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Dans l'immense tristesse (1916)

Dans l'immense tristesse

Dans l'immense tristesse et dans le lourd silence,
Un pas se fait entendre, une forme s'avance,
Et vers une humble tombe elle vient se pencher -
O femme, en ce lieu saint, que viens-tu donc chercher?
Pourquoi viens-tu troubler la paix du cimetière?
As-tu donc un trésor caché sous quelque pierre,
Ou viens-tu mendier, à l'ombre des tombeaux,
Pauvre vivante, aux morts, un peu de leur repos?
Non, rien de tout cela jusqu'ici ne l'amène,
(La lune en cet instant éclairait cette scène,)
Et ce que cette femme, (hélas! le coeur se fend,)
Ce que cette femme vient chercher, c'est un frêle et gracieux enfant,
Qui dort sur cette tombe, et qui, dans sa chimère,
Depuis qu'il a vu là disparaître sa mère,
Doux être! s'imagine en son naïf espoir
Qu'elle n'est que cachée et qu'il va la revoir.
Et l'on dirait, le soir, en vision secrète,
Lorsque le blond enfant sent s'alourdir sa tête,
Et que sa petite âme est lasse de gémir,
Que sa mère revient chanter pour l'endormir.

In the immense sadness

In the immense sadness and heavy silence
A footstep is heard, a form advances
And then leans over a humble tomb –
O woman, what do you seek in this holy place?
Why come to trouble the peace of the cemetery?
Have you some treasure hidden beneath a stone,
Or have you come to beg, poor living woman,
A little repose from the dead in the shade of their tombs?
No – none of that leads you to this place,
(The moon at this moment lights the scene,)
And what this woman (alas, the heart breaks,)
What this woman seeks is a frail and graceful child
Who sleeps on this tomb and who, in his imagination,
Since he saw his mother vanish there,
Sweet creature! supposes with naïve hope
That she is only concealed and that he will see her.
You would think – a nocturnal secret vision –
That when the blond child feels his head lolling
And when his little soul is tired of groaning,
His mother returns to sing him asleep.
Translation © Richard Stokes, author of A French Song Companion (Oxford, 2000)

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Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) is often described as one of the most gifted composers of the twentieth century, however, her promise was cut short by early death. She achieved a degree of posthumous renown which is exceptional among women composers.

Together with her older sister Nadia, she was born into a musical family, showed early talent and received an outstanding musical education. She received lessons in organ, piano accompaniment and harmony and played the violin, cello, harp and piano.

Despite an early diagnosis of bronchial pneumonia and constant illness, she was the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome aged 19. Her visit to the city was soon interrupted by World War I. She returned for a few months in 1916 but was often bedridden by illness. After an operation that brought only a temporary reprieve, Boulanger focused on completing what she could before her death aged 24. 24 of 64 surviving works were published, and much of what remains is incomplete, in sketch form or lost. Religious music was especially important to her.

Boulanger left a significant contribution to song in Clairières dans le ciel, a cycle of thirteen settings of deeply reflective texts by her contemporary Francis Jammes. The poems are steeped in nostalgia and yearning, and replete with evocative natural symbols such as flowers and birds. The resultant avant-garde, luminous musical style is very distant from the salon world many contemporaries favoured. Her performance direction was that the melodies should be sung 'with the feeling of evoking a past that has remained fresh’. 

One biographer has argued that she identified with the subject of the poems, a young girl who is tenderly recalled by the poet. In addition, Creole influences can be discerned in the text, such as the mention of a black Virgin; Jammes (according to his close friend Darius Milhaud) had ancestors from the West Indies. The cycle was dedicated to Gabriel Fauré and eight of the songs were orchestrated by her. It is approximately 35 minutes long.

Alongside much choral music and an incomplete opera, Boulanger also wrote the song ‘Le Retour’ for mezzo-soprano and piano, which she also arranged for SATB choir; and ‘Dans l‘immense tristesse’ for alto and piano to a text by Bertha Galeron de Calone, a poet who lost her sight and hearing. Both songs were republished in 1979.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

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Bertha Galeron de Calone was a French poet.

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