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‘Il vole,’ a treat when poems set to music

Marc Ribes licensed to Virgin Classics

On March 8, soprano Natalie Dessay and pianist Philippe Cassard (inset) perform a recital at Jordan Hall that includes Francis Poulenc’s “Fiançailles pour rire,” a 1939 cycle of six songs setting poems by Louise de Vilmorin. The third song, “Il vole,” is especially brilliant, a tour de force for singer and pianist alike. (Poulenc called it “one of my most difficult songs.”) A complaint from a frustrated woman to her inconstant lover, the poem hinges on the French verb “voler,” meaning both “to steal” and “to fly.” Marked “Presto implacable” (unsparingly fast), the melody tumbles forth at tongue-twisting speed, a pent-up tirade unleashed in breathless bursts. The main figure in the accompaniment is a short, vertiginous, descending chromatic scale, but with one note stutteringly repeated — a quick, impatient drumming of the fingers. The harmonies shift abruptly; in certain passages, the pianist’s hands pass over and across each other like missed connections. All the while, the song circles back to its fugitive refrain: “Il vole” — he flies.

Vilmorin’s first love did, in fact, fly. In 1923, she became engaged to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who had recently joined the French Air Force. Vilmorin’s family was less than supportive of marriage to a pilot, especially after the first of Saint-Exupéry’s airplane crashes. Eventually, Saint-Exupéry agreed to give up flying, only to have Vilmorin abruptly break off the engagement. Saint-Exupéry returned to the air; like Vilmorin, he also became a writer. (The character of Genevieve in his novel “Southern Mail” is based largely on Vilmorin.) He disappeared on a reconnaissance flight for the Free French Air Force in 1944, the year after the publication of what would become his most celebrated book, “The Little Prince.”

Vilmorin (1902-1969) became an icon of a particularly Parisian brand of intimidating elegance. Along the way, there were two precipitous, short-lived marriages and a series of liaisons — with Orson Welles, Duff Cooper (then the British ambassador to France), Andre Malraux. The pervasive loneliness of “Fiançailles pour rire,” Vilmorin’s first book of poetry — the title of which might be translated as “getting engaged for laughs,” a flourish of ironic bravado — could also be read as rueful clarity, a realization that love, often a means of escape, just as often turns into the thing to be escaped from. In a way, the final line of “Il vole” straddles both possibilities: “I wish,” Vilmorin writes, “my thief would steal me.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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