‘Songs of the Auvergne’:
A Soundtrack For Spectacular Days
Originally published elsewhere in May 2018
I’ve mentioned in passing how much I adore the Songs of the Auvergne, but I wanted to bring it up again here so I can talk at more length about it. This newsletter, after all, is in large part about sharing things I’m genuinely, deeply stirred by, in hopes you’ll find them intriguing too.
This is music I come back to every year, sometime in the spring or summer. Not just for the singer on my favorite recording of the piece — more on her in a moment — but for the songs themselves, for the way they speak to this season, for the swelling in my heart when I think of them on a day like this one.
Folk songs, originally. From the part of the world where Eleanor of Aquitaine once ruled, mistress of all she surveyed and queen eventually of both France and England. They’re sung in Occitan, a variant of which Eleanor herself would have known.
They weren’t orchestrated and published as a set, though, until the 20th century. The composer was a young man from the Auvergne, Marie-Josephe Canteloube de Malaret, who would distinguish himself primarily with this set of songs — and by supporting the Vichy government during World War II.
That's right: Canteloube’s proud Auvergnat provincialism, the hometown pride that inspired the elevation of this rowdy regional folk music into a formal concert suite designed to impress tout le monde, would curdle by the 1940s into a hard-right nationalism that would see him contributing to the newspaper Action française — a periodical with the dubious distinction of having been launched to push back against the defenders of Dreyfus in that infamous Affair.
If Canteloube were alive today, he’d be a backer of Marine le Pen’s Front National, and he’d wear a MAGA hat just to piss off the uppity Parisiens. Plus ça change, right?
But these songs, y’all. The way their melodies spin out over their lush, sun-drunk orchestrations—I can’t hear them without thinking of those tourist photos of the South of France, all lavender fields drowsing in golden light.
Yes! Like that exactly! Lavender and golden light!
“Bailero,” the song in the YouTube embed at the top of this post, is one you may know already. It’s been featured in films and TV commercials; it’s widely recorded and sung as an encore in recitals; and it’s probably one of the most effortlessly sensual things I’ve ever heard.
(It apparently gets name-checked, I shudder to report, in Fifty Shades of Grey, and it is reportedly included on a CD compilation of sexytime tunes “selected by author E.L. James” eeew eeew gross I have to go bleach my eyes now why does Google do these things to me.)
Anyway, I love the long, languid songs in this cycle the best. Trust me on this: Take your headphones out to Rock Creek Park or to the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks on a day like today, find a quiet spot in some dappled shade, tilt your head back and close your eyes and push play on a track like “Bailero” or “Pour l’enfant,” and tell me it’s not an utterly transporting experience.
The Yards Park, Southeast DC. Photo courtesy
(Fun culture-concierge fact: “Pour l’enfant,” for all its ecstatic lullaby swooning, is actually a mother’s lament about how sleep won’t come to her fretful child. It’s basically a ravishingly orchestrated Middle Ages folk-song version of Go the Fuck to Sleep.)
The more boisterous of the Chants d’Auvergne are pretty marvelous, too. They’re jangly with tambourine and bouncy vocals, with zippy, almost jazzy riffs in the woodwinds. The texts tell of mischievous young women at their spinning, boasting of their affairs with their shepherd boys; one song chuckles about a hungry donkey who really needs his hay. These are tunes with the smoke of the hillside campfire or the clatter of the market festival deeply embedded in their rhythms.
There are many recordings of the song cycle, to be sure, not least this marvelous one by Arleen Auger, the elegant Mozart soprano who sang at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. (Oh, don’t start.) Another favorite, widely beloved for its crystalline clarity and its utter lack of pretense, is by the Soviet-born singer Netania Davrath. In a gloomy coincidence, both of these women died in their 50s, no doubt with a great deal of splendid music still unsung.
My go-to favorite, though, is this set featuring Frederica von Stade:
Despite the name, von Stade is American — from a New Jersey family, if you please. The fancy part of New Jersey, though; her father and grandfather were polo champions. In her youth she played the great pants roles* — Hansel, Cherubino, the cavalier of the rose, and so on — and she famously starred in both of the big Cinderella operas. (There’s an Italian one and a French one. May be a Czech one and a Chinese one, for all I know, but Rossini and Massenet are the two that get produced.)
Anyway Frederica von Stade: Just typing her name gives me massive feels. And don’t ask me about her nickname, or there might be an Ugly Happy Cry.
(It’s “Flicka,” as in My Friend Flicka.)
(I KNOW, I KNOW, AND YES SHE LOVES HORSES, DON’T LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW I’M A MESS.)
Flicka’s voice has a kind of grain to it. It’s not rough, never; it just carries the slightest burr. Like fine walnut or a quartersawn red oak, polished to warm perfection but never without the distinctive character of that underlying grain. It’s a voice so singular you know it the instant you hear it. Those come along now and again: Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti in opera, Amy Winehouse and Bob Dylan in their genres. And von Stade.
And my god, the tastefulness of her phrasing. The effortless musicality. Just ... grace. Not to put too fine a point on it: She’s the most elegant singer I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a great many singers. But she’s never affected, like some singers who push the “tasteful” thing too far. She’s just peerless.
Frederica von Stade in the 2015 premiere of 'A Coffin in Egypt,'
created for her
by composer Ricky Ian Gordon
At age 74, she’s in her twilight years professionally now, but she sang the world premiere of a Jake Heggie opera as recently as 2016, never mind that she’d given what was meant to be her official farewell years five years earlier, reprising a part she’d created in the premiere of Dead Man Walking — the role of the condemned convict’s guilt-haunted, grief-wracked mother. (See, I told you — you can’t think of von Stade without getting snarled up in all the feels.)
We’re not doing crushing Death Row laments today, though. Today is about gratitude for the honey-and-clove beauties of Flicka’s voice, for the ravissement of the Auvergne songs, for the way they can take me out of my body on even a busy day and make me smile at the thought of fat bumblebees trundling their way sleepily across an endless field of fuzzy blue-violet.
Have a listen to one or to all of the recordings linked above. I hope you come to treasure these songs as much as I do — and that you’ll haul them out to re-hear from time to time, when summer comes wearing her warm, welcoming best.
*A “pants” role, for those who aren’t giant opera nerds, is a male part sung by a lady person. Some of them were originally written for castrati and later adopted by said lady people (and now by countertenors), but many were originally written for mezzo-sopranos to sing. What can I say? Opera is weird to begin with.