What is it about the French?

By October 16, 2012ABC, History, Music, Society

The ABC’s Classic FM recently had one of their ‘countdowns’ — in this case listeners nominated their favourite piece of French music, and a list of the top one hundred emerged. For a week the main diet on the station was the list starting at number 100 and moving to number one, which was Bizet’s Carmen, arguably the best opera ever, though it was a failure when it first appeared.

I wondered a little when the countdown was announced. Could there be a list of one hundred that was musically sustainable? In fact, the week of music (I heard much of it) was fascinating and enjoyable. In the end, 35 composers were nominated, and it turned out that I knew virtually all the works presented. I just hadn’t thought of them as a national set. And that started me thinking again about France and the French, and their contribution to the culture of the world.

It is the second European culture after that based on the English language. France was one of the first nation states, and it had claims to being number one, from about the time of Louis XIII to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo; the French language remained the language of diplomacy thereafter. The French had a large colonial empire, but they lost the big bits to the English after the Seven Years War in 1763, and Jefferson bought a lot of the present United States from France in the Louisiana Purchase. Australia, India and Canada could all have been French possessions.

Pride in their language and culture, and a vigorous protection of it, have been characteristic of French governments since Napoleon at least. I used to go to Europe once a year to represent Australia at the annual meeting of the European Science Research Councils. The common language was English, but the French delegates spoke only French, and we were all expected to understand. My schoolboy French had been improved a little by spending a whole summer in Paris once, but it wasn’t really up to engaging at scientific conferences.

The French have a Ministry of Culture, and its job is to protect and extend French art, language, music and history;  it does a great job, and foreign tourists ought to bless it. More than one hundred museums and galleries in Paris are free (or they were when I was last there), and when I lived in Paris the Louvre was free on Tuesdays. If you are interested in what it is to be French, then exploring its history and culture is easy and absorbing.

Of course, there can be a downside to all this. ‘Guarding’ French culture from foreign infiltration, resisting the growth of ‘Franglais’ (as in neologisms like ‘le weekend’) and asserting the importance of France generally can sometimes be irritating when it isn’t funny. And modern transport and communications are eroding the existence of institutions like the village bakery and charcuterie.

No matter. France is a most beautiful country, the best in Europe, I think, and I love being there, experiencing it — savouring it, really. It is about taste. The food and wine are different, and as good as you get. The countryside, the architecture, the motor vehicles, the supermarkets, the clothing — they are all familiar, yet different and special.

What was special about the music? Well, the French Top 100 included only five symphonies, those of Saint-Saens, Bizet (a work he wrote as an adolescent and never heard), Berlioz, Franck and Messiaen (the last unlike any other symphony in the repertoire). I think Franck’s Symphony in D is a great work, but if you didn’t know, when first hearing it you would think it had been written by someone in the German tradition — and in fact it was not popular in France. Franck was a Belgian, so perhaps that explains it.

Concertos? Only a handful, and most of them by Saint-Saens again. Setting him aside (he produced nine of the top 100) 35 of the list belonged to Debussy, Berlioz and Ravel. They loved to write music that represented their reaction to something, rather than as their contribution to a particular form. The list has  quite a few operas and ballets, a good deal of religious music, and a lot for the piano.

I was initially a bit dismissive about the notion of a countdown devoted to the music of one country, but what I heard was splendid — and thought-provoking, as you have seen. Vive la France!

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