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…

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Last April, Europe’s fastest train – the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) – beat a world record in speed. I would have loved to have been riding in it or even standing on one of the bridges as it streaked beneath, like a silver bullet - but I had to be content with watching the video. As the train reached 356 mph it was just a blur on the landscape…the French have a right to be proud.

It wasn’t always so. The French railway system developed slowly and chugged behind the rest of Europe. The first railway in France was opened in 1828 - three years after the English one - between St Etienne and Andrézieux. There was just 21 kilometres of track and the line had been built to transport coal in wagons pulled by horses. In 1832, it began to take passengers who sat in opened-topped wagons, like the coal. It wasn’t an immediate hit….

Nothing much happened for the next decade. France was still rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and this hindered the building of railways. They were not as industrialised as Britain either and their iron production was limited so they had to import many of their rails, which was expensive. But probably the greatest problem lay in the fact that France possessed an efficient network of waterways and the railway system was seen as competition.

In 1842, the government finally agreed to invest in the building of a national rail network. The first lines connected the major cities to Paris but unfortunately, the major cities weren’t connected to each other. This meant, for example, that a train travelling from Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand (a mere hundred and twenty kilometres apart) had to go via Paris, turning the journey into a seven-hundred-kilometre marathon. More lines were built at the end of the nineteenth century and by 1914, the French railway system had become one of the most highly-developed in the world, with thirty-five thousand miles of rails, a third of which comprised narrow gauge lines. One of the first films made by the Frères Lumière was of a steam train coming into the station at La Ciotat in the south of France.

Of course, there were accidents – just as there are today. The first accident in France was in 1842, on the Paris-Versailles line when the train came off the rails and caught fire. Fifty-five people died. A French bishop declared that God was pouring out his wrath on the railway and the arrogance of Man that it represented. Unfortunately, that same month, Pope Gregory XVI commissioned a special train for the Vatican, which must have rattled the bishop’s mitre a tad. In 1920, the French President, Paul Deschanel, fell out of the window of a train and, wandering about in his pyjamas and a bit worse for wear, he came across a railway worker. “I am the President of France and I’ve just fallen out of a train window” he explained. The man thought he was a drunk but nevertheless took him to the level-crossing keeper’s house where his wounds were treated. After his identity was established, the keeper’s wife told journalists “I could tell he was a gentleman because he had clean feet”. Quite.

In 1938, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) was created and in 1967, research began into constructing faster, sleeker trains. In 1981, the first TGV made its maiden run on the Paris-Lyon line and today TGVs run all over France, although they can only travel at very high speeds on special tracks (LGV) which account for about thirty percent of the network. The TGV is safe and there have never been any fatalities in France due to high speeds, at least, not human ones. Animals sometimes pose problems. Recently, a goat wandered on to the track at Aix-en-Provence and was hit by a TGV – bringing traffic to a halt for over two hours.

Travelling in a TGV is a relaxing experience. The seats are deep and comfortable and you hardly notice the movement of the train. If you sit on the upper deck of a double-decker TGV, it feels like you’re flying. It is my favourite way to travel. There is something romantic and exciting about railway stations and the trains themselves as they gather up the milling crowds of voyagers and thunder off to distant destinations. Even the smaller trains are thrilling in their own way. Le Train des Alpes, for example, runs from Grenoble to Gap. Along the route it passes through twenty-seven tunnels, over fifteen viaducts and under five bridges amid breathtaking Alpine scenery. Or there is Le Chemin de Fer de la Mure, which once brought coal down from the Matheysin Plateau to Grenoble. Echoing the train in 1832 that transported passengers in coal wagons, this one also ferries people. But they are tourists and they travel in relative comfort, trundling upwards through lush landscapes on a small and shiny bright red train…