Bastille Day Reflection

Despite all the marvellous things the French have given us, what comes first to mind is the croissant. Some might insist that the croissant qualifies as one of those marvellous things, but I am a little bit ashamed of myself. What about Debussy, Renoir and egalitarianism? Too late.

Anyway, the croissant is one of France’s gifts to the world. I’m referring to the puffed-pastry version, not the kipfel, its Austrian predecessor. It’s got to the point where France cannot lay claim to producing the best croissants. I read, or maybe heard, that the croissants produced by an Australian company called Lune were officially regarded as the world’s best. Which made me wonder how the judgement was made. Did the judges actually go to every patisserie and bakery in the world to sample their croissants? And how long after that did they succumb to heart attacks? Let’s get away from croissants. They are making me hungry. Actually, they are making me crave butter. Croissants are proof that butter is better. Butter may shorten your life but it will make it more enjoyable. The French might not have invented butter, but I bet they were the first to exploit its culinary potential.

Now I can turn my attention to French music. Where do I start! Clair de lune enters my head. Naturally, it invokes Claude Debussy, but he is soon joined by Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Caesar Franck and Camille Saint Saens, all composers of wonderful music. I’m going to pick one, Gabriel Faure, because I vividly recall two occasions on which I heard a composition of his for the first time.

Many years ago, in my twenties, I fell ill at work. Nothing serious, just a nasty dose of the flu, you know the kind that makes you feel at death’s door for a day or so. I came home at lunchtime and went straight to bed. When I woke up, my bedroom was bathed in afternoon light. Nothing mysterious about that. But where was the unbelievably beautiful music coming from? Harmonies and melodies delivered by blended human voices and musical instruments rose like perfume and engulfed me. For a moment I thought I had died and that Providence in its wisdom had overlooked my many failures and misdemeanours and granted me a place in paradise. And then I realised the music was coming out of my clock radio. I must have set the alarm before falling asleep. Every few minutes, the music paused and a new section began, as beautiful as the one before. Then, a children’s chorus emerged, wrapped itself around me and took me to heaven. When it quietly wafted away the work came to an end. The chorus, appropriately named In Paradisium, was the finale of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. I have listened to it many times since, even seen it performed at the Melbourne town hall. It has never failed to transport me to a wonderful place.

The second occasion occurred years later in Paris, where my partner and I were enjoying a few days seeing the sights and over-indulging in pastries. Because our little hotel was close to Mont Martre we decided to visit the church at the top of the hill. We entered and were immediately met by the strains of some beautiful, gentle, almost childlike choral music. I remember saying, ‘That sounds like Faure.’ Sure enough, it turned out to be Cantique de Jean Racine, which he composed as a nineteen-year-old student.

It is difficult for me to leave music. Let’s go there once more. Beethoven was a devotee of the French Revolution ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. At the start, Napoleon embodied those ideals and Beethoven named his third symphony ‘Bonaparte’ in Napoleon’s honour. But then, Napoleon went and crowned himself emperor. Beethoven became so enraged that he grabbed hold of his quill, scratched Bonaparte from the title page and renamed it Eroica. The scratching was so violent that it tore the paper. It can be seen today in one of the Beethoven museums.

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