70. BAÏLÈRO – Canteloube from Songs of the Auvergne (as sung by Kiri te Kanawa)



This is definitely one of my ‘happy’ songs – but I only tend to play it when I’m up in my shed/study/den/man-cave at the top of the garden, because that’s where I have it on a little cassette.  Let me tell you about that little cassette tape.

Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest songs and the most beautiful pieces of music we seem to stumble across by accident? – and somehow that kind of adds to their magic and charm.  When we lived in Paraguay, it was notable that when non-indigenous colleagues and friends returned to their own countries after their period of work there, they would often want to offload items they no longer deemed necessary, or didn’t want to pack to take back.  Sometimes, in a way that I hope didn’t appear too ghoulish, those of us who remained might sort of sidle up, ‘help to pack’ in ways that meant we might pick up a few little items (no? Oh, just me then).  Anyway, thanks dear Nigel and Ally for a lovely red sleeping bag, and for this cassette tape by Kiri te Kanawa, showcasing music I had never heard before, or even heard of.

Joseph Canteloube was apparently as much of a musicologist as a composer, and I think this means  that he was as fascinated by songs as I am!  I’m joking – he was much more fascinated, because he actually got off his backside and went around the country ‘collecting’ songs that had developed and emerged through the oral tradition.  Yes, in other words he was a bit of a French Cecil Sharp, I suppose.  He went and collected throughout the region of the Auvergne, and then presumably took his collection and composed beautiful orchestrated versions of the songs. So the little tape was ‘Kiri te Kanawa sings Chants d’Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube’, and this song is the big ‘hit’ of the collection!

I’ve seen it called ‘Pastoral’, ‘Shepherd’s Song’, but most often ‘Baïlèro’, with its funny accents and all, because of course the songs are all in the local lingo, Occitan (thanks Wikipedia).  I think I may have assumed, listening to this first of all in a Spanish speaking country, that the title definitely had something to do with dancing (Spanish ‘bailar’ to dance), but no, from all the transcripts and translations I’ve seen, it appears that bailero and the frequently repeated ‘lero lero lero’ in the song is nothing more than your average kind of ‘fal-de-ri’ or ‘fa-la-la’ folk song filler!  But the repetition of those beautiful spilled out liquid sounds is part of this song’s glorious charm, for me.

These songs of course are filled with the staple diet of good rustic folk song- rather less murder, sprites and such than might appear in their rustic English counterparts – but plenty of shepherds and shepherdesses, hard work, harvesting, seducing, and unrequited love.  And it may seem a bit funny that I have called it one of my ‘happy songs,’ for apparently what we have in this particular song is the pining of a shepherd separated from a shepherdess (or vice versa?) by a river, and resigned to singing some melancholy but maybe hopeful(?) lero lero leros.

But there you go – sadness when depicted by the artist, the writer, the composer, is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and so – perversely – solidly life affirming, and happiness making!

As a kind of footnote…  I had also assumed that Kiri te Kanawa must have claimed this particular bit of music/song territory as her own, and certainly as I have played and replayed (and ‘lero’ed along to) that cassette tape up in my shed, it’s been hard to imagine anyone bettering her vocal interpretation!  But, dear reader, if you are at all interested/intrigued or can be bothered, the magic of youtube allows us to sample other singers taking on this particular classic.  I’m not sure that my ear is good enough to distinguish great from greater…  but take a listen –none of them disappoint, and some are accompanied by very nice pictures of the Auvergne!



13. 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.