Wednesday 18 October 2017

How Canteloube made the folk music of his home town take flight

George Hamilton

The connection between beautiful music and hot air balloons may be tenuous, but there is one. It resides in the small town of Annonay in the south of France.

There, in the summer of 1783, two brothers – Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier – launched the world's first hot air balloon. Their huge linen and paper ball floated over a mile into the sky, the prelude to a manned flight later that year.

Almost a century on, Joseph Canteloube was born in Annonay. It's in a rural area between the mighty River Rhône and the high ground of the Massif Central.

A talented pianist, Canteloube went to Paris to study at the Schola Cantorum. His teacher there was one of its founders, the composer Vincent D'Indy, who came from Paris, but whose roots were in the same part of France that was home to Canteloube.

There was clearly a meeting of minds, for Canteloube's passion was the folk music of the place, and D'Indy encouraged this as the basis of his study.

Canteloube was actually following a path popular at the time. Elsewhere, composers like Dvorak and Sibelius were seeking inspiration in traditional song, and in England, Vaughan Williams was engaged in a task very similar to Canteloube's.

The Frenchman made it his life's work to collect this music and formalise it, creating a living record of what had sustained and entertained generations in that part of the country.

Though there was more to him as a composer than just an arranger of folk songs, the operas and the concert pieces pale alongside the music that made his name. This is the collection of Chants d'Auvergne ('Songs of the Auvergne').

A series of volumes was published in the 1920s, songs in the local language Occitan – closely related to Catalan – set to the composer's own sumptuous arrangements.

Purists might quibble with what he did with the music – a simple love song handed down through the centuries would be a world away from the sensuous strings that Canteloube would deploy to accompany it. But in a curious way, his reworking has strengthened the appeal of the songs.

The most famous of them all – 'Baïlèro' – is a case in point. The story goes that Canteloube first heard this being sung across a mountain pasture while he was out on one of his rambles. It's the call of a young woman to a shepherd (the Baïlèro) on the other side of a valley. He should bring his flock and join her, for the grass is greener on her side.

The haunting soprano line – all the songs are for the highest register – is beautifully embellished by an orchestral arrangement that is itself evocative. It showcases the oboe, rising gently to float above the singer's pastoral portrait, not unlike the Montgolfier's balloon must have done 150-odd years before.

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

ghamilton@independent.ie

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