I first encountered a work by Lionel Daunais as a teenager, namely Le vent des forêts, a song that a classmate was learning. It was my first time accompanying a singer and performing music by a Canadian composer. I still have vivid memories of the elegant calligraphy of the handwritten score and the pleasure I experienced in playing the un poco appassionato piano interlude of this pathos-laden song.
The second encounter, in my twenties, was with the cycle Fantaisie dans tous les tons, one of the composer’s best-known works, which I played on the radio and in concert with the excellent Québec baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe.
A few years later, I took part in a show – brilliantly conceived and staged by the actress and stage director Marie-Lou Dion – entirely devoted to Lionel Daunais, and it was during this third and decisive musical rendezvous that this recording project began to take shape.
I made sure to build the programme so that it reflects the diversity of the composer’s writing styles, ranging from French mélodie to humorous folk-inspired songs, through pop tunes and songs for young people. To ensure that the songwriter’s intentions were duly respected, I consulted the autograph manuscripts that are in the Lionel Daunais Fonds of the Archives nationales du Québec.
In addition to works for one voice, you will hear duets for soprano and baritone, trios for soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone, as well as a duet for soprano and flute. The piano is omnipresent throughout the album.
This programme gives pride of place to the French art song style. Daunais’ writing recalls here and there that of French composer Francis Poulenc who knew the Montrealer’s works and told him: “There is often a comedic spirit in your music and when someone points it out to you, don’t blush, it’s a very rare gift!”
From the 1870s, it was customary for the piano part of a French art song to try and evoke the poetic mood of the sung text, the melodic line of the instrument frequently dialoguing with that of the voice. The mélodies of Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy attest to this symbiosis between text and music, voice and piano, and the mélodies of Lionel Daunais belong to this tradition.
French and Foreign Poets
Two of the album’s songs have anonymous texts: Les larmes, a French adaptation of a nostalgic Arab poem from the 13th century, and L’innocente, which introduces us to a clever young woman.
The graceful lightness of L’hirondelle, on an odelette by Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), the great poet of love of the French Renaissance, is elegantly set to music, as is Le cœur oublieux, on a charming and touching poem by Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), the author of L’art poétique and a great admirer of Molière, Lafontaine and Racine.
It is with much finesse that Daunais depicts the autumnal atmosphere and melancholy of Simone ou les feuilles mortes, on a text by Rémy de Gourmont (1858-1915), a prolific author and major figure of literary symbolism.
Three mélodies take their inspiration from the abundant poetic work of Paul Fort (1872-1960), elected “Prince of Poets” by the Parisian press in 1912: the growing sweep of Le vent des forêts’ vocal line underlines the anguish of the text’s questions; the energetic Le diable dans la nuit warns bad-mannered lovers; L’épouse châtiée, one of the composer’s most moving songs, conveys the repentance and deep suffering of an unfaithful wife.
Poème hindou, equally about heartbreak, is the French translation of a few verses by Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), nicknamed “The Nightingale of India” for the lyricism and rich imagery of her poetry.
On a much lighter tone, Théo recounts a swift and fleeting amorous conquest, a text in which the poet René Kerdyk (1885-1945) plays with sounds, and a musical line in which the composer delights in stretching the voice to its uppermost register.
From the painter and writer Tristan Klingsor (1874-1966), Daunais adorns À ma cousine with tenderly shimmering sonorities, and skillfully illustrates the contrasting moods of Le chien de Jean de Nivelle.
On the handwritten score of À quoi bon rêver, in addition to the voice and piano parts, we can see the outline of an additional instrumental line, in counterpoint to the vocal one. On the strength of this finding, I took the liberty of writing a flute part using the composer’s sketch as a starting point. This exquisite music alights on a melancholy text by Québec journalist and poet Alfred DesRochers (1901-1978).
Daunais set to music five poems by Éloi de Grandmont (1921-1970), playwright, poet and cofounder of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. Three of these appear on this recording: Chanson d’amour is steeped in memories and regret, Doux temps celebrates blissful youth to the rhythm of a waltz, whereas a glimmer of hope allays the sorrow revealed by Les mots d’amour.
The lyrics and music of the following works are entirely from the pen of Lionel Daunais (1901-1982).
In line with French mélodie, Blanc (from the cycle Fantaisie dans tous les tons) sketches a few milestones in the eventful life of Marie-Blanche, L’amour de moi expresses the poignant lament of a woman who awaits the return of her husband gone to sea, and the protagonist of La dame à la poire falls prey to an innocent game of seduction.
Songs for Young People
Since Daunais was a family man, it is not surprising that he wrote charming songs for young people. Bordering French art song and children’s song, the touching text of Trois flocons de neige refers to the Nativity while its musical setting unfolds sophisticated harmonies.
It is only in the last verse that we realize that Une petite chandelle is in fact a lullaby. As for the misadventures of Le petit chien de laine, they did not prevent this song from quickly becoming one of the composer’s most well-known and beloved.
Chiefly intended for grownup listeners, the pop song of the 1930s to 1960s, a proud descendant of variety shows, aims to reach and entertain as wide an audience as possible. This recording includes two such songs: Les perceurs de coffres-forts with its jazzy accents, and the amusing Chanson du maître cordonnier, Grand Prize winner at the 1948 Marly-Polydor Songwriting Competition.
Aware of the specificity of the French language in Québec and Canada, Lionel Daunais declared in a radio interview in the 1960s: “I wanted to write Canadian songs and not French songs”.
His many humorous songs, halfway between folksong and pop tune, paint a picture of several facets of the society of the time. The themes include, among others, the political elite, the clergy, food, family and the weather. With Mary Travers, known as La Bolduc, he was among the first singer-songwriters to draw inspiration from everyday life in Québec. Some of these lyrics have certainly aged a bit, but the accuracy with which the interaction of the characters is represented remains relevant.
Le cercle de couture showcases a happy trio of loose-tongued gossips, puns based on ecclesiastical Latin abound in Monsieur le Curé, and it is on a galloping rhythm that we discover the multiple responsibilities of Benoit, Le sacristain.
Three additional works accompany this disc as singles on streaming platforms: the beautiful and nostalgic Chanson des amours perdues; Le voyage de noces – a song recorded in France in the 1950s by none other than Bourvil – in which a funny and annoying situation unfolds; and La tourtière, a hymn to this quintessential Québec dish served during the Holiday Season.
Wishing you joyful listening and lovely (re)discoveries!
Marc Bourdeau, 2022