Entertainment Music

Monday 19 March 2018

A late arrival to the classical party - the music of France

Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz

George Hamilton

Some years ago, RTÉ Lyric FM's Australian cousin - ABC Classic FM - tweaked its Top 100 formula to focus on the music of one country. These 100 best tunes would all came from France. What was remarkable was that only five of them were composed before 1800, the earliest - a suite from the incidental music to the Molière comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Jean-Baptiste Lully - dating from 1670.

There in a nutshell is an indication of where the balance lay across the years we call the classical period. In terms of influence, France was pretty much nowhere. What we'd now call Germany and Austria, and Italy were setting trends and composing the scores that would stock our collections. The power lay elsewhere.

Lully's music did make its mark. But the man deemed to be the founder of French opera, grew up in Tuscany. He may have become composer-in-residence to Louis XIV, the Sun King, but he started out as Giovanni Lulli, a miller's son from Florence.

But in later years, when Mozart was writing his last three symphonies, and Haydn was in his pomp taking Beethoven under his wing, when Naples was still exerting considerable influence, and Venice was boosting the development of musical theatre with the opening of its opera house La Fenice, Paris had other things on its mind. One of those five pre-1800 pieces in ABC's Top 100 is the unofficial anthem of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, since Bastille Day 1795 the country's national anthem.

That same year, the Paris Conservatory - the principal college of music and dance - was set up and France was on its way to establishing a major presence in the world of music.

Hector Berlioz (pictured), a country doctor's son born in 1803, came to the capital to study medicine but fell under the spell of the opera. Medical school was eventually abandoned for a place at the Conservatory, and the rest is history.

He would become France's greatest Romantic (with more than a passing interest in Ireland - he set the poetry of Thomas Moore to music - inspired by infatuation with an actress from Ennis, Harriet Smithson). His masterwork - the seminal Symphonie Fantastique - was his musical come-on to Harriet. They did eventually marry, but it didn't last.

Paris, meanwhile, had become a magnet for talent. Franz Liszt from what was then Hungary (and another, incidentally, who'd fall for an Irish girl - Eliza Gilbert from Grange in County Sligo who went by the stage name of Lola Montez) had been brought by his parents who recognised his prodigious talent. The Pole Fryderyk Chopin (the Frédéric would come later) made the same move.

Right place, right time, for in Paris the piano maker Sébastien Érard was modifying the rather basic fortepiano in ways that would transform its potential. His instrument with a metal frame offered much more scope - more tone, more light and shade, a faster action. With Liszt and Chopin playing this modern grand, it was no wonder French piano music gained such prominence.

Debussy's dreamlike pieces would follow. Taking his lead from the impressionist painters like Manet and Degas, Cézanne and Monet, this was the development of an authentic French sound, something as unlike the German or Italian as could be.

In the meantime, other distinctive voices had emerged: Gounod, Bizet and Massenet in opera, alongside Saint-Saëns who straddled the genres, and Fauré whose speciality was wonderfully melodic, smaller scale pieces. This golden age continued into the 20th century with Satie and Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Messiaen.

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