I cry a lot. My emotions live close to the surface like giant carp gasping for air in a stagnant pond. Art is my most frequent tear trigger-music especially. In college, I minored in Music and spent many nights weeping over my homework. French Romantic and 20th century music is my own private Victoria Falls. The orchestral piece, a nocturne called Nuages (clouds) by Debussy holds the number one spot on my personal chart. When I listen to it, I imagine I’m gliding down a French canal at dusk feeling melancholy with the oboe, and later, as the flute plays the pentatonic melody, I’m the sun peaking over the Alps at daybreak. I invite you to listen to the piece and tell me what you see and feel. Where does it take you, or does it?
Vocal music also transports me. I have two favorite operas, one Italian (Tosca), the other French (Les Contes d’Hoffman). When I had to sing in four different languages for my senior recital, the French songs (by Faure and Debussy if memory serves) were the hardest, and most rewarding. The undulating piano lines help create that dream-like quality, yet prove difficult for the rhythmically challenged among us.
This is all a long build up to say I could not leave Paris without hearing some chansons, the traditional art songs of France. I believe the form dates back to the Middle Ages, but I’m most fond of the pre-War style with its penchant for tales of the working class. These are the songs Edith Piaf spread around the world. A Parisian friend back in New York suggested the Lapin Agile in Montmartre for this old-school cabaret. Please erase any images of Liza Minnelli or Joel Grey from your collective heads. This style of cabaret is not nearly so sexual or subversive, although bawdy drinking songs were certainly in the mix.
Luke, our TA and friend, made a reservation for about ten of my study abroad group at 9 p.m. We piled into these creaking wooden benches, settling into a room once occupied by Toulouse Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. After sipping on a tiny glass of house wine with olives at the bottom, we noticed a large group of people at the center table as they started singing. I wasn’t even sure if they were all professionals at first; it was so organic.
They rallied the crowd in festive sing-a-longs as I sat enraptured. I did not understand a single word, but it hardly mattered. I felt French; I felt old; I felt a part of something beautiful. Eventually, the singers would leave the room save one and a set of solos would begin, accompanied by either an upright piano played with total class by a gentleman who matched the crags in the wooden benches, or by guitar.
The soprano’s solo set was stunning, a perfect mixture of sweet French ballads and up-tempo numbers including an Elvis homage/blues song. I had been fighting a cold all week so I’m not sure my tablemates knew how moved I was, as they likely assumed I was just honking again. I wanted to stay there indefinitely, until they couldn’t sing anymore. I wanted to ask the pianist to play The Barcarolle from Hoffman. I felt at home. Sadly, the Paris Metro closes around 12:30, and we had class the next day. I know I will return someday though, just as I know I will walk along the tempest tossed Yorkshire moors once more. Another story, for another time. Certain places haunt you.