5&1, Part 16: Lazy French Summers

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I obviously don’t know how it is where you are reading this, but here in southern England, having enjoyed a small run of deliciously warm and sunny spring days, we are again marooned in full grey-cloud immersion. Not a shirt-sleeve in sight anywhere. No wonder April (and by extension, May) was Eliot’s cruellest month. A little escapism every now and then is helpful, especially for those of us whose equilibrium gets seasonally affected.

I vividly remember a camping trip somewhere in southern France with my parents and brother (in perhaps ’78 or ’79). Such an adventure. But one lasting impression was the summer heat: the closeness of it, the inescapability of it, and weirdly, the sound of it. I just loved it. And still do. Working out in such heat is naturally a different matter but for this pasty Englishman, it’s always associated with holidays. I suppose that was the source of my lifelong Francophilia, studying the language right up to the end of high school and relishing French culture of all kinds. I love getting back whenever I can. And for the times that’s not possible, there’s always the music…

1. Chants d’Auvergne: No 2. Bailero

Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957, French)
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), Jeffrey Tate (conductor), English Chamber Orchestra

Just around the time that Vaughan-Williams and friends were scouring the English countryside to capture local folksongs, Canteloube was doing the same around his home in the Auvergne, southern France. It is a region with extraordinary history that stretches back to Roman times. (If you read Asterix books—and if you haven’t, you should—this is where the great Gallic rebel Vercingetorix originates!). Canteloube arranged many of the songs into this gorgeous anthology, of which the 2nd, Bailero, is the best known. It is a shepherd’s song in the local dialect of Occitan.

Sit back and close your eyes. You will feel, smell, and hear the heat.

2. Deux Novellettes: No 1 in C – Modéré sans lenteur (FP 47)

Francois Poulenc (1899-1963, French)
Pascal Rogé (piano)

Poulenc could do big and brash, full of cubist angles and dissonance (as we heard last December). But he could also be tender and wistful, as with this little piece (the French word does not actually mean novelty, despite appearances; it’s more a short piece, a little thing). I fell in love with it when my piano teacher suggested it—and bizarrely, played it during a scene change for a school play.

To my mind, this evokes not the heat so much as the light and joy of summer. Sitting on a park bench or stretched out on the grass in the garden, perhaps, with the sound of children happily playing somewhere (not too near, ideally!) and the general busyness of butterflies and bees.

3. La Mer (1946)

Charles Trenet (1913-2001, French)

We’ve had languor and wistfulness so far; it’s time for some exuberance and you won’t find anything more quintessentially French than Charles Trenet’s timeless La Mer (‘The Sea’). You’d never know it was written immediately after World War II—but it was a hit because it was evidently just what France needed after the horrors and humiliations of occupation. This is a song about the anticipation of heading off to the beach, of larking about in the sunshine, diving and splashing in the water (preferably Mediterranean rather than Atlantic or English Channel). As he sings in last verse, “And with a love song the sea has rocked my heart for life.”

But to be honest, it’s not really the lyrics that get the pulse racing; it’s the arrangement and Trenet’s own performance. How can it not make you happy in the first verse or two? But then, after about 2 and a half minutes, it changes gear completely. Trenet goes nuts and is suddenly joined by a cheesy choir, with the orchestra completely over the top. But after the year we’ve all had, it feels utterly justified. “We’re going to the beach,” it seems to say, “and c’est magnifique!”

Long after the fade, I’m left grinning from ear to ear.

4. Trois Gymnopédies: No 2.

Erik Satie (1866-1925, French)
Pascal Rogé (piano)

You will all recognise number 1 of these gymnopédies by that great musical miniaturist, Erik Satie. So, I’ve deliberately gone for the second, which is very similar in form, mood, and style. It is in waltz time, but it is pensive, lethargic, listless almost. So, the title is incongruous since the word is borrowed from Ancient Greece, describing dances by groups of soldiers in formation, men who may have simply been unarmed or who were actually naked (just like all ancient Greek athletics).

The music makes it feel as if the dancers are some distance away, perhaps with the summer scene shimmering in the heat-haze. It is trance- or dream-like. And in the heat, we can feel our eyelids getting heavier and heavier…

5. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (L. 86)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918, French)
François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Les Siècles

If the previous track is hypnotic and even soporific, this one depicts the next stage, that of snoozing and dreaming, and subsequently coming to again. The title means ‘prelude to the afternoon of a faun’ and it is Debussy’s artistic response to (rather than a narrative depiction of) a poem by Mallarmé. He wants to evoke the faun’s afternoon’s sleepiness. Yes, we’re talking about a distant relation of Mr. Tumnus, but this faun is rather a rascal, having spent the whole morning chasing nymphs and naiads (beautiful, semi-divine creatures who live in fresh water and other places) without success. That has worn him out. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

What made this piece so revolutionary was that Debussy was primarily concerned with the sensory experience of the moment, with the power of orchestral sounds and colours to place the listener in the middle of a scene, rather than telling a story. But perhaps you already realised as you listened, without me having to point it out.

L’Arlésienne Suite (1872)

Georges Bizet (1838-1875, French)
Marc Minkowski (conductor), Les Musiciens du Louvre

Bizet is best known today for his opera Carmen, but of his other works, this suite of pieces is much loved concert regular. Bizet was commissioned to write the incidental music for a play by one Alphonse Daudet, L’Arlésienne (‘The Girl from Arles). The play was a flop and is very rarely performed—unsurprising when you discover that the eponymous girl never appears on stage while the drama revolves around her fiancé, Frédéri, after she has been unfaithful to him. That’s pretty depressing but things spiral for Frédéri thereafter, as he descends into insanity and eventually suicide. And a fun evening out at the theatre was had by all!

Thankfully, Bizet’s music was not lost because it is wonderful. There were many short pieces, as one would imagine for a play with several scene shifts and mood changes. But the most famous were gathered together into two suites for orchestra. They stand on their own without the requirement of a theatre company. Frankly, I never had a clue how dark the play was until recently because the score barely hints at it! Instead, the music seems to conjure up a young, happy-go-lucky French teenager, who relishes the attention and wolf-whistles as she flounces through a town square. She might not appear on stage, but she’s a significant presence in the music. And it’s glorious.

So allow these pieces sweep you away to a café terrace that looks out over a square in Provence or the Côte d’Azur; waiters whirl around the clientele, somehow elegant in their black aprons bulging with loose change and menus; the belltower of the parish church suddenly comes to life with peals of ringing; a farmer negotiates the narrow streets on his decrepit tractor to deliver another load of grapes to the nearby press. All while you sip your chilled apéritif and lazily observe the casts of local citizens carrying on with their day…

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.


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