“La Grenouillère” (The Froggery)

1869, Claude Monet, La Grenouillère

1869, Claude Monet, La Grenouillère

In the final years of the nineteenth century, right up until the First World War, a little island on the Seine, named The Froggery, was a resort for painters and writers. Both Monet and Renoir painted it, for example.

Apollinaire’s poem regards this scene in later days, after its popularity has waned. Poulenc’s music for this is surely one of his most exquisite and perfect creations. About it he says, “it is the bumping together of the boats that motivates the rhythm from beginning to end of this tenderly affecting song.”

But I prefer to leave on one side words and scenes when I hear music, and instead listen to what the music has to say to me. Just as in the many popular songs I enjoy, I don’t trouble myself greatly with the issue of texts – the “musical text” is far more interesting to me.

The “text” that moves me so much in this style of French music is its civilised quality. I could find similar tendencies in Ravel and a dozen other composers. It is an adorable quality and such a wonderful contrast to the world, shall we say, of Schoenberg.

I won’t hear a word said against Schoenberg. When you know – if you have a good pair of ears, and the brain to go with it – what he can do, the best thing is to keep quiet and bow your knee to the ground. But the word “civilised” is not one I would use in connection with his work, nor do I think of Expressionism as giving voice to that quality either.

Well, I had the idea to get that “civilised” spirit into my quartet, and I already did make a sketch based on the song. But in so doing, it transformed rapidly into Geoffrey King, which was decidedly not the point of the endeavour………

I got the music of “La Grenouillère” out of the library today and I’ll study it closely. Meanwhile, I’ll give some thought to defining the word “civilised”, in this context. I doubt I shall get far with that however.

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