Classical Album Review: Skylark’s “Clear Voices in the Dark” — Music from a Time of Turmoil

By Susan Miron

Part of the pleasure of reviewing Skylark’s performances is to spread the word: this vocal ensemble is nothing short of amazing.

Skylark: Clear Voices in the Dark — Poulenc’s “Figure Humaine” and Songs of the American Civil War (Sono Luminus)

This listener has consistently enjoyed Skylark’s many recordings as well as all of their (its) extraordinary concerts. In truth, part of the pleasure of reviewing the group was to spread the word: this vocal ensemble is nothing short of amazing. Their music director, Matthew Guard, decided that it was time for Skylark to make the first American recording of Francis Poulenc’s  “Figure Humaine,” known as a phenomenally demanding choral work. On the ensemble’s new recording, Clear Voices in the Dark, songs from the American Civil War are interspersed between the eight movements of Poulenc’s cantata. The cumulative effect is as painfully gripping as it is intoxicatingly touching.

“I believe that great art is often the product of great difficulty and tribulation,” Guard writes in the CD’s superb notes. “I also think art borne out of a time of social turmoil can be even more profound, and can shed life today on what it was like to live and endure through tragedies of the past.” ‘Figure Humaine’ is one of the ultimate artistic achievements from a time of turmoil.”

Composed in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, its text by surrealist poet Paul Éluard, “Figure Humaine” is filled with dazzling choral textures that exude an immense emotional range. Its slab-like chords and constantly morphing harmonic language makes the piece distinctive, even when considering Poulenc’s many alluring songs. When Éluard heard his poems set to this music, he remarked, “Francis, I never heard myself. I need you to understand me.” The composer explained that he made the piece for an unaccompanied choir because he “wanted this act of faith to be performed without instrumental aid, by sole means of the human voice.”

“Figure Humaine”‘s text describes the misery of oppression and the terror of death as it looks towards the hope of liberation. The piece is scored for two six-part choirs with frequent divisi. Its movements (“Bientôt, Le Rôle des Femmes, Aussi bas que le silence, Patience, Premiere Marche la voix d’un autre, Un Loup, Un feu sans tache, Liberté”) ricochet between depicting the traumatic realities of war and destruction and providing glimmers of hope. In the piece’s last movement, Liberté, the choir is asked to make a horrific and embattled cry that stretches the human voice to its limit. Throughout, the music is extremely complex, serving up a succession of virtuoso vocal parts of breathtaking adventurousness. In 1943, Poulenc described the composition as containing “a very pure style with no bits of clever writing, variety coming just from the musical expression. It’s very difficult.” Difficult but transcendent — this is one of the most profound choral works of the 20th century.

The subject matter is patriotic, but Poulenc also saw “Figure Humaine” as the fulfillment of a sacred duty. His initial plan was for the work to be clandestinely rehearsed to be premiered on the day Paris was liberated. However, the Nazi retreat came quicker (in August, 1944) than the composer had expected. After the score was complete, the composer agreed — after the BBC expressed great interest in the unpublished score — to a first performance by the BBC Singers in London (in an English translation). Naturally, Poulenc still wanted to make a symbolic gesture to mark when the Nazis were driven out of Paris. He wrote in a letter to the singer Pierre Bernac: “The day the Americans arrived, I triumphantly placed my cantata on the studio desk, beneath my flag, at the window.”

After deciding that Skylark would record Poulenc’s challenging piece, which is only 20 minutes long, Guard came up with the inspired idea of paying homage to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as well as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. “Civil War Soundscapes. 1861-1865” includes the well-known songs “When This Cruel War is Over,” “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye,” as well as the hymns “Abide with Me” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But there are also surprises, lesser or just discovered tunes such as “Workin’ for the Dawn of Peace,” “Soldier’s Memorial Day,” and the doleful “Break it Gently to My Mother.” The excellent soloists include Carrie Cheron, Clare McNamara, Helen Karloski, and Nathan Hodgson. Given that the world is currently enduring two heart-wrenching wars, I found these tracks on the CD as moving — perhaps even more moving — than the remarkably performed Poulenc. Bravo tutti.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for the Arts Fuse and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.


  1. Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on May 21, 2024 at 10:22 am

    Along with its anti-war message, the album’s anti-fascist message also resonates, given the attraction of authoritarianism around the world, including in America.

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