Angèle Dubeau founded La Pietà in 1997, an all-female string ensemble featuring some of Canada’s best musicians. What she could not have known at the time was that this experiment, originally [...]
They spoke about it
Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà with actor Albert Millaire present Chronicle of the huge and mighty Giant Gargantua by François Rabelais, restituted by Jean Françaix, XX-Century tonal music composer. Great minds think alike… Delightful!
To complete the program: Frivolous to perfection, L’Heure du Berger was a commission for some modern musique de brasserie, and so Françaix decided to indulge in some caricature; and Sérénade B E A, commissioned by a wealthy Hungarian for his girlfriend Beatrice.
“In the beginning, or thereabouts—I wasn’t there—in the beginning was the glass, the bottle.”
The sun was brutal, the trees bare, the rivers dry, the land arid, the animals starved. And in this place, sounds began to spring forth from men’s gaping pores, dilated from the heat. Some transmitted the sounds with their fingers, others shared them with their throats, and some took inspiration from others to blossom. From this strange race were born the Giants of French Music. All would favour refined harmonies and orchestration, melodic elegance and rarely give in to the dictates of fashion, preferring instead to focus on the delights of sound. Machaut charmed with his ballades, virelais and motets. He was succeeded by the rondeaux and masses of Dufay and des Près. Then came Claude Le Jeune, master of polyphony, followed shortly thereafter by Couperin and Rameau, masters of the harpsichord. They were replaced in succession by Méhul, the French Beethoven; Berlioz, master of the orchestra; the lyricists Bizet, Fauré and Chausson; Saint-Saëns the improviser; and finally Debussy and Ravel, bridges between the Romantic and modern eras. It was in the shadow of these giants that Jean Françaix was born on May 23, 1912 in Le Mans. “My father had the obstinate calm of the Northern French; my mother was volcanic, though from Le Mans with ancestry from Lorraine. As is fitting, my character is a bit of both, the volcano illuminating the tranquil landscape of my soul.”
Young Jean grew and thrived, a talented child with a lively intelligence. He began composing early on. “I was bitten by the composition bug at a very young age. To create something from the blank page was intoxicating. Being able to escape the prison of one’s person was a privilege. And without risk: if the message has no value, I will not be around to find out… And if God looks kindly upon me, He will comfort me…” He published his first musical work, Pour Jacqueline, in 1921 and, at the ripe old age of nine years, solemnly vowed to replace the recently deceased Saint-Saëns.
One morning, Jean’s father, director of the Le Mans Conservatory, received the following letter: “I have been long remiss in the tardiness of my reply to your kind letter and the enclosure of your son’s very interesting manuscript. Among the child’s talents I note especially the most fertile of them an artist can possess, that of curiosity. Take care not to smother these precious gifts or this young sensitivity could wither. … And henceforth urge your son to summon his courage in continuing the ‘pleasant’ career upon which he has embarked. Maurice Ravel, January 10, 1923.” His path appeared to be set; he had only to follow it.
To further improve his skills, he was given composition lessons in Paris, miles away from Le Mans. “My composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, was never able to teach me harmony or counterpoint, let alone fugue. To maintain her good name, she told everyone that I knew it all by instinct. But I have to admit that when I compose, all that wonderful theory is the last thing on my mind. I am less interested by highways of thought than by forest paths.”
Throughout his life, Jean mischievously refused to grow up, preferring to instill his works with the forgotten freshness of childhood. And he worked hard at it—after all, “taste is above all about courage.” He spurned fashion, ignored overly versatile audiences, accepted marginality, and mocked the criticisms of contemporaries who frowned on the speed of his writing and his playful melodic inventions. Proud and resolute, he refused to sacrifice his independence of spirit or give in to the dictates of serial music, against which he valiantly fought day after day.
Les inestimables chroniques du bon géant Gargantua, after Rabelais
With Gargantua, Jean Françaix was revisiting Rabelais’ story, adapting and integrating it and extracting its quintessence. “I am not writing a text to follow it, but on the contrary to follow my music, which goes faster and further than the text.” Above all, he hoped to convey the humanistic messages of the Renaissance, which he felt were still relevant to listeners in 1971, and indeed to audiences of today: the importance of education based as much on an understanding of ancient texts as on the direct study of nature; the folly of King Picrochole’s desire to conquer the entire universe, killing and plundering everything in his way; and the need to make the world a better place. “By setting Gargantua to music, I hope to inspire others to read this work.”
L’Heure du Berger
Frivolous to perfection, L’Heure du Berger was a commission for some modern musique de brasserie, and so Jean Françaix decided to indulge in some caricature—Berger being the name of a popular aniseed aperitif. “My Heure du Berger takes place at Maxim’s during the Belle Époque, where an evocation of ‘la Belle Otero‘ would produce ecclesiastical shivers; the mocking of ‘Vieux Beaux‘ now seems to me a cruel little piece, since my own beauty is highly disputed, though my age is not! ‘Petits Nerveux‘ portrays the friends of Tristan Bernard, dressed in their striped shirts and knickers, furiously pedaling gleaming bicycles to impress the ladies, who are completely indifferent. Maurice Ravel said that good musique de brasserie required a double bass. To observe this rule, I added one to the Quatuor Enesco for the performance of L’Heure du Berger, and you will note that these gentlemen, so serious in Mozart and Beethoven, take a certain delight in slumming it.” This version for strings is recorded here for the very first time, all previous versions having been adapted for winds.
Sérénade B E A
Sérénade B E A was commissioned “by a wealthy Hungarian for his girlfriend Beatrice. The first three letters of her name—B, E, A—gave me the theme for the serenade, and these three notes figure throughout the work. The piece ends with a very sad slow movement, the commissioner having, in the meantime, broken off with his lover.” Love’s delights are indeed fleeting…
All his life, Françaix preferred the satisfaction of creating happiness with his music over glory, and he made forays into many different genres. “It is up to you, dear and knowledgeable listeners, to open your ears and dare to think: this music pleases me or displeases me. Let no self-serving intermediary come between my music and you to orient your conclusions. Remember that you are free human beings not obedient robots. Crush any trace of snobbery, fashion and envy beneath the weight of your fundament. And give in to your sense of delight if you have one.” Françaix surely would have also encouraged his listeners, as put so simply in the only rule to be obeyed at the abbey built by Grandgousier, Gargantua’s father, to “Do What Thou Wilt.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen