As a student, in love with poetry and the art of recital, I never attended a master class session that offered a complete work-up on every aspect of what the French Art Song (or mélodie) repertoire is made. At last, and in full activity as a singer, I decided that I would, as soon as possible, found an Academy which would fulfill what I was looking for: The Académie Francis Poulenc
in Tours, now 15 years old, is trying to achieve exactly that.
I think what makes young singers, French or non-French, reluctant to get into French mélodie, is its reputation of utter sophistication in both vocal specificity and poetic knowledge. That explains why we needed a team of teachers strong in all aspects: one teacher deals only with poetry and poetical aspects and rules – she is a retired French literature teacher at college in Paris; another, who taught at the University in Tours, helps non-French speakers in pronunciation and phonetics; and another, a singer herself and expert in the vocal chamber repertoire from Baroque to contemporary times, works on technical vocal aspects; and another, a stage director who has staged many operas, works on presentation.
Musically, the pairing of a pianist and a singer is quintessential; we have two piano teachers of two different generations, both accomplished collaborative pianists, who transmit a legacy, as well as a modern perspective. And, finally, two teachers of FM Alexander Technique help embody the singing and piano playing. I am myself in charge of summarising all this in a course on interpretation as a whole. Individual classes alternate with collective master classes, when the 9 teachers carefully listen together to the work of all duets, during the 10 days of the Academy every year.
Sophistication can be seen as a handicap; culture is seen as a quality. French mélodie is, as the French philosopher Roland Barthes said, “the territory of cultivated language” (le lieu de la langue cultivée). Its interpretation subsequently is submitted to cultural curiosity and endless questioning, The quintessential question is: why does a composer choose a poem, and how does he (or she) perceive it, first as something to be said aloud, with all its own musical characteristics, and then creating a personal interpretation of it. This of course means that any interpretation should humbly try to recreate this first interpretation. But as this is for the public, it should be carried, embodied, not reserved or secretive. Although most of the chosen French poetry is elusive, especially in comparison with German Romantic poetry, the form of it is much more strict in rules, and the education of all the great French composers active, let us say, from 1870 to 1925 included learning all of them. It is, nowadays, not the case! Rhymes, syllables, rhythm, all has to be taken into consideration, not as a ‘must be’, but as a ‘why not’ or a ‘let’s try’. After all, every single performance is but a moment, never to be repeated, and that is what makes Music such a unique Art.