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About this Piece

Henri Duparc's (1848-1933) reputation rests almost entirely on his 13 published songs. The Nouvelle édition complète of his works, published in Paris in 1911, consists only of these songs. Of course, he tried his hand at other projects but either suppressed, repudiated, or failed to complete them. He even went so far as to destroy many of his manuscripts, including an incomplete opera, Roussalka.

Thus, the five songs on tonight's program represent a significant portion of Duparc's surviving output. He composed his legacy between 1868 and 1884, when a year-long bout of hyperaesthesia forced him to retire to the countryside, first to southwestern France, and later to Switzerland. Duparc's affliction made him overly sensitive to any kind of stimuli, but especially the visual and aural variety, and its recurrence compelled him to leave Paris and abandon his musical career. (His family's considerable wealth - his father was descended from old nobility and had been director of France's western railway - facilitated a long a comfortable retirement.) Duparc spent his time reading and painting until, ironically, old age offered a bit of respite from his neurological misery by claiming his sight and leaving him paralyzed. He died in 1933.

In his songs, Duparc revealed himself to be a composer of fastidious taste. The poetry he chose to set is of the highest order - Baudelaire, Gautier, Cazalis, translations of Goethe - and the settings themselves capture the atmosphere of each poem perfectly. Duparc rarely goes for the cheap thrill, and when he does - the imitation of buzzing bees in "Phidylé," for example - he turns what could be mere onomatopoeia into richly evocative music in its own right.

In "L'invitation au voyage" (Invitation to a Journey; 1870), the composer's imagination seems to be fired by specific, suggestive words in Baudelaire's haunting metaphorical love poem. The overall structure of the song is strophic, with each strophe constructed from three distinct sections. The atmosphere of each section revolves around specific words - "douceur" (sweetness), "mystérieux" (mysterious), and, especially, the final line of the refrain, "luxe, calme, et volupté" ("luxury, calm, and delight").

The "Romance de Mignon" (1869) is a setting of Goethe in translation. Duparc seems to revel in tweaking the song's chaste melody and delicate accompaniment, transforming them into something much more sensuous and emphatic.

"Au pays où se fait la guerre" (To the War-Torn Land; 1869-70) is formally simple, with a structure not unlike many of today's pop songs. These have two verses, a bridge, and a final verse, whereas "Au pays" has two strophes, a third contrasting strophe, and a fourth strophe that revisits the material of the first two. The song is framed by a doleful seven-note tune that recurs throughout. The sudden excitement Duparc creates when the narrator thinks she hears her lover coming up the stairs differentiates the third strophe, but her expectation quickly dissipates when she discovers it's just her servant. It was originally intended for Roussalka, Duparc's unfinished opera.

The "Chanson triste," (Sad song; 1868), while not overtly despairing, captures the gentle melancholy of Cazalis' poem. The song's undulating chordal accompaniment masks its sophisticated harmonic progression.

In "Phidylé," (1882) Duparc traces the mood of Leconte de Lisle's poem with great refinement, the climax at the phrase "Mais, quand l'Astre, incliné sur sa courbe éclante,/ Verra ses ardeurs s'apaiser" expressing the lover's anticipation of Phidylé's ardent kiss.

-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.