Streets and theatres alive with sound of music

France is a very musical country, with a rich lineage of composers and performers. It also provides countless opportunities to enjoy live shows. Samantha David reveals her favourites

30 May 2018
Jazz in Vienne looks stunning at sunset
By Samantha David

Music occupies a special place in France whether it is folk, classical or pop, and many styles are associated with specific regions. The troubadours of Toulouse; the Burgundian school of music, the chansons of Poitou, the valse musette of Paris, Basque and Breton folk music, Corsica’s own brand of traditional music, Carpentras (Vaucluse) where the first French opera was produced... the list is endless. The Fête de la Musique on June 21 will be a wonderful opportunity to discover local musicians and their music, and France being France, the festivities will inevitably be extended across the following weekend...

Toulouse

Toulouse was for centuries the centre of the romantic courtly lyric poetry written and performed by troubadours to the accompaniment of a lyre.

In 1323, seven wealthy citizens, who later became known as the ‘seven troubadours’ despite not being musicians or performers themselves, created a poetry competition. It was open to troubadours, and minstrels from anywhere, but they had to write in the langue d’Oc (Occitan) rather than the langue d’oïl which was used in Paris.

They called themselves the Compagnie du Gai Savoir (The Company of Gay Learning) and the prize they offered was a golden violet, which was duly awarded at the contest held in May the following year. Over time various other flowers were added to the prize list, and in 1694 the organisers changed their name to the Académie des Jeux Floraux.

The academy was disbanded during the Revolution but was re-established in 1806 and in 1895 entrants were allowed to write in either Occitan or French. Victor Hugo won in 1820 (at the tender age of 17) and François-René de Chateaubriand won in 1821. The competition is still in existence today, although chanson takes  second place to literature.

Toulouse, however, boasts a positive rainbow of music festivals, concerts and other events including the flamenco festival in March, the Rio Loco festival from June 14 to 17 (this year highlighting the Cuban rumba), the Siestes Electroniques from June 27 to July 1), the Tango postale festival from June 29 to July 8, and throughout July and August the city throbs with music.

The Toulouse d’été festival takes place all over town; 50 events covering every conceivable style of music, classical, jazz, world music, rock, folk, chanson, etc... many of them free. (See toulouserete.org for the full programme.).

In September, Piano aux Jacobins, France’s largest piano festival takes place at the Jacobin Monastery (see pianojacobins.com) and in October the city’s impressive collection of organs comes to life with Festival Toulouse les Orgues (toulouse-les-orgues.org).

But it is not just festivals. The third weekend of September Toulouse attracts around 65 guitar-makers from all over France for the Salon de la Lutherie. Guitar-makers also come from as far afield as India and Chile.

The events diary in Toulouse is also crammed with concerts and courses, music lessons and open mic events, dances and balls, shows and exhibitions.      

 

Brittany

Traditional folk music in Brittany is deep rooted in history and alive and kicking today, as witnessed by the Interceltique festival in Lorient, Morbihan in south Brittany. One of France’s largest music festivals, it has been going for nearly half a century and this year is expected to attract around 700,000 visitors between August 3 and August 12.

This year, the special guest country is Wales (Manic Street Preachers are playing), and it will be a great chance to discover many of the instruments and music forms unique to Celtic music.

Kan ha Diskan is a call and response type of vocal music, which often accompanies dance music. A lead singer, a kaner sings a phrase which is then repeated by the diskaner with slight changes.

A kan ha diskan can last anywhere from five to 20 minutes and are often performed at a fest-noz or ‘night-party’. Kantikoù are vocal hymns accompanied by instruments including the Celtic harp, pipes and organ. Gwerzioù and sonioù
are laments and ballads which are often performed a cappella by a solo singer, and often recount tragic events like murders, wars and, of course, lost love.

Chants de Marins are shanties about shipwrecks, drowning and life at sea, often accompanied by the fiddle and/or accordion. With its extensive coastline and seafaring traditions, these songs can be heard all over Brittany, not just at festivals, although of course there is also a shanty festival. (In Paimpol, every two years; the next one is August 2-4 2019.)

Traditional instruments include the Celtic harp, which has been common in Brittany since the Middle Ages, the violon (which can be either a fiddle or a violin) and a six key clarinet called a treujenn-gaol – which means ‘cabbage stalk’.

Guitars, wooden flutes and accordions are also popular as are two types of indigenous bagpipes; the veuze and the smaller biniou which is often played alongside the bombarde. The bombarde dates back to the 15th century and is a curious instrument; loud and often quite raucous, it has the advantage of being heard from a mile off, even above the noise of a large outdoors dance.

Since the 1970s there has been a very vigorous folk revival in Brittany and now there are bands which mix all sorts of other musical styles, but especially pop and rock, to produce updated music which still reflects the history and
tradition of Breton folk music.

Pipers at Interceltique Festival Lorient
Pipers at Interceltique Festival Lorient
Bombarde and Biniou
In Brittany,a musician plays a biniou, a small, indigenous bagpipe

Paris

The accordion music associated with the Parisian bal musette contributed hugely to the popularity of the film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, and is often used by filmmakers to set a scene in Paris even before a character arrives there.

It only developed in the 1880s, however, when a wave of workers from Auvergne arrived in Paris and opened their own cafés and bars where customers danced the bourrée to music played on a bagpipe called a musette and a often a hurdy-gurdy. The style was taken up by Italian Parisians who played the accordion and who introduced the waltz and the polka to the repertoire.

By the end of the 19th century three types of bal musette had evolved; the Auvergne-style bals des familles, the Italian-style bals musette populaires and the bals de barrière which were regarded as very dodgy indeed. The French upper crust were fascinated, however, and used to go slumming hoping for excitement and even scandal.

Bal musettes were popular because the dances were easier to learn, took less space and were often more intimate, more sensual. Dances like the tango-musette, the paso-musette and the valse-musette developed, all of them simpler forms of their classic versions. An original dance also appeared: the java.

Entrance was usually free but dancers had to buy dance tokens from the bar which were collected during the dance. After the Second World War, bals musettes fell out of fashion but were soon revived and are now enjoying increased popularity all across France. Today, Paris Bal organises regular dances with live music, some on a péniche (Parisian river boat). Most of the dancers are locals, but tourists are beginning to discover the pleasures of the bal musette too, partly because it’s so authentically French.      

Honfleur, Normandy

France has produced a long list of world-class musicians and composers, and the country is dotted with their homes and birthplaces, so visiting them would take you to almost every part of the ‘hexagon’.

Honfleur is the birthplace of Erik Satie, the idiosyncratic but hugely influential composer of the Gymnopédies. The museum there, Les Maisons Satie, in the house where he was born and raised, is suitably quirky, full of amusing artworks explaining the various moods of his work.

It is as witty and interesting for those who know nothing about him as it is for his fans, giving an insight into his chaotic lifestyle, complicated emotional state, and intellectual courage; almost no-one else has ever succeeded at overturning all rules on writing music and still produced such memorable composition. One of the best-loved rooms contains a white piano which automatically plays some of Satie’s most popular works. 

A rich musical heritage

The theme from Carmen, composed by Georges Bizet, is amongst the best-known tunes in the world, and he, along with musicians such as Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns and Claude Debussy, are household names.

French cabaret stars like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett became mainstream stars, as did stars of French chanson: Juliette Greco, Mireille Mathieu, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, and Charles Aznavour.

Serge Gainsborough worked in styles ranging from jazz through disco to hip hop. In the 60s, the French style yé-yé evolved, bringing new stars into the spotlight including Johnny Hallyday, Eddy Mitchell, France Gall, and Sylvie Vartan.

French musicians including David Guetta have always been amongst the world’s leaders when it comes to electronic music and French pop and rock stars are too numerous to mention, so wherever you go you will always find connections to France’s musical heritage.

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