Here’s a little Christmas gift for everybody: Peau d’Ã‚ne, the strangest film of Jacques Demy’s career, and, by coincidence, probably the strangest film ever made.
For those among my readers who are unfamiliar with the work of the French auteur, allow me to catch you up: Jacques Demy made four or five films in the late 50’s/early 60’s, but his cult following really began in 1964 when he teamed up with the legendary French jazz pianist/composer Michel Legrand on a little collaboration known as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” might be considered a musical, but if we’re being fussy about our nomenclature, it’s really an opera â€“ the dialogue is entirely sung.Â It’s become a cult hit, and it’s absolutely worth your while to see/listen to.Â If you ask me nicely, I’ll come over to your house and sing the entire thing from start to finish (I will also do this if you mention it in passing.)
[A side note: my mother was 15 when “The Umbrellas” made its way over to the states, and promptly fell in love with it.Â She broke up with her high school boyfriend when he didn’t share her ardor for the movie.Â In retrospect, it probably would have been a much worse sign if her teenage boyfriend had fallen in love with a campy French musical.]
[Another side note: Stephen Sondheim’s one flaw as a human being is that he doesn’t like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.Â In a sense, he’s right: it’s a ridiculous conceit with a clunky execution (the text setting is particularly disastrous.)Â But it’s just like, Steve, you’ve got to get past all of that.Â It’s ok though, I still wouldn’t break up with him.]
After “Les Parapluies”, Jacque Demy and Michel Legrand teamed up once again for “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, which really is a musical.Â Like its predecessor, it stars the incomparably ravishing Catherine Deneuve but it also features a cameos by Gene Kelly (who trots out a few mots de franÃ§ais) and George Chakiris.
This brings us to our special subject for today, the third and final Demy-Legrand collaboration, the incomparably strange Peau d’Ã‚ne â€“ “Donkeyskin” â€“ based on Charles Perrault’s incestuous fever-dream of a fairy-tale from 1695.
Where to begin?Â Let’s start by saying that this has got to be the single campiest film of all time.Â View, for example, the chintzy costumes and sets, complete with rainbow headboard:
Or this cat bench:
Â Also, it’s basically Eyes Wide Shut
meets The Smurfs
done on the budget of an average episode of Mr. RodgersÂ Â
And a mouth inside an eye inside a rose, because acid flashbacks are so much fun:
I can only imagine that FranÃ§ois Ozon came home from school every day and watched this movie from the ages of about 5-12.Â Which brings me to the music, because I think Ozon must have forced Phillipe Rombi to listen to the “recipe song” from Peau d’Ã‚ne like 20 times before writing the score for Potiche:
I’ve often criticized Michel Legrand for his rather crude job inserting the text of “Les Parapluies” into his pre-existing tunes, but there’s a moment in Peau d’Ã‚ne that might just prove me wrong.Â Listen to his setting of the word “la situation” in both scores:
I’m still right, but they’re very similar, so maybe he had a particular affinity for that word’s melodic qualities.
Finally, this is basically me as I leave the house before every rehearsal:
This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all.Â I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were.Â The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.
You’ll pick it up as you go along.
1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes
Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz.Â I use them in my own music all the time.Â And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr.Â He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)
He is rightly fÃªted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:
2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music
Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game.Â The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing.Â There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic.Â Certain composers specialized in one or the other.Â Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.
Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:
What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are.Â He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write).Â His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.
I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret.Â It’s much like a Saloon Song.
Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage).Â So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man.Â I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense.Â As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.
5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music
OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.
Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.
[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word ‘bayan’ of which I’m wholly unaware.Â If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what ‘bayan’ might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for ‘bayan’, but I strongly recommend against it.]
So, we’ve established that much.Â Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it.Â Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia.Â Great start.Â He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory.Â He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition.Â He committed suicide at the age of 33.
He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:
In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence.Â These pieces were not written for dancing.Â They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.)Â Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.
We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom.Â We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.)Â There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.
It’s all just so funny and charming and gemÃ¼tlich:
OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well.Â And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else.Â But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?
8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings
I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations.Â Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.
This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre.Â So chew on that one for a while.
For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas.Â They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes.Â Who wouldn’t like that?
No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies.Â And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t.Â And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever.Â But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?
I mean, come on:
This is easily the most ridiculous list so far.Â [Just you wait!]Â But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:
1) Make your own damn list
2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps…]
3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt WeillÂ was of Cabaret Songs!