RC 122 Les poilus de l’Argonne (“Ce sont les poilus de l’Argonne”)

  • Rameau, Alfred ()
  • baritone and piano
  • 1915-06-11 00:00:00.0
  • duration 4:00

The horrors of the First World War occupied Diepenbrock’s mind so much that for a long time he was hardly able to do any musical-creative work. Only Avondschemer (Evening Twilight, RC 121) for piano flowed from his pen in April 1915. The poem Les poilus de l’Argonne (The Soldiers of the Argonne), which was published in the newspaper De Telegraaf on 31 May 1915, gave him an impetus to compose. The author was Alfred Rameau, a French infantryman quartered in the Argonne region, the southern part of the French Ardennes through which the frontline, which would hardly move for four years, ran. He was one of the poilus, the soldiers who shared the harsh life in the trenches. His poem is a battle song of military men, taking pride in themselves:

Here are the poilus of the Argonne –
with a pipe in the mouth and bright eyes they return from the battlefield, starving, clothed in shabby rags, with a smile on their unshaven mugs;
their old hearts are intoxicated with victory and only their guns soften their expression.

Here are the poilus of the Argonne –
with wakeful eyes they face the danger, surrounded by machine-gun fire. “We are going to fix the difficult job, we are keen to do it!”

Here are the poilus of the Argonne –
while the canons are roaring, they make mincemeat out of the Teutonic troops; they run ahead of the fire to chase the German wolf and her cubs from their burrows.

Here are the soldiers of the Argonne, men who will die for you!

Diepenbrock set the poem to a bold melody, each time adapted to the turns in the text so it has become a through-composed song. The opening measures of the piano imitate the trumpet calls in the field. The accompanying figure continues in the right hand, while the bass line in places develops into an independent counterpoint to the vocal melody. One of the first people to hear the song at Diepenbrock’s home was contralto Cato Loman, who recorded him saying: The idea expressed in the last verse: French fighters, liberators of us all, had struck him. (BD VIII:479)

Widespread circulation

Soon after completing the song Diepenbrock decided to have it printed at his own cost, so it could be widely circulated. He added the following dedication to the edition: “à Gérard Hekking, soldat de l’armée française”. The French cellist, principal of the Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1904, had been enlisted in August 1914. The Diepenbrocks were informed about how he was getting on by Hekking’s wife Julie, who was residing in Paris. They also received news through Elisabeth’s sister, Cécile Frenkel-de Jong van Beek en Donk (1866-1944). In January 1915 she wrote about the terrible life in the trenches in the forest of Argonne, where Hekking was also quartered and where he had recently spent three nights in a run on guard in a foxhole sitting almost entirely still with his feet in the mud and with the Germans nearby – a hellish torture. (BD VIII:427)

We can read in Diepenbrock’s correspondence that, as soon as his song had been printed, he tried to get in touch with suitable singers; he also immediately sent 20 copies to addresses in France. On 25 July he ran through the piece with Gerard Zalsman, who said he was afraid that it could not be performed in the Netherlands without causing with the police. That was a real risk, as the Dutch government had officially prohibited every written or verbal expression that could threaten the neutrality of the nation.

At the end of July Diepenbrock received a letter of thanks from Alfred Rameau, whom he had sent several presentation copies. The poet was full of praise about the composition: Je suis très content de la musique qui est très simple et bien dans la note. (I am very pleased with the music, which is very simple and has the right tone.) The song had already been included in the regiment’s repertory and was to be sung by a professional singer with a fantastic voice. Rameau thanked Diepenbrock for his best wishes, adding: “le courage ne manque pas, non plus que la foi dans le succès final et la victoire inévitable” (there is no lack of courage, or faith in the ultimate success and the inevitable victory). (BD VIII:495-496)

Performance by a French military band and in the Trocadéro

A few weeks later Rameau reported that the conductor of the military band had orchestrated Diepenbrock’s song and that it had been performed with great success at a concert given during one of the troops’ breaks. The poet-soldier expected that no doubt their coproduction would be performed in Paris not long afterwards. (BD VIII: 503) Diepenbrock kept in touch with Rameau, who was badly injured in November 1915. After his recovery, he was stationed further away from the front, where he was able to organise concerts. He got 20 men together to sing Les poilus de l’Argonne. (BD IX:145)

In order to perform the piece in the Netherlands, Diepenbrock presented the work to the cabaret singer Jean-Louis Pisuisse (1880-1927) and the famous opera singer Carl Butter (1881-1937). Pisuisse and his regular pianist Jan Hemsing premiered Les poilus de l’Argonne at a cabaret programme in the Recital Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 11 January 1916 and performed it on their tour of the Netherlands. Diepenbrock thought the sung was sung excellently. (BD IX:39)

A month later 500 copies of the song were already circulating, many of which in France and a second edition of 200 copies was needed. Cécile and Michel Frenkel reported in March from Paris about the good reception of Diepenbrock’s song at a soiree given by the baritone Jan Reder in the Trocadéro. (BD IX:79)

In January 1917, at the advice of the pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), who worked for the ministry of Education and Fine Arts during the First World War, Diepenbrock contacted the publisher Rouart, Lerolle & Cie about a French edition of the work. In April 1917 the Pathé Brothers Company requested permission to make a mechanical recording of Les poilus and Diepenbrock’s other war songs Belges, debout! (Belgians, Arise!, RC 131) and Le vin de la Revanche (The Wine of Retaliation, RC 135).

Ton Braas