Vive La France!

It’s spring and I’ve been dreaming of a trip to France! Yes, I know this playlist is hitting on Cinco de Mayo – but, I’m in a mood for Paris…so, off we go!

We start out with a really cool piece by Guillaume de Machaut, perhaps the greatest composer of the 14th century. He wrote both sacred and secular music and helped develop some of the most important musical forms in the medieval period. The one I chose is ‘Ma fin et mon commencement’ (‘My end is my beginning’) – it’s a “crab canon” – meaning it’s a canon that works forwards and backwards! The video in the playlist has an animated score the runs forwards and then backwards so you can see how the canon works…very cool – and a very cool piece!

After that we head forward a bit to the 16th century and Josquin des Prez – I chose one of the most popular and beautiful of his many secular chansons ‘Mille Regretz’ and paired it with his gorgeous setting of ‘Ave Maria Virgo Serena’.  I will probably get arguments, but for me this setting of the Ave Maria is one of the most beautiful ever composed and I never tire of hearing it!

We jump next to the 17th Century and music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier – his ‘Te Deum’; a spectacular and festive work – I find it hard not to bop around to the peppy rhythms!

Next is music of Lully (the court composer to Louis XIV) whose orchestra and musical establishment at Versailles was the envy of the world. I chose an excerpt form the opera ‘Atys’ – performed by William Christie and Les Art Florissants…some of you may have experienced this opera live several years ago when it came to BAM. This revival set off an explosion of re-discovery of the French operatic tradition in the Baroque period.

End this cluster with music of Marin Marais, student of Lully and one of the great composers for Viola da Gamba – this setting of ‘Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris’ is performed by the great Spanish gambist, Jordi Savall – and – is one of the recurring musical motifs in the film ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ – if you have never seen it RUN and find this film!!  It’s a sumptuous feast of music and cinematography.  I saw it many years ago and fell in love with it – and the music…the soundtrack is all French Baroque.

We move into the 18th Century with music of Jean-Philippe Rameau; perhaps the greatest composer and theorist in France in the 18th century – if you’ve ever studied ‘harmony’ – you have Rameau to thank for codifying it! These two selections, from different operas, give a wonderful picture of Rameau’s expressive palette…just love this stuff!

Into the 19th century we go – with a performance of Berlioz’s song cycle ‘Les Nuits d’Été’ sung by the incomparable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I only heard her live once, shortly before her death from cancer – and listening to her sing was like getting a glimpse of something unearthly and intensely beautiful, a vision of eternity. Her voice was one in a zillion, and you cannot hear her sing and not be drawn into the intensity of her expression and artistry – truly a life lost too soon.

Then, we hear some really interesting works that are a little off the beaten path alongside some favorites. First up is a work by Saint-Saens called ‘Omphale’s Spinning Wheel’ – you can look up the mythological story behind it, but the fun thing is that in the middle of the piece you will hear music that was used as the theme music to the old 1930’s radio show “The Shadow” – I love listening to old radio shows…and “The Shadow” in particular – I’m most fond of the original cast which starred Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead!

We heard some Gounod last week (from his opera ‘Faust’) but this week, I decided to include his St. Cecelia Mass, which is a really fine piece; one that has unfortunately fallen out of favor on concert programs….hmmmm.
Next up, I couldn’t resist including a selection from Massenet’s opera ‘Manon’ – the Act 3 Gavotte as sung by Anna Netrebko – I really love her in this!!

From the late 19th century, I offer an early work by Claude Debussy, his cantata for orchestra, women’s chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist – ‘La Damoiselle élue’ based on a poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The performance here is from the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Seiji Ozawa and the glorious Frederica von Stade. This is a truly gorgeous and stunning choral orchestra work that is hardly played these days – but one I absolutely adore…hmmmm.

As we finally move into the 20th century, I couldn’t resist Paul Dukas’ ‘L’apprenti sorcier’ – all you ‘Fantasia’ fans can imagine Mickey and the brooms…hard not to think of it actually! This performance (like the Saint-Saens earlier) by the Boston Symphony under the great Alsatian conductor Charles Munch shows how “French” the BSO was in those days! And Munch?  Well, he’s one of those conductors whose performances I can never get enough of…one of the greats.

The next work is very special to me – the very first live orchestra concert I ever heard was in October, 1974 (I was 11). It was a double bill of Ravel’s ‘L’enfant et les sortilèges’ (a great opera for kids!) and Daphnis et Chloé (complete) – I had never heard such sounds in my life and it truly put me on my life’s course – here’s the 2nd Suite (with chorus) played and sung by those same forces in Boston, a recording made shortly after the performance I heard.

I couldn’t resist including another off-the-beaten-track work, but one that used to be very popular (though is almost never heard now) is the “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” by Vincent D’Indy. It’s a hybrid work, both symphony and piano concerto; played here by the great French pianist Robert Casadesus along with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Mid-Century brings us to music of Francis Poulenc – his ‘Gloria’ (sung here by Barbara Hendricks, with the Orchestre National de France and Choeurs de Radio France under Georges Prêtre) – how could I choose Poulenc and not include the ‘Gloria’?!?! I follow that with a few selections from Poulenc’s song cycle ‘Les Banalités’ sung by Natalie Stuzmann…makes me feel like I’m in a smoke-filled cabaret having a nice Côtes du Rhône…

And speaking of smoke-filled cabarets…I thought I’d end with the iconic Edith Piaf. Two of her most famous: “Non, Je ne regrette rien” and, of course, ‘La Vie En Rose’!

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