Other works by Germaine Tailleferre:

Sous le Remparts d'Athènes, musique de scène pour la pièce de Paul Claudel

Concerto for Two Guitars and Orchestra

Three Études for Piano and Orchestra

Sonate Champêtre for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano

Germaine Tailleferre's works for Harp

Recent Musik Fabrik publications:

    Boisseau : Étrange Échange for Alto Saxophone and Strings/pour Saxophone Alto et Cordes

    Boisseau : Légende for F Horn and Piano/pour Cor et Piano

    Demersseman : Ave Maria for Voice, Alto Saxphone (Clarinet) and Piano (or Saxophone or Clarinet Quartet)/pour Voix Moyenne, Saxophone Alto et Piano (ou quatuor de saxophones ou clarinettes)

    Frahm : Fiestas de Sante Fe for Organ/pour Orgue

    Frahm : Pater Noster for High Baritone and String quartet/pour Baritone Martin et Quatuor à cordes

Presentation Text

“Il était un Petit Navire”, a disarmed opera

“Il était un Petit Navire” is an opera in three acts with music by Germaine Tailleferre with a libretto by Henri Jeanson. At with a running time of two and a half hours and almost five thousand measures of music, the work is by far the longest in Tailleferre’s catalogue.

The composition of this work began in 1932 and lasted almost twenty years. The stage and film decorator André Boll was the person who introduced the composer to the screenwriter and journalist Henri Jeanson, and the two immediately became friends. Germaine Tailleferre was married at the time to Jean Lageat who was very involved in the political activities of the Radical Socialist party, serving as the secretary to Leon Blum during the Front Populaire. Jeanson was a journalist for many of the leftist newspapers in France, writing for “la Bataille”, the newspaper of the C.G.T. Union and also for the satirical newspaper the “Canard Enchaîné”. Jeanson became close to this couple who shared many of his political and artistic ideals.

Tailleferre and Jeanson decided to collaborate together on a lyric work which would have the City of Marseilles as its setting. The choice of the “Cité phocéenneé” was perhaps prompted by the critical and popular success of “Marius” in 1931, a film by Korda and Marcel Pagnol and the fact that Jeanson was working with Korda on the scenario of another film at the time he met Tailleferre. .

The aim of this project was to “take apart” the conventions of lyric theater, as well as the customs and rituals of the opera-going public. The first version was a one-act “Lyric Satire” entitled Le Marin du Bolivar (The Sailor on the Ship Bolivar) whose composition took several years. Jeanson, who was very much in demand for his film screenplay and dialogue writing, sent his libretto page by page to Tailleferre, who had to write her music “piece by piece”. The work was probably finished by 1935, because a production at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was announced in “Le Cri de Paris”. This production did not take place, and finally the work was premièred in January 1942 at the Studio of Radio Marseille (in the Libre Zone), just before Tailleferre and her daughter fled France for the United States.

The première was a great success and in 1946, the work was accepted by the repertoire selection committee of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, whose president, Henri Malherbe, was director of the Opéra-Comique. Malherbe found the work to be too short and asked Tailleferre and Jeanson to expand it to its final length of three acts. According to the manuscript of the piano/vocal score in Paris Opera Library, the expanded version was finished in December 1948, just six months after the première of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias. The première of the revised work was finally set for March 9, 1951, with staging by Réné Musy, musical direction by Pierre Dervaux, sets by Roger Durand and costumes by Lucien Boucher. The cast included many popular French Opera singers of the time: Denise Duval (Thérèse/Tirésias of Les Mamelles), Jean Giraudeau, (The Husband in Les Mamelles), Emile Rousseau (the Gendarme in Les Mamelles), René Hérent, and Paul Payen. The work’s title was changed just before its first performance to avoid confusion with Darius Milhaud’s opera Bolivar which premièred in 1950.

The premise of Il était un Petit Navire centers around the classic trio of a French vaudeville comedy (the husband, the wife and the lover) but also explores some offbeat variations. Valentine has two lovers: Victor, the rich pharmacist from Marseille, and Valentin, a sailor who is also her fiancé. Victor is married to Constance who is the mistress of Sosthène. Angélique, the daughter of Victor and Constance, is secretly seeing Florimond against the wishes of her parents who want her to remain “a good girl”. None of the characters believe that the others are faithful, but everyone pretends so that things will continue as usual.

This comfortable situation is disrupted by Ferréol, the outsider from Lyon (who bears a resemblance to Monsieur Brun in Pagnol’s films), who is upset by snubs from Victor and Constance and who takes his revenge by forcing everyone to admit the real nature of their relationships. But after ending these somewhat adulterous relationships, everyone is more angry at Ferréol, the person who created the scandal, than at those who were unfaithful. They all ask him to make settlements for his actions, and if Ferréol does succumb to Valentine’s feminine charms, when Constance arrives and tries to use the same tactic, Ferréol is less convinced and more than a bit concerned with all of this feminine attention.

After Ferréol finds himself with a new “wife” (Valentine) and a new “mistress” (Constance), Victor arrives to collect his “property” and to ask for payment for the damage done to his honor. The imaginary affront is settled by a fictional duel, with transparent “swords from Marseilles” (a reference to the local folklore that people from Marseilles tell tall tales). The two wounded adversaries then make their peace while Victor explains the root of their dispute: “civilized” people do not force other people to see the truth, especially when the others already know what they’re pretending to ignore (which may refer to the “family secret” -- currently the rage of television talk shows and reality shows). The “Love Duet”, sung by Valentine and Valentin right under Victor's nose, brings the two lovers to their initial arrangement: Valentin as the absent lover and Valentine as the fiancée who waits faithfully (at least, in appearence), an allusion to the departure of Marius in Pagnol’s trilogy. However, Ferréol makes trouble again and soon everyone is angry once again. In the middle of this general outburst, the Captain of the Brigandar orders that the departure bell be rung...and this signal prompts the Cigarette Girls from Carmen to make their entrance, obviously victims of a misunderstanding as to what opera is currently playing.

Everyone realizes that this is only an opera and that everything that has happened before is only pretext and not “reality”. Finally, Valentine has the stage manager make the traditional “trois coups“ or “three beats” which begin every French theater performance and invites the audience to begin their performance and reclaim their roles at the coat check. After all, isn’t this story of adultery, artifice, and illusion the same as the story that the opera-going audience “acts out” in their daily real lives? Isn’t the forced ritual and pretense of the audience as false and unreal as that which they are watching on stage? And don’t these same people accept daily the same lies, forced etiquette and rituals? It seems that a mirror has been turned back to the audience. At least this seems partially to be the case, because Jeanson invites the audience to acknowledge their active, though unconscious, participation in the performance that they are watching, creating a connection between the hall and the stage, in contrast to the playwrite Pirandello, who keeps his audience in the position of witness or voyeur. Jeanson’s intention is more subversive, as it forces the audience to consider their own position in this game of truth-telling.

Jeanson begins playing with this intention from the first measures of the work. Taking advantage of a tradition that begins with Greek tragedies, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and continues with Les Mamelles de Tirésias or Les Tréteaux de Maître Pierre of de Falla, (but which is also a convention of cinema in such films as Hellzapoppin (1941) or in the films of Sacha Guitry, as he looks straight into the camera to speak with the audience) the trio sung by Valentine, Coraline, and Sylvia is sung directly to the audience. They tell the the audience that operas are generally difficult to understand because “singers have the reputation of not being very articulate”. Coraline and Sylvie have the function of the “Greek chorus”, commenting not only on the plot but also on the objective production itself; for instance, the third act begins with them commenting enthusiastically on the wonderful sets. They are at once part of the story and also part of the audience. When Ferréol asks Victor to prove that he really caused so much trouble, Victor points to the witnesses in the audience, who not only saw what he did but even applauded! And when the choir sings the same heroic chorus for the third time to end the duel, they ask themselves why and how do the words “Stop now!” (“Halté là!”) also go with this same music. Is this an accident or was it premeditated? “That is the question”, obviously.

As an Opéra-comique, Il était un Petit Navire also has the usual amount of spoken dialogue. These spoken passages are always used when a character is expressing something that is true or real. In the first act, Valentine explains to Coraline and Sylvia that she will be dishonored because of Valentin’s early return, because her bed is not empty. Victor explains to his friend Frédéric that his marriage is not happy. In the second act, Ferréol exposes everyone’s infidelities by speaking. Victor’s tirade in the third act, in which he gives the real reasons of his anger (people are talking), is spoken, interrupting a sung romance in which he describes the calm serenity of the city of Marseilles. Finally, when the characters realize that they are in an opera, they speak. According to Jeanson, one can sing to love, to fight, to be angry or to joke, but one can only express the truth by speaking. “Au fil de l’eau point de serment, ce n’est que sur terre qu’on ment” (“On the water, there are no oaths, It’s only on land that one lies”) sung in 1934 by Lys Gauty in “Le chaland qui passe”, once again, a story about a boat...

Jeanson’s libretto follows certain conventions of French classical theater in establishing a unity of time, place and action (which is presented in the initial trio) as well through double arias for each character and Victor’s third act Tirade. But there are also more “modern” influences, taken from the world of radio and advertising. When the curtain rises on Valentine’s bedroom in the first act, Coraline and Sylvia enthusiastically describe how much they like the interior decoration (“It’s Louis Quinze of today and Henri Trois of tomorrow!”), which is a reference to the ads for the Meubles Lévitan made in the 1930s by Charles Trénet and Pierre Dac for Radio Cité and advertising firm Publicis) before commenting on the next scene in the style of two radio hostesses. In the second act, Ferréol extols the virtues of “de bon, de bon beau, de bon beaujolais”( Du Bo Du Bon Dubonnet, an advertising campaign for a French wine). Valentine’s valse lente in the third act finishes with Il y a un commencement à tout, mon loup ! (a possible variation of other French slang expressions of the time, such as“ à l’aise Blaise”, “relax Max” or “je veux mon neveu”!) Coraline and Sylvia’s “running commentary” in the third act can be seen to prefigure the two old gentlemen in The Muppet Show who discuss the show as it is played out under their balcony seats.

The music uses many conventions of classical style, with two fugues, recitatives and double-arias in the manner of baroque and classical period operas. Of special interest is the scene in which Valentine calculates the total sum of Ferréol’s wrongs against her, similiar to Leporello’s famous “catalogue aria” of Don Giovanni’s romantic conquests, but here giving samples of all possible types of musical cadences; and the heroic Verdian Chorus which is repeated three times in the course of the work. But popular music is not ignored: there is the “player piano” music of the second act, the lively “Java”, the operetta-style “Valse Lente” in the third act for Valentine, and the child-like nursery songs that Coraline and Sylvia sing in the third act to give moral commentary (the title of the work is borrowed from a French nursery song). Finally, there are passages in a more “modernist” style: the atonal passages in the second act when the player piano plays music paid for with a counterfeit coin; the Stravinskian texture of the third act duel and the irruption of Ferréol; and general tumult just before entrance of the cigarette girls near the end of the work. Tailleferre, with a very contemporary spirit of eclecticism, does not exclude any stylistic possibilities, using whichever musical form seems to express most aptly the atmosphere of Jeanson’s libretto. Jeanson wanted this work to have “an atmosphere of the circus and of music-hall.” He recognized the “youth and richness” of Tailleferre’s score and was extremely pleased with the unapologetic modernity of his collaborator.

But even before the work’s first performance, “Le Petit Navire” took to the seas under a rather stormy sky: Constantin Brive writing in the French Newspaper “Combat” in an article published a day before the premiere, suggested that it might be something like “the première of Ernani: The serious people who come to buy tickets for Tosca or for Manon have not bothered to hide their indignation from the woman at the ticket window." In “Le Figaro”, a brief announcement expresses the preconceived idea that “one can certainly guess that the traditional operatic repertoire will not find a new thurifer (????) in the guise of Henri Jeanson”. This would seem to suggest that a scandale had been predicted even before the first note of music had been performed.

As predicted, there was quite a scene at the work‘s première. In “Le Figaro”, Clarendon (Bernard Gavoty) describes “Screams, loud sirens, laughter, polite bravos, booing and general disorder”. Henri Barraud in “Musical America” speaks of “the most exciting first performance that Paris has seen in many, many years. The gallery let loose with a storm of invective against the authors and actors, shouting disapproval and demanding its money back. The people in the orchestra and the first balconies, fortified by a large group of invited guests, tried to offset the hostile outcries with their applause.” . Marcel Schneider in “Combat” wondered whether the audience’s violent reaction was “sincere or faked”, an idea shared by Jeanson himself in article written between the first and second (and final) performances where Jeanson writes that the hecklers, hearing the first “false” version of the Java in the Second Act booed and screamed insults, thinking that this was the “correct” version without understanding the joke. Jeanson uses the French concept of prétérition in writing. "One could imagine (and clearly quite falsely, that goes without saying) that they (the hostile members of the audience) are part of a cabal. However, everyone knows that these types of events are always motivated by the love that they have for music.".

That the audience, from the orchestra to the balcony, felt attacked by a work that not only parodied opera but also the opera-going public, is not astonishing. Does the mirror that Valentine shows to the audience at the end of the work show an image which is so trueful that it shocks?

Concerning the work itself, serious musical critics seemed perplexed: for example Clarendon, of “Le Figaro” recognized Jeanson’s talent in an unexpected, if backhanded manner, as the two men did not share the same political views, by explaining that Clarendon didn’t understand the work, asks the correct question: “Where is the key to this enigma? It is inconceivable that such a writer as Jeanson, that a musician with the talent of Tailleferre should have made such a mistake without any sensible explanation.”

When we began our research into this work and began examining the available source material, we were also confronted with this puzzling mystery. Unfortunately, the orchestral manuscript, the three piano/vocal reductions (except for one copy of the piano/vocal version of the first act) and the typed copy of the libretto which are cited in the catalogue of primary source materials compiled by Robert Orledge in 1992, have all mysteriously disappeared from the Tailleferre papers, perhaps lost forever. The only remaining traces of this work are those in the collection of the Paris Opera Library.

There is an manuscript copy of the orchestral score in the reserve collection of the Paris Opera Library. Luckily, Bernard Lefort (who toured with Tailleferre in the 1950s in a piano/vocal duo) was named Director of the Paris Opera in 1980. He arranged to purchase four manuscripts of vocal works by Tailleferre for the Opera Library. Tailleferre found that the original orchestral score, used by Pierre Dervaux at the work’s première (and remaining in her papers after her death) was in such a bad condition that it couldn’t enter into the collection of such a prestigious library. She decided to make a new, fair copy of her score. Elivre de Rudder, her granddaughter (and now her unique heir) helped her grandmother with the stage directions and other indications in French, but Tailleferre, who was then 89 years old, suffered from arthritis of the hands. In addition, the psychological after effects of the failure of the 1951 production remained quite strong. According to her grand-daughter and other sources, Tailleferre spoke of this failure until the end of her life as “my greatest shame” and never understood why this work, which she considered to be among her best works, provoked such an outburst of anger. To re-examine this score in detail probably forced her to remember things which were difficult to accept. Nevertheless, having promised an autograph manuscript, Tailleferre was determined to honor her promise.

The examination of this document reveals how painful it must be been for the composer to copy the three acts of her score by hand. The handwriting begins by being extremely clear, but is progressively less and less legible. There are incomplete passages in the spoken text and the music. There are musical passages in which Tailleferre’s typically clear musical style becomes difficult to follow (for example, the end of the second act containing a number of passages which clearly do not logically follow each other). In addition, passages which were “borrowed” from the ballets La Nouvelle Cythère, Paris-Magie and Parisiana did not exactly correspond to the shared movements, nor to the typically clear and logical “Tailleferrien” style.

Once the musical text had been copied by computer, we extracted the libretto. The plot was simply incomprehensible. Even after taking into account the fact that there was missing spoken and sung text, it was impossible to follow the story after the beginning of the second act. It was impossible that Henri Jeanson, a journalist and man of letters, would have left his libretto in this state. It became clear that a large part of the work was missing.

The answer was found thanks to Pierre Vidal, director of the Paris Opera Library and Museum who Elvire de Rudder would like to personally thank for his active participation in the reconstruction of this work. Mr. Vidal found three copies of the piano/vocal score of the work in the uncatalogued collection of the Opéra-comique. None of these copies were complete and they did not match exactly, but with the three copies (plus a fourth copy in reserve section of the main library collection), it was possible to reconstruct the complete work, including the spoken dialogue. In addition, there were staging notes which allowed us to understand what the audience saw the night of the première....and also what the audience did not see, which is to say a large part of the work.

A large percentage of Il était un Petit Navire was cut without any plausible explanation. The orchestral score copied in 1980 has a total of 2502 measures of music, divided by acts into 761, 718 and 1023 measures. The piano/vocal score has a total of 4716 measures, divided by acts into 1089, 1208, and 2419 measures respectively. This would suggest that at least 45% of the initial work was cut.

In the piano/vocal scores, there are also cuts which Tailleferre put back into her orchestral score of 1980. These include the first act aria of Madame Isabelle (Oranges des Baléares...); Valentine’s Act 1 aria (Pareil au pélican lassé d’un long voyage...); the second act trio with Victor, Constance et Angélique (Ah! qu’il fait bon d’être garçon...); and the second act finale, all of which contain passages crossed out with pencil, pages folded in the score, or glued together. There are also modifications to the text which do not appear to be the work of Tailleferre or Jeanson: for example, Victor’s response to Valentin’s suggestion of choice of weapons before the third act duel is changed from “fichez-moi l’épée et n’en parlons plus !” to “donne-le-moi” which completely changes not only the sense of the phrase but also the spirit of a work where wordplay and puns are central to the author’s intent.

It is probable that the audience at the première saw less than 50% of the work as it had initially been conceived by Tailleferre and Jeanson. It is also probable that a large part of what remained of the opera was neither the work of Tailleferre nor of Jeanson, but probably that of a third person who was either incompetent, hostile to the authors, or both. In addition, according to the press accounts of the première, the order of certain numbers was changed: for example, the third act “Love Duet” which Valentine and Valentin sing under Victor’s nose after the third act duel, was moved to the second act ball scene, which completely changes the context. Tailleferre’s 1980 copy retains the original order of the numbers in the piano/vocal scores in the Opéra-Comique collection. It is probable that these changes were not made by the composer nor by the librettist.

The first act which was the most successful at the night of the première, remains largely as Tailleferre and Jeanson conceived it. The problems begin with the second act. The scene was cut in which the player piano plays “counterfeit music” for the “counterfeit coin”, important for the plot (the first indications of the infidelities of the principal characters) but also for its atonal musical style. More than half of the second act finale was cut, making the various disputes between characters incomprehensible. In the third act, most of the running commentary of Coraline and Sylvia was cut, as well as Ferréol’s two airs and the fugue (On parle, on parle, on parle...) Most of the confrontation scene between Constance and Ferréol was also cut, making both of these characters much less interesting. In the duel scene, the two large choral numbers were cut, and the polytonal chords in the orchestration of the duel was left out, leaving only the two voices and the bass part, which makes any sense of violence next to impossible. The final of the third act (Mais, alors, nous sommes au théâtre....) was almost entirely cut, effectively taking out any possibility of bringing the work to its logical conclusion.

It is easy to understand why the audience did not understand the plot in the 1951 production. It is also interesting that none of the critics speak of the libretto other than in the first degree: to them, this is a rather silly story of a pretty girl who has two lovers, one of whom is married to another unfaithful woman and their daughter also has a boyfriend. The story within the story (or the mirror that Jeanson turns back on the audience) seems to have been entirely taken out of this performance. Tailleferre’s music is cut without any respect to the composer’s intentions, without logic, and without any care to keep intact the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements. The music is so mangled that the aged Germaine Tailleferre could not even get the pieces back together in her 1980 copy.

The work had been expanded and rewritten by the authors, as music which was in “Le Marin de Bolivar” was cut or modified, according to manuscript sources. Looking at the state of Il était le Petit Navire in 1948, the plot is complex because of the number of characters, but is written with a dramatic and logical style, inspired by classical forms. There is also a clear musical narrative seeking to underline the sprit of the libretto in a clear manner with harmonic and melodic forms which are logical and varied. But because of its mutilation before the premiere, one must to come to the conclusion that this work has never actually been performed as its authors intended.

One must ask why these cuts and modifications were made? Clarendon in “Le Figaro” and Constantin Brive in “Combat” both explain that after the work had been expanded as requested Henri Malherbe (the director of the Opéra-Comique), Georges Hirsch (administrateur-général of the Réunion des Théâtres-Lyriques Nationaux, the organization controlling both the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique) demanded that the work be cut. Tailleferre said in her “Mémoires à l’emporte-pièce” that Hirsch hated Henri Jeanson, and that he personally cancelled four of the projected six performances in spite of (or perhaps, because of) the enthusiastic response of the younger generation in the audience. How can a 45-minute work which is expanded to approximately two and a half hours and then cut back to one hour and fifteen minutes by people other than the authors have any dramatic and stylistic sense? Especially given the strong possibility that these sweeping changes were made by people other than the authors, it is difficult to imagine how such a radical amputation could have had positive results.

We will probably never know whether these cuts were made to deliberately sabotage this work because of jealousy and professional anger, or because of fear of shocking the traditionalist audience of the Opéra-Comique of the 1950s, or simply because the production team did not completely understand Jeanson’s intentions. But the work Il était un Petit Navire has never been presented in the way that Jeanson and Tailleferre conceived it. It would be interesting to be able to discover this work in its entirety. This will soon be possible! Watch this space!

© 2008 by Elivre de RUDDER (musicologist and Tailleferre heir), Paul WEHAGE (composer) & Jean-Thierry BOISSEAU (composer), thanks to Carson Cooman and Mary Dibbern for help with the English version.

Works from Il était un Petit Navire published by Musik Fabrik

Il Etait Un Petit Navire Opéra in three acts (libretto by Henri Jeanson): reduction for voices and piano/opéra en trois actes (livret d'Henri Jeanson) réduction pour voix et piano 89€95

Deux Choeurs de l'opéra Il Etait Un Petit Navire for SATB chorus and piano/pour choeur SATB et piano set of 6 chorus parts/jeux de 6 parties chorales - 9€95

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