The Chanson Musical Tradition: Background information when reading The Melody

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The Melody

by Jim Crace

The Melody by Jim Crace X
The Melody by Jim Crace
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2018, 240 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2019, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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The Chanson Musical Tradition

This article relates to The Melody

Print Review

French singer Edith Piaf
Alfred Busi, the protagonist of The Melody, is described by author Jim Crace as being a singer in the European chanson tradition. This lyrically-drive musical form originated in medieval France as the chanson de geste ("song of heroic deeds"), epic poems recounting the glorious tales of famous heroes set to music. The songs employed basic monophonic melodies, meaning the music would consist of a single melody unaccompanied by harmony or chords. Over the next few centuries the chanson form continued to develop to incorporate more complex musical techniques and lyrics that moved away from the epics to the subject of courtly love.

The modern version of the chanson emerged between the 1880s and the end of World War II with the chanson réaliste style. Born in the Parisian cafés and cabarets within the Montmartre district (chiefly in the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir theaters) this form of chanson was influenced by literary realism and naturalism. These movements were interested in depicting how the environment and circumstances of one's youth shaped and governed one's character.

While this style of song was mainly performed by women known as the chanteuses réalists, Aristide Bruant is widely considered to be the creator of the genre. Bruant began his career at Le Chat Noir in 1885, and his crowd-pleasing satirical songs utilized everyday language and slang popular with the working class in the Montmarte district.

The chanteuses réalists wore black dresses, red lipstick and white face makeup in order to draw attention to their emotive facial expressions. Their songs conveyed a sense of loss, hopelessness and abandonment that was relatable to the residents of Paris' poorer districts, their lyrics often depicting the harsh realities of poor women, teenage mothers and prostitutes. Édith Piaf is among the most celebrated singers of this tradition. Piaf grew up in poverty and sang in the streets as a child before becoming a teenage mother who lost her child very young. Despite her success as a chanteuse realist, Piaf was critical of the genre. "I don't like realist songs," she once said, "For me they're vulgar tunes with blokes wearing cloth caps and girls plying their trade on the streets. I hate that. I like flowers and simple love stories, health, joie de vivre and Paris." Piaf lived a tragic life as a morphine addict and alcoholic, and died of cancer at age 48.

Today, the chanson tradition continues in the form of nouvelle chanson, a soft-pop genre that takes inspiration from the chanson's origins with more lyrically-driven arrangements. Popular singers working in this genre include Benjamin Biolay, Coralie Clément and Keren Ann, and English-speaking singers like Rufus Wainwright and Regina Spektor.

French singer Edith Piaf

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Dean Muscat

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Melody. It originally ran in August 2018 and has been updated for the June 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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