Monday, 30 May 2016

Lili Boulanger “Pie Jesu”

General text

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. (×2)
Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them rest.
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem sempiternam.   
Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them everlasting rest.

Text in Boulanger’s setting.

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem
. (×2)

Fig 1
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem
Pie Jesu Domine,

Fig 2
Instrumental section 1, eight bars

Pie Jesu
Dona eis requiem

Fig 3 Un peu anime.
Pie Jesu
Dona eis
sempiternam requiem.  

Fig. 4 

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.

sempiternam requiem.  


This is Lili Boulanger’s last work, written as she was dying at the early age of 25 from Crohn’s disease. In my view the use of sempiternam requiem in the second half may be taken as the focus point, eternal rest, both as a personal and universal entreaty.

Garbriel Fauré’s setting is by far the best known of Pie Jesu settings, this taken in conjunction with the fact that Lili Boulanger was a pupil of the composer may easily colour one’s judgement into hearing relationships which in fact do not exist. There are superficial connections but these are so slight that close examination makes the kinship all but invalid. The one area of similarity that holds is in the setting of the words, not note for note similarity of rhythm but in their general contour, and even in this respect the rising phrase in fig. 1 from Pie Jesu Domine (G A flat B flat C) to Dona eis requiem (A B flat C D flat) makes clear the urgency of the appeal, this is not emphasised in the Fauré.

The term urgency may suggest that there is more tension in this music than there is, in reality the music is designed to articulate stillness. Take the opening phrase of 12 beats, it forms a rise and fall in thirds by chromatic movement, producing a classic ‘bell’ shape. Place this in context with the string F, G flat, F rise and fall we have tension and resolution with the G flat at the apex. I hear the harmony as outlining G minor to B flat (second inversion) to E flat9 and back in a hypnotic set of repetitions, not a million miles from the Satie-like motion of the Gymnopedies. Readers who are intrigued by this use of static figures may wish to follow up a similar outline which can be heard in the opening of the “Old Buddhist Prayer” where the harmony is a distinctive as the Pie Jesu but less chromatic.

The rise and fall figure saturates the whole score and once one’s hearing is directed towards the feature is becomes the main focus of the instrumental writing. This design is not slavishly followed, sometimes the movement is in the form of an ostinato (at figure 1) which evolves to the only genuine repeat of a bar as a chord structure, seen over bars 15 and 16 to “Pie Jesu” at f dynamic one of only two such markings, the remainder of the music being predominantly in the p – ppp level. The second dynamic highpoint is in the transition to the pedal note section which marks a significant section change in the music.

Where there is progression in the music it is gradual and often chromatic, e.g. the opening F, G flat, F figure (marked fig. x in the manuscript) gradually evolves first in groups of three pitches then two to create a sense of momentum up to the first high point (on D) which marks the change of texture with the pedal A flat. The music example given shows how the strings create momentum through gradual stepwise rises and then dissipate the tension at the close with the ostinato rise and fall outline.

When I first examined the score I considered the rehearsal markers as well placed to show the changes in the section, sectioned which are beautifully dovetailed to make the music as seamless as possible. Taking a crotchet count of the sections seemed to give a symmetrical outline

Opening to 1      48 beats

1-2                          60

2-3                          78

3-4                          60

4 to close             48 + final sustained chord of 4 beats

However, close inspection of the changes showed a different pattern, again starting with 48 beats

48 / 60 / 42 // pedal A flat 36 / pedal D 36 / transition 24.  4/4 section 24 + 24 + final bar.

Counting in groups of 6 this gives:

8 / 10 / 7 / 6 + 6 / 4 / 4 + 4 / closing sustained bar, which gives 25 groups of six for the first half and 24+ for the second, so the pedal points arrive at the halfway point of the work, marking the repeat of “Pie Jesu”.

The pedal points dominate the final part of the music, moving from the D pedal (including the transition) through C to G where the ostinato D, E, F, E provides an ambiguous ending.

The final part to consider in this overview of the work is the vocalist’s melody, which is not truly melodic in any sense. I am certain that many listeners who appreciate the sweet tones of several other works titled “Pie Jesu” will find the melody puzzling and the first rise on Dona eis from G through D to G flat where is rings out against the adjacent F natural almost alarming.  In truth the vocalist’s part is very bare, sometimes reflecting on the melodic development of the strings, but more often arising from the harmony created by the oscillations in the accompaniment. The very closing bars on A-men are the most clearly melodic with the D, E, F, E, D shape partly decorated (and clearly heard in the ostinato in the bass).

As with all composers who die young we wonder about the directions their music may have taken. The both the linear and chord formations in this work indicate an interest akin to the non-progressive harmonies that were to influence a number of later French composers, and it clearly shows characteristics that were to be of significance in the second half of the 20th century.