Henri Duparc [1848-1933]
Chanson Triste – Jean Lahor
Soupir – Sully Prudhomme
Romance de Mignon – Victor Wilde/Goethe
Au pays où se fait la guerre - Théophile Gautier
La vie antérieure – Charles Baudelaire
Sérénade Florentine – Jean Lahor
L’Invitation au Voyage – Charles Baudelaire
Elégie – Thomas Moore
Extase – Jean Lahor
Phidylé – Leconte de Lisle
Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche (Listen, my dear, listen to the gentle Night advancing) Charles Baudelaire
Duparc’s story is the strangest. His entire oeuvre consists of sixteen songs, three of which he later disowned. He wrote all these songs between his twentieth and thirty-sixth birthdays and after that nothing, although he lived for almost another fifty years. The most astounding thing of all is that these thirteen short songs are all masterpieces and essential landmarks in the history of French music. So his life-story saw an extraordinary outburst of creativity followed by an appalling silence, an utter darkness and a not-so-gentle night.
Duparc’s companion and carer throughout his long silence was the Irish singer, Ellie Mc Swiney, from Macroom. When she was only seventeen she moved with her mother to Paris to study singing and piano. She and her mother lived in the same apartment building as Vincent d’Indy with whom she sang and played duets at his salon. In the early years of her marriage to Duparc, their home was frequented by luminaries such as Saint-Saëns, Massener, Franck, Bizet, Chabrier and Fauré. They had two sons and her career was cut short by Duparc’s illness, which aggravated his nascent self-criticism. He burnt the manuscript of his opera Russalka that he had worked on for twenty years.
His life has been described as a dolorous and radiant journey towards an increasingly abstract and immaterial form of self-denial. His method of writing involved painstakingly revising the same songs time and time again. He suffered a progression of illnesses and became almost totally blind. He saw everything in terms absence, expectancy, elsewhere.
What we have been left is an alchemical distillation, a miraculous quintessence of impossible purity which he desired both desperately and despairingly. There are of course varying degrees of excellence. Baudelaire undoubtedly inspired the composer’s greatest achievements, but while Lahor and Prudhomme are emphatically not Baudelaire, their mediocre lyrics inspired great music, as has been the case throughout the history of art-song. When Duparc sets out to express what cannot be expressed, he reaches summits that few other song composers have attained. Listen for the refrain Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté in L’invitation au voyage; and the repeated supplication in Phidylé. Then there is the denial of the person of the beloved in Soupir – Ne jamais la voir ni l’entendre, Ne jamais tout haut la nommer – where desire itself becomes the object of desire (here in a song written for his wife but dedicated to his mother). And then there is Tristan’s dream in the word-by-word setting of Lahor’s Extase, the line Mort exquise, mort parfumée has a degree of distilled perfection that one can imagine taking years to achieve. Above all he brings us his extraordinary setting of Baudelaire’s La Vie antérieur, where, after the majestic vision of vastes portiques and grottes basaltiques – Les tout puissants accords de leur riche musique – all that is left is the l’unique soin d’approfondir,(the sole intent to make profound). Duparc’s make profound is absolute, without an object and leads to silence.
Francis Humphrys with thanks to Jim Maguire.