Entertainment Music

Thursday 27 October 2016

Classical: Musical tradition of France is in a league all of its own

George Hamilton

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

A tale of everyday folk: Carmen, the opera, was composed by Bizet.
A tale of everyday folk: Carmen, the opera, was composed by Bizet.

And so this year's great footballing show comes to a climax in Paris tomorrow night, and our parallel tour of French music reaches journey's end today. When we think of the French tradition, what is it we hear? Dreamy piano music from Debussy, or the more dramatic keyboard inventions of Chopin and Liszt (neither of whom were French, funnily enough)?

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Is it the inventiveness of Camille Saint-Saëns in his Carnival of the Animals? Maybe it's Ravel's "20 minutes for orchestra without music", as he described his Boléro.

Or perhaps the cancan. Jacques Offenbach's outrageous addition to his light-hearted take on the Greek legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, was sure to have had them rolling in the aisles when it burst upon the Paris stage.

That was in 1858, just around the corner from our digs in the French capital in Offenbach's aptly named music hall, the Bouffes Parisiens. Judging by the crowds seen outside, it's still going strong today.

German-speaking Europe gave us the great symphonists, from Haydn and Mozart, through Beethoven, on to Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Berlioz leads the way in this regard for France with his five-movement Symphonie Fantastique.

France ranks second only to Italy as far as musical drama is concerned. If the Italians invented it, France was soon aboard the bandwagon.

You've only to think of the most popular of French operas - Bizet's Carmen (first performed in 1875) - to see how it differs from the great set pieces that preceded it.

This isn't about Greek myth or ancient Egypt. Carmen is a tale of everyday folk. The heroine works in a cigarette factory in Seville. Her heart is set on a champion bullfighter.

Woven around this everyday story of love and revenge are some of the most unforgettable tunes. There's Carmen's 'Habanera' ('Love is a rebellious bird'), and the famous toreador's song, both of them big, uptempo numbers.

But Bizet's palette also extends to the gentle ballad-like 'Flower Song' (La fleur que to m'avais jetée). Musically it's strong, visually it's striking in its Spanish setting - Carmen is a winner in every way.

Speaking of singing, there's a special place in the French catalogue for the Songs of the Auvergne, collected by Joseph Canteloube. Though he wrote opera too, it's this collection of folk songs from central France that made his name.

Published in the 1920s, it was the result of a huge amount of foot-slogging and field work. Songs handed down through the generations were adapted into concert pieces with the addition of Canteloube's own lush orchestration.

The Baïlèro (no relation to Ravel's Boléro) is probably the best known of them, the call of a young woman to a shepherd (the baïlèro of the title) across the valley, to bring his flock and join her.

Gabriel Fauré is another who deserves special mention. A church organist, like Saint-Saëns, Widor, and Franck - his Requiem is one of the major achievements in that area. He also wrote the most charming of smaller scale pieces - think of his Pavane, for example, or the refreshingly unassuming Dolly Suite.

This was a series of piano pieces written in honour of a little girl, known as Dolly, who was the daughter of the composer's mistress.

That more or less completes our circle for we're back at the keyboard now and the music that can't be overlooked when it comes to considering France - the magnificence of Chopin and Liszt, those two outsiders who made Paris their home, and Debussy, whose wistful charm is so quintessentially French.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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