Pol Plançon on the Study of the French Song

“When I made my first appearance as a pupil after a week’s study I thought I was going out to astonish the world. It was at the Ecole Duprez, a conservatory in Paris. I had been studying there for a week.

It was the custom of the pupils of the institution to sing in the weekly concerts. Very well, I sang, the first week, mind you.”

When Mr. Plançon got this far he stopped to laugh at his temerity, and then went on: “How clearly it is fixed in my memory. I came on the stage in a fright, shaking literally, very literally, in my boots. Of course, the audience received me in silence. Then I sang the cavatina of the cardinal from ‘La Juive.’ With the final deep note the audience gave me enthusiastic approval. I had made a success! I seemed to tread on air. I thought I would go out and astonish the world.”

Mr. Plançon sighed in the moment’s silence that followed, and it needed no explanation to tell me that he was recalling, as even the greatest artists must recall, the struggle which comes between first hopes and final attainments. Then he sat down at the piano, playing his own accompaniment from memory, and sang the cavatina of the cardinal from “La Juive.”

There is both elegance and finish in the versatility of Mr. Plançon, and whether it is opera, a sacred composition, or a song, there need never be any uncertainty of his artistic poise. He is a man of absolute adaptability, and, after all, if we consider a moment, the lack of this quality, or perhaps, one may say, the lack of its development, prevents success oftener than many more recognized shortcomings. If he sings in opera it is in the operatic style; if the work is a sacred one he approaches it in a churchly style; in his songs, while at moments he forgets himself in a climax which he gives with a sweeping gesture, it is always appropriate, and so spontaneous that you accept it, if you happen to be critical, with the mental reservation that Plançon did it.

The audience? Well, at such moments the audience invariably asks for a repetition of the song. One instance is especially in mind. He was singing Schumann’s “Grenadiers” with the Chicago Orchestra. With the final words of the “Marseillaise” with which it concludes Mr. Plançon raised his arm and clenched hand suddenly above his head. The gesture was so striking, and apparently so genuinely spontaneous, that the audience was thrown into a frenzy such as patriotism alone can awaken.

Again, in singing “The Palms” on the word “Seigneur” at the close he lifted his extended arms with telling effect.

I do not commend to others the gestures in point. With him they are part of his individuality. As I said just now, if you happen to be critical you accept them with the mental reservation that Mr. Plançon made them. Vocally there was not the slightest deviation from appropriateness at which to cavil. His style and elegance of finish constitute Mr. Plançon notably adapted to the singing of the French song: those bits of musical distinction that require the fine detail of a miniature in their interpretation, and the sophisticated simplicity that is no small task to accomplish. Naturally, Mr. Plançon, in his study of the French song for The Etude, turned first to the diction, that rock upon which so many argosies of song are stranded.

“In the singing of the French song,” he said, “much depends upon the diction, for the words, of course, constitute the meaning of the song. In turning to this phase of the subject I always recall what the great composer Gounod once said to me: ‘Singers too often forget what they are singing about. Forget that you have a voice, speak your words, and think of what you are singing, and the voice will come with the expression of the words.’ I admire the older of the French composers most, because, you know, I am an older singer,” and Mr. Plançon stopped to enjoy his joke.

“In my opinion, it is impossible to learn diction in any language, French, German, or English, unless you come by it naturally. If one has good diction one may improve it, but one cannot develop that which is not there. For myself, I have never made any studies in French diction, which, I know, is the rare exception, for most singers have. But I have always kept in mind that advice which Gounod gave me, advice that may well be repeated: ‘Forget that you have a voice, speak your words, and think of what you are singing, and the voice will come with the expression of the words.’

“In singing I think as much of the words as of the music. But the great majority are more occupied with the music than with the words. Their desire is to emit the note instead of the word.

“In studying a song I begin always with the words, getting the sense of them thoroughly fixed in my mind. The picture must be painted in the imagination before you can paint it in tone. Then I sing the music over, and later both music and words, thoughtfully working at each separate phrase until it is finished in a way that I feel I cannot improve upon it.

“In French there are so many nasal sounds, on, an, en, and the like, that if the emission and enunciation are faulty readily become exaggerations. And how prone young singers of every nationality are to this nasal exaggeration in singing the French language. It is something that needs pre-eminently to be guarded against, not only for the sake of the tone, but of the language. Exaggeration in any direction is one of the gravest offenses against art. One of the things a singer should do is to soften these nasal sounds and not make them more pronounced than necessary. There are singers who, in order not to be too nasal, omit these sounds altogether. As the nasal sounds are part of the French language, I think it wrong to omit them, and, as I said, I pronounce them softened.

“The selection of songs by the singer depends upon the matter of education and the development of the mind. A singer without true refinement and distinction can never properly interpret a song demanding both. And, believe me, the character of every singer is shown distinctly in his song. The most beautiful songs will become common in interpretation if that be the level of the singer. A beautiful voice and a beautiful enunciation is not all that is necessary. Many there are who may possess these qualities in eminent degree, but who are surpassed by others having these same qualities less fully developed and who sing, nevertheless, far more satisfactorily. As I said, the song takes on the character of the singer.

“First of all, in interpretation the sentiment and power of expression must be regarded. Up to a certain point the individuality of the singer must be considered in the selection of the song. But we must also select songs that do not accord with our own temperament, otherwise we shall be in danger of getting into a groove. It is very necessary to sing songs of every style. For this reason I often, in singing in a concert, choose songs which I know I do less well than others in order to give the public variety. For instance, in a recital which I shall shortly give in Boston, I shall sing two or three songs which are not wholly in my style, and which, I fear, I shall not do so well as I do other things; but I take them to broaden my sphere.

“The best French songs with which to begin are undoubtedly those of Gounod. This is on account, not only of the beauty and simplicity of the melody, but also of the words. Gounod’s songs you will find melodious, many of them absolutely simple, and with beautiful words. In the songs of Gounod the words are so adapted to the melody and so ready of appeal and comprehension with the public.

“Among the modern French composers’ work you will find many beautiful songs. Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Benjamin Godard, Augusta Holmés, Délibes, Gabriel Faure, Paul Vidal, Bemberg, Gaston Paulin, all have written beautiful melodies.

“The music of the younger French composers is less simple. It is very difficult, indeed; and the trouble is that it is often so complex that it produces no effect upon the public. But, as I said, I am an older singer, and, therefore, I like the older songs. In the very old French songs you will find lovely examples admirably fitted for use in recital programs in the works of Gretry and of Rameau. And this brings us down to the order of arrangement to be followed in a recital program.

“This order of arrangement is one demanding of most careful thought, for, after having found those songs which we can best interpret, we must arrange them in an order in which they will not alone show most effectively, but blend properly the one with the other.

“Another point to be considered is the number with which you open; and yet another, the one with which you close. A bad beginning, or the selection of an ineffective opening song will have a disastrous effect upon all that follows. You may, indeed, rescue things later in your program when the happier numbers arrive, but you will stand small chance of making the impression that you would otherwise have done had you taken the forethought to begin properly.

“At the end of the recital, again, it devolves upon you to send your audience away in appreciative mood. Not that any portion of the program is to be slighted, but I have named the points that are most vital. A recital, to succeed, must be like an opera that is to succeed: it must begin and end well. If there is a little weaker spot it is most safely placed in the middle of the program.

“In making up my own recital programs I place at the beginning and the end something which is well suited to me.

“In making up the program as a whole I select a great number of songs which suit me, and with a view to the greatest variety within the bounds of artistic arrangement. From this mass of songs I finally cull the ones that are to comprise my program.

“And now an important thing as to the singing of the program, of any program, after it is selected. Much is said of the mood of the song and its proper comprehension by the singer, that he be gay, sad, pensive, or sentimental, as the character of the song demands. This is all very right and very necessary; we must know what the poem really means; we must know, from careful study of the music, what the composer saw in those same words of which he has made his song. But suppose we are in an unhappy frame of mind, suppose we have allowed ourselves to dwell upon some unpleasant incident, real or fancied; how are we going to be able to enter into any other mood than that of ill humor? When you sing, whether it is in the study-room or the concert- room, you have to think only of your song; otherwise it will do your hearers as little good as it does you. Whether the song be in my French or your own English, if you give yourself up to it completely while you are interpreting it, I rather think you will come back to the subject of your irritation (if come back to it you must) to find it not nearly so bad as it seemed before. And that is but one of the many missions of true music truly given.

“There is, I think, no occurrence possible in a recital that will equal the incidents and accidents that may so readily happen to one in opera. The most ludicrous of these incidents that ever happened to me personally occurred at the Paris Grand Opera.

“I was singing Mephistopheles in Gounod’s ‘Faust,’ and had gone in front of the curtain to respond to a call. By some mistake, just as I was returning to the stage the curtain was suddenly rung up. In that instant I was caught on the curtain-pole, while attempting to cross it, and given a ride half-way up the proscenium. I had the presence of mind to hold fast to the curtain, which was instantly lowered. The next time I appeared on the scene I got a fine reception, and, all things considered, that sudden journey was better suited to the Mephistopheles than it would have been to certain other roles in my repertory, which includes so many dignified fathers.”

2 thoughts on “Pol Plançon on the Study of the French Song

  1. Thanks for this article, which I have not seen before. He’s a great artist, who Anna E. Schoen-René mentions in her book. He was also reported to be gay, which is not the big deal today that is was then, and associated with Bemberg, a composer. Of course, there are those who say this doesn’t and should not matter, but I do not agree. Sexuality is very much a part of an artist, whether it is acknowledged or not.

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