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Monday, November 16, 2020

Eras of Eros

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty years ago, I had the pleasant job of writing liner notes for Dorian Recordings, a small company producing fantastic-sounding CDs, usually using the acoustically spectacular Troy Music Hall as the recording venue. Here are my notes to an unusual disc (for that label): A collection of French songs of the sort you’d associate with Piaf – who wrote the lyrics to one of the numbers contained therein, putting her alongside such scribes as Victor Hugo, Boris Vian, and Charles Baudelaire. I will also note that it was I who came up with the album’s subtitle, which I used as the headline.


WHEN CLAIRE GIGNAC began to put together the program of love songs that make up this recording, she wanted to encompass the many centuries during which we’ve been writing such songs. She immediately ran into a problem: “There are millions of them,” she says. “I did a lot of research and a lot of listening, trying to find the right songs and poems. I didn’t want to sing all happy love songs or all sad ones, and I wanted to find songs that give different perspectives of love.” Even with the wealth of material available, “it’s more difficult to find happy love songs. Longing is there, of course, but I found songs that are also very serene, like the beautiful poem by Victor Hugo.”

Gignac is a husky-voiced contralto and multi-instrumentalist who has worked in many areas of musical theater, most notably as a performer, stage director, and composer. Throughout the 1980s, she was with Ensemble Anonymous; since 1991 she has fronted La Nef, which also records for Dorian. She has composed and arranged songs for albums by Belgian singer Julos Beaucarne, and she co-devised and performed in “Zulu Time” with Ex Machina. “Les Chants d'Eros” grew out of her work with La Nef, when Dorian producer Brian Levine grew intrigued by Gignac’s voice and versatility. “I wanted to hear her in a setting reminiscent of the old-style cabaret singers, with a jazz feeling,” he says. “From there, a program of French love songs was a natural idea.”

Equally important was the instrumentation. “When I was musical director for Beaucarne, I hired Marc Vallée as guitarist, and we stayed close friends,” says Gignac. “When Brian suggested this album, I decided to avoid using the piano and called Marc instead.” Violinist Stéphane Allard also plays psaltery, recorder, and mandolin on this recording; bassist Norman Lachapelle (who’s also a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and composer) rounds out the trio.

“The sound of the ensemble is one of the things that gives a sense of unity to the recording,” says Gignac. “So many songs, especially of the 20th century, are accompanied by piano. Not using one, I think, helped to give our own style to the songs and provide continuity. I didn’t want to just imitate somebody else’s interpretation. I wanted to transform these songs into something else.”

This was the first time that Gignac worked with Allard and Lachapelle, “but not the last! We had a lot of fun preparing this recording, and the chemistry was very good among us four.”

The Eras of Eros

British history got a big boost from the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote five Arthurian romances, including Perceval, ou Le Conte de Graal. Love and adventure both are woven into the tale – Chrétien’s work kicked off a craze for narrative romance throughout continental Europe – and the legend of Holy Grail-seeker Perceval inspired a recent La Nef project, a recording of which is available from Dorian. The song “L’oie blessée,” which is included here, describes the moment “in which Perceval discovers the true meaning of love,” Gignac explains. “I wanted to put that into music and sing it rather than keep it as spoken text.” While she tried to evoke an idea of the 12th century in the music she wrote for the text, “the result is quite modern, especially considering the harmony. I like seconds. Fifths and seconds.” She laughs and adds, “It’s a peculiar mix. I also modernized the language, keeping only an oldish way of saying things.”

Three of the other early songs are traditional numbers set by Marc Vallée. “Que faire s’amour me laisse” is from the 15th century and describes a young lady’s worry about her lover as he departs on a ship, the image of which is enhanced by Vallée’s use of tenor recorder. “Mon pauvre coeur soupire” and “Si je perdais mon ami” both date from the 16th century; the first is the lament of a girl shut into a convent by parents who disapprove of her lover, featuring Vallée on Lowden guitar (a beautiful acoustic instrument from Ireland); the second is colored by bamboo flute and psaltery, accompanying a lady’s cry of longing for her loved one. “I’m dead if I can’t have him ... ”

“Marc didn’t write the music to those songs,” says Gignac, “but that’s the only thing we have for them – the melody. We call it them arrangements, because they’re traditional pieces, but everything underneath the melody is Marc’s composition. He put harmony and rhythm to them and gave them a modernized flavor.”

Throughout these centuries, the poetic point of view was dominated by the man’s expressions of yearning. “I didn’t want to sing so many lyrics that are from a man to a woman. In early and traditional music, we often do that, but I wanted to find lyrics I could really feel, speaking from a woman to a man. I couldn’t imagine myself talking about, oh, ‘your long blonde hair’ and ‘your nice little mouth smiling’ and all that. I wanted to get lyrics from the pen of the woman.” She turned to a volume published in France in the 1960s that anthologized female poets. “Of course, trying to find music for the poems was impossible. So I thought, well, it probably was done by troubadours, or the poet sang to a lute – so I decided to do what they did, and put in my own music.”

By 1389, Christine de Pisan was a 25-year-old widow. She turned to writing to support herself, and became the first woman in history to do so. It didn’t hurt that she had many friends in the court of Charles the V of France, for whom her father was the court astrologer, and she went on to write for friends of successor Charles VI. She wrote two varieties of love poem, first of which were poems to order, at the request of her noble clients. This was work for hire, aping the courtly traditions of Chrétien while subtly cocking a snoot at the unscrupulous nobility. Her second type of poem reflected her own life and emotions, including works written in memory of her husband.

Ma plaisance chére” is that rare thing, a happy love lyric. “This is a poem I like very much,” says Gignac, “and the music features Stéphane on mandolin, which he never played before. I wanted to find a way to add colors to the songs, to brighten the recording so it wouldn’t sound the same from beginning to end. So I added some recorders and a bamboo flute, and I thought the sound of a mandolin on this song would give it a feeling of – well, it’s between a folkie and an early music thing. Stéphane said, ‘I would love to play that!’ It was my mandolin, so he took it home and practiced and it came out very nicely.”

The 17th Century and Beyond

Gignac found that contemporaneous settings of songs from the from the 17th and 18th centuries suited her less well than the verse alone. “I had some problems with those centuries. Many of the lyrics weren’t fitting me, and the music – not at all. I couldn’t imagine myself, with my voice and personality, singing this type of song, this music of the courts with all that flourish!” Without such music, continuity on this album is better assured. “I didn’t want it to sound like a patchwork, so it was important to find links among the pieces. And I think it’s the music doing most of that work.”

Un désorde agréable,” a verse by 17th-century poet Henriette de la Suze, wasn’t set to music. It was placed, spoken, on top of a musical sequence. “Marc told me that he had composed a piece of music that he thought would fit on this album, that it was in the style of what we were doing. When he first played it for me, I thought the B section, which is a series of chords, would work well under a spoken text. Then he had the idea of using a bandoneon. I own one, but I’m really not a player. He said he’d love to have at least the melody on the bandoneon, so it’s just that line that I play, no chords.”

De la Suze was a resourceful woman: saddled in marriage to an unpleasant man, she renounced her Protestant faith in 1653 “in order to not find herself with her husband in this world or the next,” according to the account given in Gignac’s verse anthology. She mingled with the literati of Paris and shared her poems with many men, who provided both love and textual corrections. Her sentiment in this verse – describing the “agreeable distress of loving” – is characteristic of her work.

“The 19th century also was challenging. You can find plenty of lieder,” says Gignac, “but for songs in French, you get to the repertoire of Poulenc and the Impressionists: Fauré, Ravel – we call them the melodists, and they have their own style of taking poems, sometimes very well-known poems, and setting them to music. It was too definite a style, and it wouldn’t suit the continuity of this recording.”

She turned to the work of little-known poet and novelist Marie Nizet (1859-1922), a Belgian writer who first published her verse at the age of 18. By the time she was 20, she had written several epics that were compared to the work of Victor Hugo, and even a novel. And then she stopped publishing. Much of her best work was discovered posthumously, including a body of love poems inspired by the loss of a lover who vanished during an ocean voyage.

Ta bouche” is a tribute to a lover’s mouth, a poem that is “short and very sensual,” says Gignac. “It was quite rare for its time in getting so much into sensuality. And one thing I wanted on this album was a song for just voice and bass. As I wrote a melody to fit the prosody and meaning of this lyric, I added a bass line and then thought, ‘Why not? Let’s keep it like that!’”

The bridge to the 20th century runs by way of Victor Hugo, in a setting by Gignac that reflects her own passion for the poet. “It was very audacious of me to try to write music for this poem. I don’t know if I succeeded, but at least people can understand the music I hear in his words.” Such novels as Les Misérables have secured Hugo’s reputation as a writer, but it’s as a poet that he’s best known in his native France. As a young teen in the early 1800s, he cranked out scores of poems and several plays; he founded a literary review when he was 17. Those plays won him early success, and his historical novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame secured him even greater fame.

Puisque (ou Le coeur mystérieux),” while returning to the masculine point of view, paints a compelling picture of ardor: “My soul has more fire than you have ashes ... ”

Into the 20th Century

France’s most influential poet of the 19th century was Charles Baudelaire, the short-lived (1821-1867) writer and critic whose 1857 collection Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) had a profound effect on literature throughout Europe. He lived extravagantly, frittering away a sizeable inheritance when he was 21, and he made a point of shocking the old guard with his frankness and sensuality. Baudelaire was done in by indiscreet love, victim of syphilis contracted from a courtesan.

Equally wild was the singer-composer Leo Ferré, who was renowned for his writings and anarchic philosophy during a long career that ended with his death at 77 in 1993. He made his setting of Baudelaire’s “La mort des amants” (“The Death of Lovers”) in 1967, although it doesn’t appear in a recent anthology of poems to which Ferré wrote music. “I can’t imagine why it wasn’t included,” says Gignac. “It has beautiful rhythms and the images are very, very strong. Usually Ferré writes very dramatic music, very sad, very poignant. That’s what the Baudelaire poem is, but in this case, Ferré’s music is very serene. It’s about the death of the lovers, but it’s even more about the belief in eternal love.”

Thinking solely in terms of tender melodies, it might seem hard to credit Kurt Weill with having composed any love songs, at least not in the conventionally lyrical sense. “It’s very great music,” says Gignac, “and they talk about love and desire, but they’re still very peculiar songs.” Weill lived and flourished in Germany early in the 20th century, but fled with the ascendance of the Nazi regime. While en route to permanent exile in the U.S. in the early 1930s, he stopped in Paris, where he collaborated with poets Maurice Magre and Roger Fernay, among others. “The first Weill song I chose to include was Magre’s ‘La complainte de la Seine,’ which has very strong images about the depths of a river that welcomes any and all desperate people.

“Then,” Gignac says, “I thought about his song ‘Youkali,’” Written with Fernay, “Youkali” is a tango about an imaginary paradise; the song was written in 1935 and introduced in New York a year later in the musical “Johnny Johnson,” one of Weill’s first American projects. “It’s a wonderful song, the melody is just beautiful – but was it too much to do two Kurt Weill songs on this album? We worked on both, and we couldn’t decide, and finally Brian said, ‘Okay, use the two of them.’ ‘Youkali’ was fun because Stéphane is very familiar with the tango, so what he does on the violin gives it wonderful style.”

Where “Youkali” describes an unattainable dream of an elusive land, “Est-ce ma faute à moi?” is grounded in more familiar, albeit unhappy, territory. It bemoans the abrupt end of a relationship – “Is it my fault if I love him more than I love you?” – as described by lyricist Charly Bailly, who was born in 1921. Music is by Algerian-born André Varel, who was just 26 when the song was published in 1950.

Boris Vian also achieved early success, crowding much into a short life. He survived early bouts with rheumatic fever and typhoid fever, but his weakened heart gave out in 1959, when he was 39. Trained as a civil engineer, he played jazz trumpet at the Hot Club of France, acted in films, sang in cabarets, and wrote verse, plays, and novels. He often incurred the wrath of the censors: His song “Le Déserteur” was banned from public performance in the ‘50s, and his novel J’irai craches sur vos tombes was judged an affront to public morals when it was discovered at a murder scene in 1947.

“Vian wrote a lot of songs,” says Gignac. “Well over 400 of them. There are many Vian shows done in France, and some of the songs are very well known. But “L’amour en cage” is not. That’s why I chose it. I very much like the lyrics. Jimmy Walter, who wrote the music, was a jazz musician like Vian, and these influences come through.”

It’s even more evident in “Petite fleur,” written by jazz legend Sidney Bechet. Jazz grew popular enough in France that many American players relocated, Bechet among them. He trained in the early ensembles of Clarence Williams and King Oliver, and even spent time in the Duke Ellington orchestra. “The little jazzy flavor we got here was important to me,” Gignac says. “I sang jazz for a bit, about ten years ago, because I like the music very much. And this was also fun because Stéphane is so good at jazz.

“On this kind of record, we should have at least one song by Boris Vian. We should have one song by Ferré. And we should have one of Jacques Prévert.” In this case, it’s “Fille d’acier,” (“Girl of Steel”), written with Joseph Kosma. “He and Kosma wrote quite a few songs together – you could do a whole record of them.” Among many other screenplays, Prévert wrote “Les enfants du paradis” (“Children of Paradise,” scored by Kosma); he and Kosma also wrote the well-known song “Autumn Leaves.”

For many, the songs of France are the songs of Edith Piaf. “This was a request from Brian, who wanted at least one Piaf song. I must confess, I was a bit reluctant – I mean, Piaf as a singer and an interpreter – you can’t compare. Nobody can compare with her. But “Hymne à l’amour” is a beautiful song, so we tried to give it a different interpretation, like a lullaby.”

Piaf (born Edith Gassion) lived a tragic life. Abandoned at birth by her mother, she lost her eyesight as a child for four years. She was encouraged by her father, a circus acrobat, to sing, which she did in the streets of Paris until a nightclub owner give her a job and suggested a change of name. “Piaf” is Parisian slang for sparrow, no doubt reflecting the singer’s diminutive stature. “Hymne à l’amour” was written with composer Marguerite Monnot, who also wrote “La goualante de pauvre Jean” (which was Englished as “The Poor People of Paris”) and the score to the show Irma la Douce.

“There could have been a lot of other songs,” says Gignac. “The choices were very subjective. I thought Jacques Brel should have been on the recording, and there was a piece from the 13th century that didn’t work out. But the purpose of this album was not to give an idea of everything that was done, or to make a collection of the most well-known songs or singers or styles. It was just to give a bouquet.”

Claire Gignac
Les Chants d'Eros (Nine Centuries of French Love Songs)

– Dorian Recordings DOR-90280

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