Classical Connections: Southern Comforts

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The South has always seemed a better place to me, perhaps because I was brought up in a damp and grey northern climate.  My attraction to the south may have been partly to do with the other man’s grass but even the word “south” always struck me as evocative and full of promise.

In the distant summers of yesteryear, I often used to go to the South of France, driving down the evocatively-named Autoroute du Soleil.  As you head south you begin to notice subtle changes in the countryside and as you get closer to the legendary region of Provence, the quality of the light begins to change too.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Provence (Paul Cézanne, c.1895).Mont Sainte-Victoire, Provence (Paul Cézanne, c.1895).

It’s easy to understand why the South of France attracted so many artists during the last quarter of the nineteenth century onwards.  The air is so clear; the colours so vibrant.  Even grey stone walls seem to have richer tones than those of the north.  Describing Antibes, the painter Claude Monet wrote, “How beautiful it is here, so clear and pure in its pinks and blues.”

The post-impressionist Paul Cézanne spent many years painting the landscapes around his home in Aix-en-Provence and many were seduced by the magical southern light.  Several other celebrated artists showed up there sooner or later, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy and Paul Signac.  Pierre Bonnard lived in a hillside villa above Cannes, Matisse settled in Nice and Picasso chose to live in Antibes and Juan les Pins.  The Russian painter Marc Chagall moved to St. Jean Cap Ferrat, captivated by the blue light and the seascapes.

Composers too became fascinated with what the south of France had to offer.  After all, there had been a long musical history, beginning with the troubadours, those wandering composer-performers who emerged during the twelfth century and created a legacy of songs about chivalry and courtly love.

The nineteenth-century composer Charles Gounod spent three months in Provence absorbing local colour for his opera Mireille and Puccini set his opera La Rondine on the Riviera.  Darius Milhaud wrote a colourful suite called Suite Provençale but perhaps the composer most readily associated with the South is one who had deep family roots in the Auvergne.

Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957):  Songs from the Auvergne (arr. Annelies Van Parys). Claire Lefiliâtre (sop), Oxalys Wind Ensemble (Duration: 37:15 Video: 720p HD)

The Songs from the Auvergne date from between 1923 and 1930 and they’re a collection of attractive, colourful folk-songs arranged for soprano and orchestra.  There are five sets of songs, each consisting of between six and eight separate numbers.  The lyrics are in a dialect of the local language known as Occitan, or Langue d’Oc.  Canteloube was very familiar with the language and used it for the libretto of his opera Le Mas (“The Farmstead”).  The language gives its name to the vast geographical area known as the Languedoc, which sweeps across the South of France.

This is an interesting new version of the work, scored for chamber ensemble by the Belgian composer, Annelies Van Parys and which preserves Canteloube’s sensuous harmonies.  Probably the best known of the songs is the beautiful Baïlèro (“The Shepherd’s Song”) which begins at 02:54.  Claire Lefiliâtre gives a compelling performance and seems to have just the right kind of clear, focused voice for this remarkable music.  Listen out for the incredibly fragile and touching lament at 31:48.  The video has excellent sound quality but subtitles could have been useful, especially if your Occitan is a bit rusty.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875): L’Arlésienne Suites 1 & 2. Orquesta Sinfonica Valencia cond. Nathalie Stutzmann (Duration: 40:34 Video: 720p HD)

Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne is usually translated as “The Girl from Arles” and refers to the ancient town in the South of France lying on the banks of the River Rhône, not far from the Mediterranean.  Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles for a short time in the late 1880s.

Daudet’s play, despite the fine incidental music by Georges Bizet was not particularly successful and closed after only twenty-one performances.  Fortunately, the musical score was converted into two orchestral suites which have become known world-wide.  Both suites include a fairly prominent part for alto saxophone, which was enjoying popularity in classical music at the time.  The first suite is the better-known and was written by Bizet himself, while the second one was completed after his death by his close friend, Ernest Guiraud.

Each suite contains four movements, which include Bizet’s own themes as well as several genuine folk melodies from the South of France.  This is a splendidly rhythmic, well-articulated and elegant performance.  In the last movement of the second suite, the conductor Nathalie Stutzmann whips up the tempo to a virtual gallop, providing an exuberant ending to this most delightful of works.