LOVE THEME from ‘LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG’ – Michel Legrand

Of course you could say that the whole of ‘Les Parapluies..’  is one long song – it is after all a seamless piece of sung dialogue –recitative, like opera – from beautiful beginning to beautiful end.

I watched the film one evening, while I was still living with my parents, presumably because there was ‘nothing else on’, or perhaps I convinced them it would help my A level French studies.  It’s hard to imagine Mam and Dad watching it with me (Did she knit her way through it? Did he read the Echo? ‘Watching’, in the same way, perhaps, in which I ‘watch’ TV with my family –doing a jigsaw on the coffee table, doing ebay negotiations or playing scrabble on the laptop) but –at an impressionable age, of course –I found the whole thing very poignant; the delicious sadness of that final scene stays with me –soft snow falling on a petrol station in the dark …

I don’t know if the main protagonists –the delectable Catherine Deneuve and… the bloke -sang their own parts [no they didn’t – note to self:Check on Wikipedia before writing! ] or whether they were dubbed, but the sound was sweet, clear and affecting,  and the music, like all great opera, soon made the unnatural device of singing everything (even the most mundane, casual remark) seem as natural as breathing.

The particular ‘song’ I’m thinking of here I always assumed was called ‘Ne me quittes pas’ which the Deneuve character begs her boyfriend more than once during the lyric.  Perhaps Jacques Brel’s song of the same name meant that Michel Legrand  thought that he would call his something else, and popularise it internationally under its English title (‘I Will Wait for You’).  But I’m just guessing.

The song covers the pivotal part of the narrative.  The young man announces that he has been drafted to do his National Service and will be away for two years; she is distraught, not sure how she can cope with such a long absence; since this is their last night together, he tenderly leads her up to his room (in the familial apartment) where they will have a night of physical congress to remember (and from which, of course, a conception occurs).  The song covers all that dialogue –the revelation, the anguish, the tender reassurances, and also in fact covers their goodbye the following day – remarkable that the one song spans so much of that central narrative without it appearing strung out or contrived, and the romantic sweeps and swoops of its melody are entirely appropriate and entirely captivating.

I was reintroduced to the song through the singing of Nana Mouskouri who, on her appropriately titled album ‘the Exquisite Nana Mouskouri’ gives a sensitive, faultless rendition of the song – in French, I think.  Yes, certainly: ‘No je ne pourrai jamais vivir sans toi…’ or something like that. ‘O mon amour, ne me quittes pas,’ she sings, soaring confidently and sympathetically over the gorgeously rich orchestral accompaniment.[ More than just a pair of glasses, that woman.  More even than a campaign for the return of the Elgin marbles.]

And yet from somewhere, I’m also familiar with its English ‘translated’ incarnation –‘the clock will tick away the hours one by one..’ .  Still, it’s the French that will give me the goosebumps, and send  me back to that first viewing, that uniquely moving 1964 film and all of the ways in which it touches the trembling consciousness rawly aware of the potency of love.

NOW THE GREAT BEAR AND PLEIADES from ‘Peter Grimes’ by Benjamin Britten

Can I call it a song? Whatever. Between 1974-7, when I was working in Cardiff, I probably saw more operas than I’ve seen in the subsequent 40 years put together. I was well aware, though, of how blessed I was, there at the base of the WNO probably, we’re often told, one of the best of the World’s opera companies. I saw everything I could and somehow, in those days, I could afford it, and even get a last-minute good seat, reasonable price. Times change.

I was often gripped by the spectacle and experience as much as the music – Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ comes to mind, as one of the first I saw, open mouthed. I heard all the arias that were meant to impress – and they did – I couldn’t help but be impressed by Suzanne Murphy’s Queen of the Night from ‘The Magic Flute’, by the ‘Pearl Fishers’ duet (incidentally the only opera I ever saw with my much loved and much missed sister Sue), by the slaves chorus from Nabucco, and so on.

But, Peter Grimes was something else, and I was quite unprepared for its effect on me! Perhaps because its music (my first taste of Britten) was so distinct from the Traviatas and Rigolettos and Bohemes, I was already paying a different kind of attention, I don’t know, but those wonderful sea overtures, for instance, hooked me even before the solos and choruses of the great narrative construction.

But it’s this solo that really got me: when the outcast, socially suspect recluse Grimes bursts through the door of the inn on that storm-ravaged night and sings words that have an unearthly visionary tone. His words at first, as he talks of the heavenly bodies (‘drawing up the clouds of human grief’) sustain a single note, while the strings behind begin to descend in subtle intervals. Somehow it not only captures the sense of dark wonder at space and the elements (‘Who can decipher/in storm or starlight..’)but also the tragic sense of lostness and alienation of a single soul in that universe. After a brief, manic moment, where the music reflects a crazier sense of bewilderment – ‘like a flashing turmoil/ or a shoal of herring..’ –we return to the single note line for a more melancholy sense of alienation – and regret? (Grimes, may, after all, have been responsible for a boy’s death).

This part of the song is the most chilling – and poignant – of all. The ‘who’ of his question becomes a one-note eerie hooting then melts into the rest of the question, moving down the scale, more melodic, and with a genuine note of heartbreaking enquiry – ‘Who….can turn skies back and begin again?’

The chorus mutters ‘He’s mad or drunk..’but me, I’ve been profoundly moved. Always drawn to the solitaries. And I’d never heard anything like it.