Il Etait Un Petit Navire

Music by Germaine Tailleferre

Libretto by Henri Jeanson

Tailleferre’s 1951 Opéra Comique « Il était un Petit Navire » was composed over a period of more than twenty years. The initial version of the work, entitled « Le Marin de Bolivar » was premièred at Radio Marseilles just before the outbreak of WWII, and after the war, the director of the Opéra Comique asked Tailleferre and her librettist, the French screenwriter Henri Jeanson, to expand this one act opéra into three complete acts. The title change to « Il était Un Petit Navire » was probably prompted by Milhaud’s Tragic Opera « Bolivar » which was produced by the Paris Opera at about the same time.

The composition of « Il était Un Petit Navire » took a very long time for several reasons, the first of which was Tailleferre’s exile to the United States during WWII. However, the principal reason was Jeanson’s inability to find time in his busy schedule of screenwriting to finish his libretto. Elvire de Rudder, Tailleferre’s granddaughter and heir, recalls her grandmother speaking of waiting for weeks for Jeanson to finish a scene, finally receiving a handful of pages in the mail, composing the music for the words and then waiting again for the next letter from her librettist. This clearly was not the most effective way of completing an opera !

Inspite of this, Elvire de Rudder also remembers her grandmother’s satisfaction with Jeanson’s finished libretto (bits of which were worked into private jokes between Tailleferre and her close friends) as well as satisfaction with her completed score. One of Tailleferre’s last completed projects was a fair copy of the revised score of « Petit Navire » for the Paris Opera Library at the request of her close friend, the French Baritone Bernard Lefort who was then the director of the Paris Opera.

The fact remains that the première of this Opéra was one of the last great scandals in Paris Cultural happenings after WWII. During the third act, a riot broke out in the audience, with people screaming such things as « To the Follies-bègères with the lot of you ! » and « Only those who are invited applaud ! ». Critics outdid themselves in making références to the « shipwreck of the Petit Navire ». The production closed after only two performances and Tailleferre, who thought that this was one of her most entertaining works, called this première « the biggest shame of my life ».

Why this production failed is another matter. There are several reasons for this. First of all, Jeanson’s libretto was a direct attack at the Opera-going public itself, from the central theme of Bourgeois Adultury to the scene where two of Valentine, the heroine’s girlfriends exclaim about her good taste in decorating and furniture, and finishing with Valentine telling the audience « The curtain is coming up for you ! Reclaim your roles at the Coatcheck ! ». The audience of the Opéra Comique, used to Manon and Louise, must have seen this as a direct provocation and reacted accordingly.

The second reason is Jeanson’s open leftist political leanings and the usually conformist tendencies of the Parisian music critics. Jeanson was known as the founder of the popular leftist satirical journal « le Canard Enchaîné ». The music critic was most most violent in his attack on the work was the infamous « Clarendon », the pseudonym of Bernard Gavoty, who was also a violent critic of leftist politics. The majority of the other critics who wrote bad reviews were also in the rightwing press. Was the critical response the result of organized attacks against Jeanson ? This certainly seems possible.

However, the principal reason for the work’s failure seems to be the cuts made by both the Stage director, Louis Mucy and the Musical Director Pierre Dervaud. The piano-vocal scores used during rehearsals for the première have been located at the Paris Opéra library and probably about 40% of the work was cut, including some of the best music in the score. These cuts, which were largely due to concerns about the « politeness » of the libretto (for example the first act choral final « Et Patatat ! Et Patatat ! », which may roughly be translated as « Oh Poop ! »), are so extensive that they leave what is left of the dialogue and storyline completely without any sense.

According to Elvire de Rudder, the conductor Pierre Dervaud was so dismissive of Tailleferre’s work that he frequently made jokes about her to the orchestra musicians while she was in attendence at rehearsals. The cuts that he made were so violent that the conductor’s score is almost unreadable (according to Tailleferre herself : the whereabouts of this score are currently unknown). When Tailleferre wrote out a fair copy of the score for the Paris Opéra when she was 89, there are passages which the aging composer obviously could not piece together because of Dervaud’s destruction of her score. As she had deblitating arthritis at the time, she did not have the strength in her hands to be able to reconstruct this complete work herself. Examination of this document is particularly moving as one can see the great pain in which the composer wrote out over 500 pages of orchestral score. If she herself had not found this reconstruction to be important, this writer finds it very difficult to believe that she would have put herself through this obviously painful ordeal.

It has often been stated that Tailleferre should have perhaps have been more forceful in defending her work, but according to Elvire de Rudder, there really is no way she could have better defended her cause. Her status as a female composer gave her much less leverage than she would have had if she had been a man, to the point that Georges Hirsch, director of French National theatres suggested to Tailleferre that she would be better off to follow the lead of her heroine and « find a man to take care of her ». In this case, her suggestions were all overruled by Mucy and Dervaux who had final say over what was performed on the stage of the Opéra Comique.

When one sees the entire score with the entire libretto, without the extensive cuts, this work becomes something very different than a simple farce : it is an attack on the whole genre of opera and the people who make up the opera-going public. The cuts which were made in the name of « politeness » only served to weaken this message and what remained did not really have any meaning at all. The musical discourse has also been completely twisted out of recognition in places which create huge holes in what were originally seamless passages.

A complete reconstruction of the work is currently being undertaken, but in the meantime, these performance arrangements of this work will serve to provide an idea of the richness of the complete score. The series of pieces for piano solo were written for the 1951 Radio broadcast of exerpts of the work. The suite for two pianos was written in 1948 as a gift for her friends, the American Two Piano team Gold and Fitzdale.

Peformance arrangements of "Il Etait Un Petit Navire" currently available from Musik Fabrik

Il Etait Un Petit Navire Suite for Two Pianos/Suite for Two Pianos - set of two playing scores 24€95

1. Ouverture 2. Valse "Monsieur, J'ai Décidé..." 3. "Et Patatat! Et Patatat!" 4. Nocturne 5. "Cartes Postales"

Trois Pièces, extrait d'Il Etait Un Petit Navire for Piano/for Piano - 14€95

1. Cantilène 2. Fugue du Parapluie 3. Ballet