The French Chanson Tradition
Letter from Paris – July 2012
Since the beginning of spring, the weather has been wretched here in Paris: temperatures well below the seasonal average and plenty of rain. Certainly the farmers will be relieved by this, because the previous months were among the driest on record, but the interests of Parisians are not those of the countryside. All this has had an inevitable impact on commercial activity in the capital: shops on the look-out for fashion victims have seen their sales fall by 5% and soft drink sales have plunged by 30%. But as if to illustrate that every cloud has a silver lining, cinemas have seen their entries increase by over 5% in comparison with 2011 – perhaps people have wanted to escape from the relentless political campaigns – four elections (six for those who participated in the Socialist primary election to select the party’s candidate) – as much as to escape from the inclement weather.
The 21st June sees the traditional “fête de la musique”, when throughout France there are open-air concerts of all styles of music. In Paris this takes the form not only of large events in the principal squares, but small groups of performers on street corners in even the remotest quartiers. As the event goes until the early hours, some busses and metro lines operate all night as well. Of course the international mode of rock music predominates, but as an excellent exhibition admirably demonstrates (http://www.chansons.paris.fr/exposition), France has a form of musical expression which it can call its own: the chanson. This is a genuinely popular form, in which the words are at least as important as the music. It has its roots in the popular uprisings of the 19th century if not before, and many pieces from the period of the Commune, for example, are still a living part of popular resistance.
At its apogee, the chanson constituted a link between high literary culture and that of the people. Several important writers (Aragon, Desnos, Boris Vian, Prévert) wrote specifically for the genre, and various practitioners (notably Léo Ferré) have set the poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and others to music in such a way as to make them more accessible to a non-literary public. There was a clear relation between this form and the music hall, which flourished at the turn of the century (as it did in England, but it lasted much longer in France). Some of the performers of that early period have been immortalised by the posters of Toulouse Lautrec, and we are fortunate also to have some recordings from that era, notably those of Aristide Bruant and Yvette Guilbert. What is evident even from the recordings is the extraordinary dramatic presence of the singers (and this lasted well into the television era as a performance by Catherine Savage from the 1960’s demonstrates) but the texts also reveal a genuine literary sophistication. Later performers, such as Georges Brassens, manifest a highly-developed poetic sensibility and a rich vocabulary, including slang.
The exhibition (which is really worth visiting even by someone not fluent in French) draws attention to the number of songs (2750, according to the documentation of the exhibition) that deal directly with Paris and the experience of the city. As well as making available numerous recordings, among them many rarities (some 335 are available on the excellent site mentioned above) there are some splendid photographs, not only of performers, but also of Paris, as well as posters and other documents. Several extracts from films show how the chanson contributed to the particular form of French cinematic realism. From Aristide Bruant to Serge Gainsbourg and beyond, chansonniers (as they are called in French) have dealt with the realities of Parisian life (Gainsbourg’s classic “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” paints the portrait of a person who clips holes in the tickets in the metro) as well as with the “myth” of Paris. Since the death of the last three major song-writer/performers (Brassens, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré) the form is much less vital, but still survives to some extent, despite the dominance of transatlantic styles.