France and her Music
There is much more to French culture than her buildings.

France and her Music

France has a rich cultural history, not least in music: how much do you know of her composers and her performers?

In terms of the earliest remotely modern music in France, which of these is the odd one out?
The lai was a type of song; the others are all performers
Blind French organist Louis Vierne led a life full of musical achievement despite a range of medical setbacks and accidents, including almost losing one leg. Perhaps ironically, he died ~ though suddenly ~ in the very place he might most have wished: at the console of the organ of Notre Dame de Paris.
Which piece of his own music was he playing at the time?
Carillon de Westminster
One of his Organ Symphonies
Stele pour un Enfant Defunt ( ' ... for a Dead Child') from his Triptyque
An improvisation on a theme submitted by a member of the audience
Apparently he had read the theme (from a Braille version) and selected his stops, then slumped forward unconscious with one foot on the pedalboard. What a way to go!
Olivier Messaien was a church musician who also explored ways of bringing new sonorities into the repertoire, especially in organ music. Where did he famously seek, and find, his inspiration?
Industrial and railway noises, bells and sirens
Reinterpreting fragments from Baroque suites and dances
(Then-) new media such as the radio and gramophone
He also explored the soundscape of cultures beyond Europe, particularly the Far East
Baptised with the name of an angel, he was for many years a church musician; and besides his songs, the work for which he is probably best remembered is his Requiem, in particular its supremely devotional Pie Jesu movement. He was also very much 'the darling of the salons' and a great favourite with the ladies. He died in his 80th year, in 1924.
Who was he?
Michel Charpentier
Gabriel Faure
Batiste Franck
Georges Clemenceau
Much of his music has angelic quality about it, but he could also be quite astringent. His influence on a long and rich period of French composition and music-making is almost incalculable
Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau, between them, were probably France's 'answer' to the towering German duo of Bach and Handel, writing chamber and harpsichord music and opera among much else. In which genre were these French composer-musicians NOT active?
Theatre music / opera
Keyboard pieces
Oratorio was more a Protestant development, so in Catholic France this was not a form that composers would try, though they certainly wrote sacred Cantatas
This composer and pianist revelled in the possibilities of new sound combinations: he frequently experimented with the whole-tone scale (one which doesn't have any sense of a 'home key' about it) and wrote descriptive pieces under such titles as La Cathedrale Engloutie ('The Drowned Cathedral') and Jardins sous la Pluie ('Gardens in the Rain'), besides operas and a splendidly vivid orchestral suite La Mer ('The Sea'). Many pianists come to his work by way of the 'Children's Corner' suite and his two charming and widely-played Arabesques.
Who was he?
Claude-Achille Debussy
Cesar Franck
Gabriel Faure
Jules Massenet
If you are not at least passingly familiar with his wonderful work, I strongly recommend that you discover some. You may be surprised to recognise pieces you already knew!
Ravel's Bolero ~ known as 'the drummer's nightmare' since the same tight, insistent side-drum rhythm runs throughout it, usually taken in turns by a relay of drummers ~ consists more or less of a straight series of repetitions of the same tune by increasingly loud combinations of instruments within the orchestra. How many times does the theme come round?
There are 17 repetitions; the effect is supposed to be progressively mesmeric
Camille Saint-Saens included musical depictions of 14 species in his orchestral suite Carnival of the Animals: in what guise do humans appear in it?
The pianists (with their less than perfect scales) appear in Part 11 of the work. Some people believe that an earlier reference to 'long-eared persons' represents music critics as donkeys!
Whenever the 'can-can' dance is mentioned, people typically hear in their mind's ear (and so insistent is it, they will probably shortly start to tap or hum or sing it!) a famous ~ even, infamous ~ piece from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.
What, though, is the correct original title of the piece within its context, rather than the name of the dance?
Dance of the Nymphs
Parade of the Maidens
The Infernal Galop
Follies and Frolics
'Infernal' merely in the sense of the Underworld; though higher-browed music lovers may well roll their eyes and wonder 'how low can you go?'.
(Meanwhile, there is a very pleasant little Dance of the Nymphs by Montague Birch, from Bournemouth in 1923, which is altogether more quaint!)
Georges Bizet sadly died young, but not before having written several operas and various other stage music. Which ONE of these is the only work whose action is set in France?
Les Pecheurs de Perles ('The Pearl Fishers')
La Jolie Fille de Perth
Arles is a venerable Gallo-Roman settlement in southern France; all the other settings are further afield (Spain, India, Scotland respectively)


Author:  Ian Miles

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