2006December25 RadioFrance: Christmas on FranceMusique

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes


Sundown on Christmas Day, about 5pm. Why is it so green? That’s winter wheat, which is planted in autumn in this climate. It will be harvested some time in very late spring. The first real stirrings of spring occur in February. About the middle of that month, we’ll see blossoms on the almond trees—the ones that are left. Almost all of the almonds in this region and further north were eliminated in time. It used to be a significant crop. Still, the tender white blossoms of these trees are a reliable harbinger of spring. Way in the distance, on the left of the horizon, is Mont Ste. Michel, near Aix-en-Provence.

It’s clear enough that on Christmas morning, the inmates take over.

At least this is so on RadioFrance, France Musique, the classical music station throughout the country. It’s as if some ur public radio station had been decimated some time in the past, and the parts parceled out to different portions of the FM dial. FranceCulture features talk about the obvious. FranceInter, more of the same, with a thin line separating these two programming groups to this impaired francophone. Then there’s FranceInfo, and God knows what that is—though it seems to be news, weather and financial matters. FranceBleu is for the hoi polloi, interpolating nondescript French pop music with call-in shows that are localized so listeners can banter with the host and then offer something to sell, the asking price, and their phone number. It’s wildly popular.

France Musique is a throw-back, in this analogy, to the days of Boston FM radio of the 60s, which offered at least three professional FM stations playing classical music (and a modicum of jazz) around the clock: on the public station WGBH, and two commercial stations, the still extant CRB, and the now defunct outlet in the city of a fledgling network of concert music (with outlets as well in Hartford and Providence, and others planned before they all went bust—BCN [Boston Concert Network] is now, of course, a mélange of shock jock radio (and the station for Howard Stern before he was forced to decamp to the terrestrial orbit of satellite radio), New England Patriot game broadcasts, and the same old combination of fringe and golden oldie rock music.

The French are distinguished, of course, for their love of talk, and I recall listening to RadioFrance FranceMusique
(RFFM) during my earliest sojourns, when the broadcast style featured
two solemn Frenchmen (sometimes one was a woman, usually with an alto
voice—one imagined it thickened by chain smoking Gauloises,
sometimes stuck in the corner of their mouths to free their hands to
flip the vinyl on the turntable) offering interminable, punctilious and
exacting exegetical discussion that ran at least 20 minutes straight at
a time concerning the four bars of one movement of a chamber music
piece they had just played. I’d guess the ratio of talk to music was
about 10:1. As a sop, towards the end of the hour, they’d play almost
all of a single movement, and not necessarily the same one under
consideration, that is, until they ran out of time, because at the hour
the composer and the discussants changed. Their forte was to compare
the same four bars as played by six or eight different groups of
musicians, deconstructing the minutiae of interpretation, bowing (let’s
say, if it was a string piece), or embouchure (for brass), the health
of the lead musician at the time of the recording, etc.

I remember bellowing at the radio in the tiny four-banger rental
cars I used to rent in those days—usually Fords, in models not
available in the U.S., no doubt because too small, too under-equipped,
except under the hood, and too much of a tendency to turn the occupants
into mixed organ meats should you encounter a larger vehicle at highway
speed. “Shut the fuck up and play the music!” But they would babble on,
oblivious. I imagined my French fréres bellowing the same, only
in French, those who were not the superannuated listening audience they
targeted when first deploying the station—dowagers and Sorbonne
graduates of the 30s, musicologists, and the fabled “French
intellectuals” who are always depicted packed cheek-by-jowl, barely
able to bend an elbow to lift their espresso cups, at the famous Café Flore
[headquarters for Jean-Paul Sartre in his heyday, and, of course, his
distaff combination confrère and lover, Simone de Beauvoir] or the
gathering place of impecunious ex-pat American writers in the 20s and
30s, Les Deux Magots, now the enclave of American tourists still looking for Jean-Paul Sartre, who has been dead for over a quarter-century.

Sometime in the ensuing dozen or so years, FranceMusique underwent a
transformation, as if they finally heard my screaming. Either that, or
the program managers of the earlier years had been put out to pasture
(it is a state radio system; I assume a mandatory retirement age).
Whatever the cause, though there’s still a lot of blabbing, they talk
less and play more music. And the detailed, agonizing explications
note-by-note have given way to more expansive, philosophical, dare I
say, subjective, opining. When there are two people talking, inevitably
it is one of the limitless or, at least, massive staff of regulars
conversing with a foreign artist or composer.

It was while listening to these interviews that I realized that even
as much as I only really followed the gist for the first three weeks of
a typically three and-a-half-week visit (“just when I think I am
getting the French, they pull me back to the ‘States”) what I can
do, definitively, is tell when a foreign speaker is palavering in
French. Americans are particularly easy to spot, even if they are
otherwise fluent, even glib, with expansive vocabularies, and the
accent just one second of arc away from the longitude and latitude of
the Eiffel Tower. Nothing sticks out in Provence like a Parisian
accent, and since all I hear wherever I go out into the ‘hood is the
twang of the hicks of the South of France (even those well educated
assimilate it—kind of like Connecticut Yankees who settle down in West
Texas), the nuances become more and more obvious. Well, it’s a start,
overall, to gaining the grail of fluency. Already I am sometimes
mistaken for a Belgian or a Dutchman, especially when I don’t make some
boobish mistake in grammar or use the wrong word or the wrong gendered
definite article, which occurs about every third sentence. Hence, for
this, at least, I am grateful to France Musique. Well, grateful
for that, and for finally playing a whole symphony all the way through
once they shut up. It’s only taken 19 years.

They play all kinds of music, manifesting the usual French
eclecticism: from Cathy Berberian screeching avant-garde music of the
60s, to Buxtehude. There’s heavy emphasis on late Classical and
Romantic chamber works, especially for small string ensembles. They
also like Baroque choral stuff, and are mad, currently at least, for
almost any choral music sung in German, which always leaves me bemused,
given that not a month or so goes by that I do not learn another
epithet/slur—usually derivative of World War II slang— for our
neighbors to the east, the mildest of which is “boche” meaning
“rascal,” apparently, in French, though this innocuous English term
belies the degree to which the Germans still detest the word. In any
event, détente has made it all quiet on the Western front, at least in
the worlds of music and politics.

During the week, RFFM plays an hour of jazz, though the broadcast
hour seems to slip about every third visit we make. Usually it occurs
during cocktail hour. The announcer is a soft-spoken middle-aged bloke,
the unmistakable vocal döppelganger of the host, Ray Smith, of a show
called “The Jazz Decades,” which has been on the NPR outlet in Boston,
WGBH, for over 30 years. Smith specializes in the earliest jazz
recordings starting from the invention of the phonograph through the
very early 40s. The French host has a similar penchant, and a real
jones for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, not to mention Louis Armstrong.
Even when he does not play their music, per se, he has a habit of
saying in an incantatory way, as a cut is ending, “Lady Day…,” with
an unmistakable French accent (the “Day” is almost “Deey”), as if
invoking the presiding spirit who is, no doubt, floating above the CD

It’s not nearly enough respite from the unremitting classical music,
but there is the occasional and seemingly random bit. They play a chunk
of soundtrack from an old movie—an old French movie—and it is instantly
recognizable as one of the Jean Renoir classics. Perhaps the height of
the party scene from Les Regles de Jeu, with characteristic
music, which is perhaps the point, and which makes it instantly
recognizable, for mood, for tone, for febrile Gallic esprit… Then
they, the announcers, go off on a riff that somehow has to do with
movie music. Last night, there was a fiesta of serious pieces, plus
excerpts from scores, by Franz Waxman (responsible among other scores,
for orchestrating the score to Fritz Lang’s “The Blue Angel,” before he
left for Hollywood in 1935, where he immediately wrote the music for
“The Bride of Frankenstein”—from Weimar to weird in just five years; he
also wrote the scores, just as a sampling, to “The Philadelphia Story,”
“Suspicion,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Mister Roberts”). Try catching
two hours straight of his music on any American station.

Last night—Christmas Eve—saw three hours of an homage to Josef
Krips, one of the great conductors of the 20th century: one of a
handful who fled Austria (after the Anschluss) or Nazi Germany, either
out of conscience, or circumcision, or both. Krips did wonderful
interpretations of Beethoven, and last night they played, from
RadioFrance tapes of live performances, a great 7th symphony, and a
transcendent 9th (see? more German choral blasts).

But this morning! This morning something was afoot. I turned on the
radio early, and clearly the bosses were sleeping in, the wardens were
on furlough, the keepers had left the grounds, whatever, because the
loonies were in charge.

Scads of tuneful takes of bebop interpretations of Christmas music,
or the same by the precursors to Frank Zappa. That went on for a couple
of hours, and then at 9am a couple of mirthful French zanies, some guy
and a very young woman with a very high pitched voice and exclamation
points in her speech (who sang the chorus once in awhile for any
particularly swinging cut) played some special music for Christmas

The show, for what it’s worth, was called “A Christmas Tree:
Crooners and other Wreaths…” with everything from a very young Johnny
Mathis (and once again, from the lips of a Frenchman, I heard for the
first time the legal name of an American icon: John Royce Mathis) doing
“Winter Wonderland,” to Nat King Cole crooning, indeed, a song I’d
never heard before from anyone, called “The Shadows” (a ballad, scored
by Nelson Riddle, and recorded in 1956 along with an album’s worth of
other tunes—never released until 2001, and then, on a CD, called “Night
Lights,” though the announcer gave the impression it was called “The
Lost Album;” only the French could be up on such arcana) to a very
swinging Mel Tormé, doing “Happy Together,” the 60s hit from the
bubblegum rock band, The Turtles (and not a mention of his now
lugubrious nickname, "The Velvet Fog"). The entire list of songs and
singers was actually weirder than that, but delightful, not least of
all because it was the antithesis of what one would expect from a
French national classical radio station. Also, only every third song or
so had anything to do with Christmas or winter. Inapposite as anything
could be from the solemnized, earnest analysis that is the bedrock of
this cultural manifestation of all that is French.

One should never forget that France produced Francois Truffaut, René
Clement, and Alain Resnais. But before each of these, before Camus and
Sartre, was René Clair, who makes the Marx Brothers look like a Wall
Street law firm.

Postscript [26 December 2006]

As I’m determined on this blog to act like a blogger, as opposed to
a journalist, the principle determining accuracy is cousin to the
philosophy: never ask permission as you can always ask forgiveness.

In short, I check on the aim of my prescience, in which I have much confidence (too much if you ask some people) after the fact.

And it turns out, indeed, that France Musique has a new policy for the early morning hour, 9-10am, formerly titled Matin des Musiciens. Here it is, formally spelled out, from their Web site:

Au bonheur des gammes

du lundi au vendredi – 9h – 10h

comme un nouveau « Matin des Musiciens » qui avait marqué toute une
génération d’auditeurs, « Au Bonheur des Gammes » décline chaque
semaine un thème différent, présenté par un amoureux du genre,
l’occasion pour France Musique d’inviter de nombreuses personnalités
extérieures à la chaîne, musiciens, écrivains ou journalistes. Dans le
kaléidoscope de la nouvelle saison, « Au Bonheur des Gammes » célèbrera
aussi bien des anniversaires (« Mozart et le cinéma » par Marc
David-Calvet du 16 au 20 novembre, « Mozart derniers temps » par Max
Genève du 4 au 12 décembre, Paul Sacher par Alain Paris du 6 au 10
novembre, l’Orfeo et la naissance de l’Opéra par Philippe Beaussant,
Dominique Jameux et Marc Dumont du 29 janvier au 16 février, Corneille
par Piotr Kaminsky du 9 au 13 octobre), que des expositions (Maurice
Denis par Delphine Grivel du 30 octobre au 3 novembre, Théodore de
Banville par Martine Kahane du 13 au 17 novembre), des publications
(Britten par Mildred Clary du 2 au 6 octobre, Cannes par Agnès
Catherine Poirier du 7 au 11 mai 2007) ou de grandes figures connues ou
pas (Pellegrino par Jean-Christophe Frisch du 18 au 22 septembre, ou
Chabrier par François Hudry du 8 au 12 janvier 2007).

In short, they have institutionalized the concept of letting those
who are institutionalized (elsewhere) to run the show, five days a
week, for an hour. Go figure… Or, as they say in French, sort of, vous vous démerdez

And OK, so it isn’t all Tormé and King Cole. They said (and I said), it’s for Christmas.

don’t take my word for it on all this. I just admitted I’m a journalist
like Peter Mayle, as opposed, say, to Mort Rosenblum (who I believe won
one of those Pulitzer things), while we’re on the same subjects I
usually choose (and to mention two Provençal "neighbors")…

Here’s the URL for listening to the France Musique stream on the Web:

http://viphttp.yacast.net/V4/francemusique/fmusique_main_V4.html?id=fmusique [remember, six hours difference in time to the east coast of the U.S.]

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