Wednesday, February 16, 2005


"des filles qui sur les pavés, sans arrêt nuit et jour, font des tours et des tours.."

Francis Lemarque, Cornet De Frites.
Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla Symphonie: Turangalîla 1.

Two Frenchmen after the war.

During WWII, both Francis Lemarque and Olivier Messiaen had spent time in Nazi prison camps--Lemarque as part of the Resistance, Messiaen after the collapse of the French Army in 1940. And in the years after 1945, each worked to create a musical world fully removed from the scarred one they inhabited. Lemarque's music summons the imaginary Paris of popular memory, that of cafes, cigarettes fuming in ashtrays, accordion players, promenades along the Champs-Elysées. Messiaen went further inward. Inspired by Hindu myth and bird songs, his Turangalîla Symphony defies description, except that it could be the soundtrack to a sunrise on Mars.

Lemarque was like a character in a Jean Renoir film. Born Nathan Korb in 1917 Paris, to a Jewish family of Lithuanian/Polish heritage, he and his brother Maurice became a singing duo that regularly performed in avant-garde troupes, and serenaded striking Parisian workers during the '30s. When the Nazis conquered France, Kolb fled to Marseilles (part of "free" Vichy France) but when his mother was deported to her death, Kolb (by now going by the Lemarque name) entered the Resistance until the war's end.

Lemarque returned to Paris in 1946 and met up again with an old friend from the '30s, the poet/songwriter Jacques Prévert. It was Prévert who put Lemarque in touch with the new top singer in Paris, Yves Montand--Montand would become a regular interpreter of Lemarque's songs, starting with "A Paris." In 1949, Lemarque recorded some 78s performing his own compositions, including the wistful, lovely "Cornet de Frites," in which the narrator is happy that his lover doesn't mind holding his frites-stained hands.

Messiaen was born in Grenoble in 1908 and had a happy, indulged childhood: "He recalled it as an ‘éducation féerique’, dominated by his poetess mother reading him fairy-tales and French poetry, and by the toy theatre on which he and his brother Alain, later a poet, produced Shakespeare, Calderon and Goethe."

By the early 1930s, Messiaen had become the organist at La Trinité, a Parisian church; it was a position he would hold for the rest of his life. He was taken with the church's main organ, the Cavaillé-Coll, which had a resounding, at-times electronic sound. When he was captured after the fall of Paris, Messiaen composed his most notable work to date, writing a quartet for the only other musicians in his prison camp--a clarinetist, a violinist and cellist. The Quartet for the End of Time was premiered to his 5,000 fellow prisoners.

Turangalîla (which is a combination of two Sanskrit words, time and love) was Messiaen's masterwork--he called it "a hymn to the superhuman joy that transcends everything." (Boulez, no great adherent to the brotherhood of man, would later call it "brothel music.") Here is the third movement. (It's difficult to show via excerpt the epic scope of Turangalîla--imagine reading a chapter from the middle of Ulysses and trying to conclude from that the value of the whole. But anyhow..) From Messiaen's commentary:

"The first theme alternates between clarinet and the Ondes Martenot. The second theme is given to trombones in the low register, superposed by a gamelan of celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone and piano. The sinuous third theme is assigned to oboe and flute. The bass drum grows, the maracas diminishes, the wood block remains motionless."

To modern ears, the most intriguing sound in the gale of Turangalîla may be that of the Ondes Martenot, one of the pioneer synthesizers, and which had already been used by Hollywood composers for horror films like The Bride of Frankenstein. Turangalîla was first premiered in Boston on December 2, 1949, by Leonard Bernstein.

Lemarque's music for the most part is available only via import CDs. "Cornet" can be found on A Paris, a 2003 compilation of his early work on a French label Soldore. I believe since these are European recordings made in the '40s, they are essentially in the public domain, but perhaps lawyers have done something about that.

The complete Turangalila was first recorded in America in 1967 by Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose performance remains one of the finest. You can buy it here.

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