Four days before Nadia Boulanger died on Oct. 22, France lost another of her most distinguished musicians: one of the greatest singers of the past half century, baritone Pierre Bernac. Paradoxically, word of Bernac's death attracted the least imaginable attention. Yet his art was rare in his or any time, and his genius led directly to the writing of the greatest songs of the quarter of a century in which he regularly sang.
To those who know and love the finest in the world of song, the names of Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc are as inseparable as they were in their lives and their art. By coincidence, the two men were almost precisely the same age: Poulenc was born on Jan. 5, 1899, Bernac five days later.
The first time the two musicians performed together -- it was the first of many hundreds of concerts they would give during the next quarter of a century -- was in 1934 in the Mirabell Gardens of Salzburg. A wealthy American lady living in a mansion next to the Gardens decided to arrange an evening of the music of Claude Debussy. At her request, Bernac called on her to discuss certain details. He found her in bed, pointing a toy rifle at him.
In spite of the toy, the concert was a huge success, beginning with an orchestral program in the Mozarteum conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who was 26 at the time. From there, the invited audience proceeded to the Gardens where Serge Lifar and the ballet of the Vienna State Opera danced "L'apresmidi d'un faune." After that, the entranced listeners climbed over a high wall into the American lady's garden where a grand piano stood beneath a linden tree.
There, beginning at midnight, Bernac sang Debussy songs, accompanied by Poulenc -- who, by fortunate coincidence, had been sent to cover the Salzburg Festival for Le Figaro. It was at that time that Bernac and Poulenc decided to form an association "dedicated to the idea of bringing to the interpretation of the vocal concert repertoire a similar care and perfection of ensemble that is found in certain players of instrumental sonatas," as Bernac put it in his recent book on Poulenc.
Washington was the first city in the United States to hear these two matchless companions in music. On Thursday, Nov. 4, 1948, they gave their first concert on this continent at Dumbarton Oaks: an evening of music by Lully, Schubert, Debussy and Poulenc.
For some in the Music Room of Dumbarton Oaks that night the searching beauty of the Schubert songs came as a surprise. These were, after all, musicians French to the core, tender, playful, passionate, imbued with the tradition of Lully, Couperin and Rameau, and filled with the marvels of their immediate predecessors Faure, Debussy and Ravel.
Yet after their performance of Schubert's "Doppelgaenger," Richard Dirksen, who today is the organist and choirmaster of Washington Cathedral, said, "You will never hear that song more perfectly sung no matter how many times you hear it." He was absolutely right. The strange thing about all this is that Pierre Bernac had a voice that was sometimes described as "unlush," or even "ugly."
And here we come to the paradox that was Bernac -- the greatness of the art he achieved with that voice. Bernac himself asked, "Why was I so irresistibly drawn towards singing? It was not because I had a superb and powerful voice, for this, alas, was not so.
"At all events," he concludes, "I had a preconception of the past that the interpreter might play in the marriage of poetry and music, the magnificent role that could be his in serving the poets as well as the musicians, and this exciting prospect was enough to decide my life."
With his admittedly less than ideal voice, Bernac became one of the most impressive singers of this century. Ned Rorem wrote in "An Absolute Gift," "As for Bernac, his unlush voice can still sing rings around more lustrous stars." Part of the secret Rorem describes as the way "he crawls inside the notes and inhabits the song."
After that first concert at Dumbarton Oaks -- it occurred two days after President Harry S. Truman won his big election and the day after T. S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature -- I wrote in The Washington Post: "France has sent America two more uniquely great artists." It was clear, I added, that "we were in the presence of yet another of that small group of that small group of mastersingers."
Two days later Bernac and Poulenc gave their first concert in New York City.In the Audience that crowded the hall were such famous vocalists as Maggie Teyte, Jennie Tourel, Povla Frijsh, Eva Gauthier and for that matter, every other good musician who was not busy that day, including Vladimir Horowitz, Lily Pons and Wanda Landowska. With a slender, reedy voice and the ensorceling music and hands of Poulenc, Bernac enjoyed what Poulenc later called "an unheard-of triumph."
Poulenc's great cycle, "Tel jour, telle nuit," was on that program. It has been compared to Schubert's "Winterreise" and Schumann's "dichterliebe," and the comparison is not overdone. Where had Poulenc, the brilliant, witty, polished pianist-composer, learned to write such moving songs? It was, according to Poulenc himself, "from accompanying Bernac in the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, etc. . . . " The substantial character is clear from the fact that Poulenc, at his death early in 1963, left well over 100 songs, about 90 of which were written especially for Bernac to sing in their joint concerts.
What guidance did Bernac give younger singers who came to him for advice and coaching? (His pupils have included, among many others, soprano Jessye Norman, tenor Paul Sperry, and baritone William Parker, who just won the Kennedy Center-Rockefeller Foundation Competition for Excellence in Performing American Music.) Bernac constantly found that singers do not attach as much importance as they should to the interpretation of the poem. He urged them to read the poem before working on the song; to read it aloud, "spoken with the interpretation that an actor would give to it."
A further indispensable quality, bernac insisted, was "a great variety of colors on his palette of sound. The singer needs to have a different voice for each of the songs he interprets, without that, a whole recital of songs can be terribly monotonous."
No words can hope to describe the art of Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc. Fortunately, there is a rich heritage of recordings of excellent quality, through which almost every facet of their art can be enjoyed. That they are now difficult to locate only makes them more valuable. We must hope that the record companies involved will realize the need for re-issuing all of these:
Odyssey 32 26 0009, "A Recital by Bernac and Poulenc," with songs by Chabrier, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel, and Satie; Pathe FALP 50036, "Melodies by Bernac and Poulenc," with songs by Gounod, Duparc, Cabrier, Chausson, Faure, Roussel, Milhaud, Ravel, Milhaud, Auric and Poulenc; Westminster 18422, "Poulenc: Le Bal Masque," with Bernac, orchestra and Poulenc as pianist.
To hear Bernac in either of two of the flawless songs Poulenc wrote for him is to enjoy a clear vision of what their association produced. "Montparnasse," which is on the Pathe disc, took four years to write, the only one of his songs to keep the usually rapid composer so long. "I do not regret the time I spent on it," he said, "for it is probably one of my best songs."
In "Tu vois le feu du soir," which may just be Poulenc's greatest song, Bernac produces with ease phrases that test the finest singers. In these two songs, with poems by Apollinaire and Eluard, are captured much of the essence of Poulenc's genius and the heart of that artistic union of two musicians whose lives and art glorified the France that made them possible.