Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Francis Poulenc and Louise De Vilmorin, a Surrealism À Fleur De Peau1

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Francis Poulenc and Louise De Vilmorin, a Surrealism À Fleur De Peau1

Article excerpt

Within ourselves, we have, in our own way, all the possibilities to create our happiness through our imagination; but it is the outside world that makes our imagination real . . . that concretizes something which, without being an abstraction, is nevertheless not in reality ... I cannot say that I await happiness; I cannot say that I do not expect it. It is part of those "absentee" that have the power to appear.2

LOUISE LÉVÊQUE DE VILMORIN (1902-1969) was born into the most famous French family of seed producers. Their estate was a royal hunting quarter dating from Louis XIV, transformed into a beautiful botanic garden by Vilmorin's ancestors. There she lived her youth, but also her later life. Her health was weak, and delayed the early stage of her education. At seventeen, she contracted bone tuberculosis and spent the following two years lying on a bed. She walked with a limp for the rest of her life. She was engaged to Antoine de Saint-Éxupéry, but her mother's disagreement forced the then unknown writer to move on. She later became the inspiration for the character Geneviève in his novel Courrier sud. Her unique charisma mesmerized numerous personalities: André Malraux, Gaston Gallimard, Jean Hugo, Pierre Seghers, Léo Ferré, and Orson Welles, to name only a few. She had one older sister, Mapie, who would become a famous culinary critic and writer, and four brothers to whom she always remained devoted. Her favorite brother was by far André, the youngest. Their exceptionally close relationship inspired Anaïs Nin in her first novel, The House of Incest.3

She was at the center of the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Paris between the 1930s and the 1960s. Her precision and attention to detail, along with her observation of the frivolous and futile, characterize her work. Hers is a universe of nostalgia and bittersweet charms, and she was inspired to write most of her poetry during the difficult times of her life. She was married twice, and each time had to move away from her friends, family, and the excitement of her Parisian lifestyle. In 1925, Louise de Vilmorin went to Las Vegas with her first husband, Henry Leigh-Hunt, with whom she was to have three daughters. Her second marriage was to Count Paul Palffy ab Erdöd in 1937. Louise moved with him to his castle in Czechoslovakia, unaware that the outbreak of World War II would keep her imprisoned there until 1944.

Her brother André in his book Louise de Vilmorin best introduces her character and personality. He relates how Louise was encouraged to cultivate her creative mind and her imagination by the family's private tutor, who, recognizing her special aptitudes, did not expect his talented pupil to study mathematics, sciences, Greek, or Latin; he instead taught her literature, geography, and history. Such an unusual education was beneficial to Louise de Vilmorin. She developed her own poetic world free from external influences and of taboos. The boundaries of her poetic imagination lie at the verge of the subconscious.4

Encouraged by André Malraux, Louise de Vilmorin began writing in her thirties and published her first novel Sainte-Unefois in 1934. She composed her first poems a few years later. She wrote to Poulenc in a letter of November 1936, "It is you, Francis, it is you who the first (you are thus Francis I) have had the idea to 'commission' poems from me, in order to set them to music. Therefore, you decided that I was a poet!"5 Poulenc wrote of her,

Few people move me as much as Louise de Vilmorin: because she is beautiful, because she is lame, because she writes French of an innate purity, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister . . . Loves, desire, joy, illness, exile, financial difficulties, are at the root of her genuineness.6

Poulenc became the musician of Louise de Vilmorin by default, for very few other composers elected her as their muse. …

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