystifying and disturbing is that the French repertoire is hardly marginal to the art-song or operatic genres. It is, in fact, fundamental to both art forms. From Berlioz to the present day, the French mélodie genre contains a multitude of compositions of unequivocal vocal and literary quality. Yet, I think it is fair to say that for at least a generation French mélodie (and opera for that matter) has languished; under-appreciated if not completely unloved. There have been some unquestioned champions of the genre such as the modern-day Don Quichotte, François LeRoux. The Pelléas of his generation, he is not only a singing-actor of striking individuality and power but an educator of brilliance and, perhaps more importantly, the founder of L’Académie Francis-Poulenc, a research centre and summer vocal program devoted to French Art Song. Ironically and depressingly LeRoux is one of the few native Frenchmen who seems to give a damn. He and his cohorts such as Noël Lee and Jeffrey Cohen (neither of them born in France) have swung at windmills in defence of French mélodie for years. Such splendid isolationists as Graham Johnson (especially through his landmark Songmaker’s Almanac concert series and his book A French Song Companion compiled with Richard Stokes) have been heroic in defence of the genre as has another collaborative pianist, the Québec coach and teacher, Denise Massé, who plies her trade in New York. As with most aspects of a singer’s craft today, it is not only a question of what to learn but with whom. In the case of French mélodie the options are more limited than one might imagine.

These people represent a handful of defenders not only of French mélodie and opera but of sung French, because obviously the singing of the French language is at the heart of any discussions about French mélodie. It has to be admitted that French is one of the hardest languages to master for a singer (or pianist come to that…). Many singers seem suspicious of the language, of its seeming complexity. The core difficulty resides in the language’s vowel structure with its seemingly capricious and highly individual vowel differentiations. French has some fifteen vowel shapes which, when combined with such grammatical idiosyncrasies as elisions and hiatus give the language an air of mystery and complexity that is not easy to dispel. No, French is not a given: one has to work at mastering French, its rules, its specificities and peculiarities. Yet many of the immeasurable riches and rewards of French mélodie lie in the language’s precision, definition, beauty and innately musical flavour. Above all, it should never be forgotten that French is one of the most inherently musical of languages, its very nature and structure giving sung French a legato-driven form.

In the hands of a Berlioz, Gounod, Fauré, Debussy or Poulenc, there is a bond, a relationship between the language, the poetic text, and the music that is as unalterable as when Wolf sets Mörike or Schumann sets Eichendorff. The history of French mélodie is a history of French poetry. From the medieval French verses of Charles d’Orleans to such twentieth century poets of genius as Jacques Prévert, French mélodie traces the evolution not only of the language through the ages but its influences and tendencies. When Berlioz sets Gauthier, Fauré sets Verlaine or Poulenc sets Apollinaire or Éluard, it is a representation not only of a period or ‘époque’ but a national style.

As is too often the case with the vocal repertory of national schools, one modern tendency is to attempt to ‘standardize’ the language in terms of pronunciation. In the case of sung languages, standardization is equivalent to de-naturalizing it. Increasingly, modern-day performances and recordings of French vocal music are characterised by an inherently generic quality, especially but not exclusively when discussing Art Song (for example, I cannot recall the last time I saw or heard an idiomatic performance of Bizet’s Carmen).

These preoccupations are particularly worrisome when one recalls that 2012 is the anniversary not only of Claude Debussy (150th anniversary of his birth) but of Jules Massenet (centenary of his death). Massenet may be best remembered for several operatic masterpieces but he wrote many distinguished Art Songs, including the cycles Poème d’hiver and Expressions lyriques. As for 2013, it is not only the bi-centenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner but it marks the 50th anniversary of Francis Poulenc’s death. Doubtless these anniversaries will provoke a horde of commemorative events and recordings. Yet I am not optimistic that many of these well-intentioned projects will lead to idiomatic performances of Ariettes oubliées, Poème d’amour or Calligrammes. How many of these modern-day performances will strike the right balance between words and music, carry the necessary linguistic focus or contain the appropriate ‘parfum’ let alone substance? How many will enlighten and reveal the genius of the composers and the beauty of the texts?

Perhaps more significantly, what is to happen to the melodies of Charles Bordes, Charles Koechlin, Jacques Leguerney or Déodat de Séverac (an evocative name if ever there was one)? They may not have had the comprehensive genius of a Debussy or a Poulenc but they composed many mélodies of crafted beauty and real distinction. What is to happen to their oeuvre? Is it to be consigned to the dusty archives of forgotten Art Song, barely recalled and never performed or enjoyed? And even so, could a modern performance of Koechlin’s Bilitis songs or Leguerney’s Poèmes de la Pléiade evoke the linguistic and poetic insights or the musical and stylistic reference points that are central to their effectiveness?

I fervently believe that there is still time to save this genre from oblivion. I am not being overly dramatic; once lost or eroded beyond recognition, once the roots have been eaten away, the tree will fall, or if you prefer, a performing tradition will slip into oblivion. But it is easier to reanimate and preserve than to resurrect. There is still time. There are those who can still give guidance and counsel. It now takes those who have the curiosity, the affinity, the passion and yes, the conviction and the courage 

Richard Turp, Co-founder and Artistic Director, André-Turp Musical Society; Artistic Director - Lachine Music Festival 

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