Blogs about the sights of Paris abound, and people write in swooning terms about the tastes of its food, but what about its sounds? How to convey the sounds of a city that is noisy, but is somehow less noisy that you’d think, given the number of people and vehicles crammed into its space?
If you Google “Paris soundscapes,” you will come up with some interesting efforts to document the distinctive sounds of the city. One Paris writer, Christopher Pitts, includes some Paris sounds on his website – our favourite is the sound of the Sunday Fontainebleau market. It is mostly human voices, the most distinctive Paris noise – people talking passionately about food, produce, and meals.
Like all cities, Paris has a fair bit of traffic noise at all hours, but you can also hear birds, children’s voices, church bells, merry-go-rounds, and music. We once stayed in an apartment with windows opening into a courtyard and in the early evening enjoyed the sound of a competent pianist practising, or just playing for enjoyment.
Some pieces of music immediately conjure up the city for us, and one of those is Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, written in 1931 and premiered by Marguerite Long at the Salle Pleyel in January 1932. (You can hear the exquisite adagio movement here.)
The music makes us think of being on the water at sunset, drifting with the current of the Seine, perhaps on one of those elderly working barges (péniches), watching the world slide past and looking up at the buildings on either side.
The story of the concerto’s premiere is described in Marguerite Long: A Life in French Music, 1874-1966, by Cecilia Dunoyer. Marguerite Long, a gifted pianist, had been a friend of Ravel’s for decades. Ravel had originally wanted to premiere the work himself. But he eventually realized that Marguerite was the better player and would do the work justice. Marguerite fondly remembered that he had always wanted to be remembered as a pianist, with these words, “If he were told that [his opera] Daphnis and Chloe was worthless but that he was a great pianist, he would have been content!”
In 1931, he finally brought her the music. At one point, as she read it through, she found tears streaming down her cheeks. She later told Ravel that she was transported by the way the music “simply flows.” He snorted: “Simply flows! I wrote it measure by measure and nearly died from it!”
The premiere on January 14, 1932, as part of an all-Ravel program, was a huge success (un succès fou). Long and Ravel then left for a European tour to showcase the concerto. It was a bit nerve-racking (angoissant) for her, not only because Ravel was not most reliable of orchestra conductors, but also because he was dreadfully absent-minded and tended to lose his keys, his wallet, train ticket and luggage on a regular basis. At one point, he forgot to get off the train, leaving Long stranded on a Berlin platform without any German money. On other occasions, he would become distraught because he couldn’t find his patent-leather shoes, which he wore for concerts (he had very small feet, and replacements were hard to find).
Marguerite was the perfect travelling companion. She took everything in stride, and usually laughed about his scrapes. She used to say, “We are gathering memories!” She was also a faithful interpreter of his work, for Ravel was very insistent about exactly how he wanted his music played, and she followed his advice.
Ravel wrote very little after completing the concerto. Later that year, he suffered a head injury in a taxi accident, which undermined his already fragile health. He died in 1937. Before his death, as he fretted about his inability to work, Marguerite reminded him of all the beautiful music he had already written, but he insisted, “I have not said or composed anything yet of what I wanted to say.”
Marguerite outlived him by almost 30 years, a gracious and forgiving friend to a genius.
Vocabulary: A soundscape is usually translated as un paysage sonore. Les péniches are the long barges on the Seine – some have living quarters on them. Un succès fou is the term for a wild success. Absent-mindedness is la distraction, and an absent-minded person is distrait.
Text copyright Philippa Campsie; illustration copyright Norman R. Ball