Canteloube: From Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne)

Marie Joseph Canteloube de Malaret was born October 21, 1879, in Annonay, France, and died November 4, 1957, in Grigny, a southern suburb of Paris. His Chants d’Auvergne orchestrations were published in five series between 1923 and 1954. “Baïlèro” and “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” were first performed by the San Francisco Symphony in July 1940; Gladys Swarthout was soloist and Pierre Monteux conducted. The most recent performances, divided between soloists Christine Brewer and Dawn Upshaw and led by Michael Tilson Thomas, were given on a European tour in January 1999. These are the first SFS performances of “La delaïssádo.” The songs together require an orchestra of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, percussion, timpani, piano, and strings. Performance time: about twelve minutes. 

Nationalism was riding a crest of aesthetic popularity in France during Marie Joseph Canteloube’s formative years, and he had the good fortune to study with one of French nationalism’s most enthusiastic advocates, Vincent d’Indy. The two first met in 1901 or 1902, and Canteloube moved from his ancestral home in Annonay, in the Auvergne, to Paris in order to study with d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, where he enrolled in 1907. Canteloube was reasonably well prepared for the rigorous compositional regime d’Indy would put him through, as he had already became a respectable pianist, studying first with his mother and later with a pupil of Chopin’s. D’Indy was a great aficionado of folk music. As early as 1887, he installed himself in the Ardèche region (not far from Canteloube's home), where he made a specialty of composing folk-flavored pieces reflecting the pastoral spirit of the French countryside, works that included the once-famous Symphony on a French Mountain Air.

Canteloube was no stranger to folk music either. Many of his early memories had to do with the songs of his native Auvergne, a rugged, hilly region of central France where generations of his family had lived and died. At the Schola Cantorum, he was encouraged to develop his fondness for this repertory; and to that native enthusiasm, d’Indy added a full measure of technical training in harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. In addition, Canteloube cemented important friendships with fellow students who were similarly inclined toward the cause of musical regionalism, most importantly Déodat de Séverac, whom Canteloube lauded in a testimonial for “giving feeling a superior place to intellect and loving with real affection the earth, his own race, and his own country”—words that just as easily could have described Canteloube himself. By the time he left the conservatory, Canteloube was fully prepared to follow the route that would make him famous: collecting regional French folk songs and publishing them in arrangements for the concert hall. 

Beginning around the turn of the century, armed with a tape recorder, he embarked on expeditions in the French countryside to collect folk songs, this at about the same time similar excursions were being undertaken by Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Cecil Sharp in the British Isles, by Bartók and Kodály in Hungary and the Balkans, by Szymanowski in Poland, and by Falla in Spain. Canteloube would continue this quest for the rest of his life, collecting songs from throughout France and publishing them in anthologies for solo voice (with accompaniment of piano or orchestra) or for a cappella choir. The most famous of his collections are the five volumes of Chants d’Auvergne, which he published between 1923 and 1954. These songs are presented in Auvergnat (or Auvernhat), a variety of Occitan language, a Romance tongue closely related to Provençal and Catalan. In 1950, looking back at the genesis of his Chants d’Auvergne, the composer wrote: “I lived at that time deep in the country in a region where the country folk would still willingly sing. I began to roam through the farms and villages to listen to the songs of the peasants, making both old women and men sing to me, as well as the shepherds and shepherdesses in the fields, the farm workers, and the harvesters at their work.” Elsewhere, Canteloube maintained: “The songs of Auvergne constitute the most extensive, important, and varied musical folklore of France. The splendor and originality of these songs may be attributed to the antiquity of the land and to the people who have lived on it.”

But Canteloube was only part ethnomusicologist; he was also an accomplished composer. Though he is remembered today only through his folk song settings, Canteloube did compose a number of “strictly classical” works, including three operas on French nationalistic subjects, the symphonic poem Vers la princesse lointaine, concerted works for piano and for violin with orchestra, and chamber music.

What really interested Canteloube was combining his two disciplines by turning authentic folk songs into concert pieces. As a composer, he believed he could recapture something of the spirit of a folk song’s environment, which he felt was a critical part of the song’s authenticity.

This he did, though a modern listener will find that the Chants d’Auvergne belong more to the refined sound-world of d’Indy, Debussy, and Ravel than to that of rustic peasants. Canteloube’s orchestrations evoke the Auvergnat landscape and the people who occupy it, but nonetheless they cut through a broad swath of styles. His harmonic treatments are sometimes quite elaborate, extending to the use of added-note harmonies in the manner of Ravel. In the end, however, what is likely to impress listeners the most in the Chants d’Auvergne is the luxurious beauty of the melodies, which Canteloube was attentive enough to recognize as the rich font they were, and the composer’s exquisite instincts for expressive, stunningly evocative orchestration.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Renée Fleming has recorded “Baïlèro” with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca).  |  Arleen Auger, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Virgin Classics)  |  Kiri Te Kanawa, with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca)  |  Véronique Gens, with Jean-Claude Casadesus conducting L’Orchestre national de Lille (Naxos) 

Reading: The Canteloube bookshelf is reserved for francophones: Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957): Chantre d’Auvergne et d’ailleurs, by Jean-Bernard Cahours d’Aspry (Carré musique/Séguier)  |  Joseph Canteloube: Chantre de la terre, by Françoise Cougniaud-Raginel (Société de musicologie de Languedoc)