Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Sound of Musique





The 21st June is the summer solstice and people all over France will be dancing in the streets, singing and playing instruments until late into the evening. It may seem like an unbridled pagan celebration but it is just la fête de la musique – the annual music festival.

It was launched in 1982 by the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, after it had been pointed out to him that over five million people – half of whom were young people - played an instrument but did not have the opportunity to show off their skills. He chose the longest day of the year and encouraged everybody to go out into the street from 8:30 to 9pm and play a tune. It was a great success – and as half an hour is barely enough time to tune your fiddle, never mind play a whole jig, the music went on all night. These days, the accordions, the harmonicas and the combs and tissue paper still come out but there are also free concerts in every musical genre imaginable: classical, hip-hop, rock n’ roll, jazz… Unfortunately, I live in the centre of town and although a little Chopin drifting through my windows would not go amiss, I’ll invariably end up with Mad Momo and his Electro-house-techno right outside my door.


French music had its hey-day in the Middle Ages and the earliest form of polyphony originated here as did the first motets. Secular music became popular with the poet-musicians – called troubadours in the south of France and trouvères in the north – who wandered from castle to castle playing their ballades or their lais to the court. Far from being a sort of mediaeval busker, they were usually of noble blood themselves – Guillaume IX, the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the most well-known example. He was a colourful character and was excommunicated more than once, not for bad poetry – his was excellent if sometimes ribald - but for rampant womanising. A typical rock star, in other words.

From the fifteenth century onwards, French music faded into the background and would never again have the influence it had enjoyed in the Age of Chivalry. And while the French gave us Bizet, Debussy and Ravel, they could not compete with the likes of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. However, music has always been important to the French and musical accomplishment is encouraged. Every major city has a Conservatoire National de Région where children can study musical theory and learn an instrument with excellent teachers. Children can either go to school there, having normal lessons in the morning and studying music in the afternoon, or they can have music lessons once or twice a week in their spare time. The fee is very reasonable (it is related to your income) and they will provide the instrument, as long as it’s not a grand piano. For families like ours, it is a wonderful opportunity - although try telling that to my youngest daughter, who hadn’t realised that Vanessa Mae actually had to practise to get that good and didn’t just scrape her way through “Twinkle, twinkle little star” a couple of times before becoming mega-famous overnight…


French popular music does not export well. Most British people have heard of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour but they rarely make Top of the Pops these days. Singer-songwriters like Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (who was Belgian) are unknown in Britain because, like the troubadours of old, they were poets above all else. Serge Gainsbourg, a brilliant and irreverent poet-musician, did have a hit with Jane Birkin in 1969, but DJs weren’t allowed to play it on the radio because it was too rude. Even though these singers are now dead, their work is still much-loved and has influenced contemporary musicians like Jean-Jacques Goldman and Renaud. Another French icon is the ageing Johnny Hallyday, who is actually half-Belgian and definitely not a poet. Johnny, as he is known to young and old alike, brought rock n’ roll to France and is, in his own words, ‘a survivor’. In his early sixties, he still wears tight leather trousers, rides a Harley Davidson and dyes his hair. Johnny sings mainly cover versions of American songs or French songs that sound like cover versions and is such a national treasure that he has been awarded the Légion d'Honour by the President. Despite having an American name (not his real name) hardly anyone outside of France knows who he is.


Now and again, a French song will cross the channel but it will be sung in English. Two of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits were French: My Way (originally sung by Claude François) and Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand), but generally speaking, the French are chauvinistic and keep their music for themselves, as they believe it is too good to be wasted on the uncivilised bunch that make up the rest of the world. Unless, of course, they are just insecure. I find it rather odd that by law, forty percent of a radio station’s output should be by French artists and sung in French…on the other hand, as most young people these days find it easier to listen to moronic monosyllabic rap than songs where they need to have at least a basic grasp of their mother tongue, perhaps the government is right.

Now, where’s my guitar? I know it’s around here somewhere and I want to brush up my ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in time for tomorrow…

11 comments:

Mountain Dweller said...

At the risk of seeming 'sad', as my kids would say, I must admit to being a great fan of Johnny Hallyday. I've seen him in concert twice, leather and all!

Roads said...

Thanks, Gigi.

Here is an enchantingly homespun version of an old favourite which I dug out a little earlier.

Or you might prefer this original clip.

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Rodrigo said...

Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Até mais.

blueVicar said...

Our summer solstice lasted 30 hours as we flew from France the USA...repatriated...a momentous event from which I am not yet recovered. Stories abound as life abroad is suddenly seen from a new perspective.

Love the musique...

Meilleurs voeux!!

Sarah said...

I couldn't face it having been out on previous evenings to watch school 'spectacles' and just wanted a night in. Luckily my eldest threw an enormous strop about something which enabled me to ground him and thus avoid yet another night out.

angela said...

We've had wall to wall visitors and the Fete de la Musique is always useful entertainment wise.
When I first came to France I thought the popular music was unbelievably naff but it's all grown on me since or I've grown into it...
Angela

ManicBlu said...

I love Jacques Brel. I introduced his music to my French husband who lived in Australia most of his life. Have to say I find Hallyday a bit boring.

I've heard some wonderful bands the past couple of years I've lived in the village. I've heard some raunchy ones as well. I can't imagine how the folks living center stage deal with these yearly events. I'd go bananas and be tempted to sabotage something.

Gigi said...

Mountain Dweller - I don't think you're sad. Just - well - rather French :-)

Roads - Thank you for the music...

Anonymous - you can keep your widgets, mate...

and as for you, Rodrigo - I'm afraid I don't want a camiseta personalizada, thank you.

Blue Vicar - I hope you are coping with the reverse culture shock...

Sarah - I had a lovely night in...all my children went out so I was ALONE AT LAST!!!!

Angela - the music has grown on me too...especially the older stuff...

manicblu - I'm afraid I only really know 'Ne me quitte pas...'. I'm a great fan of Nougaro (and Renaud and lots of others too...)

01 July 2007 22:30:00 CET

UN PEU LOUFOQUE said...

I totally agree ,French popular music does not travel well sadly but I do love it, and adore the fete de musique here which in Brittany is celebrated avec with Gusto !

Betty C. said...

A fan of music of all kinds, I loved your article. It is funny, though, how English and Spanish language music seems to export better.

I would mention Renaud as one of France's great stars, even if his latest music is a bit tired...