I finally made music in Montpellier.
Music in French, that is.
Before I’d left for France, I’d learned a few French songs – including the classic, “Après un Rêve,” by Fauré. My French was virtually nonexistent at that point, but despite that considerable shortcoming I wanted to sing in French. I was helped greatly by my friend Steve Blier, a tremendous musician who’s a vocal coach at Juilliard and who runs the New York Festival of Song, and who sometimes doesn’t mind making music with me. He’s a remarkable accompanist whose musicality confers a greater proficiency on untutored singers like me. I almost sound as if I know what I’m doing when I sing with him.
Steve’s French is good, and as someone who coaches many young singers in chansons françaises, he’s also very much a stickler for correct French pronunciation. He worked diligently with me on my faulty accent when I began to learn the famous Fauré song, and his careful corrections undoubtedly helped my spoken French sound better when I finally arrived in France to learn the language.
Although I’m not a professional singer by a long shot, I can and do sing, and as I learned to speak French and absorbed French culture, I also wanted to embrace its song while in France.
I got that chance for the first time in Montpellier, a few months after my arrival in France, thanks to my friend Gilles, a professor of French linguistics. He’d invited me to spend the weekend at his home in Montpellier’s old city, on the Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, so narrow you feel you can touch the facing apartment. The stones on the street, polished over centuries, amplify the slightest whisper.
Gilles is also an amateur pianist, and his neighbors probably know his playing well. I wanted to avail myself of his pianistic willingness, and so we set about finding some songs to sing.
During a morning stroll, we stopped in a music store near his apartment, and I bought him a collection of Kurt Weill, selections from “Porgy and Bess” and, for myself, the sheet music for “Air de la Lettre,” from the 1925 operetta Mozart, with lyrics by Sacha Guitry after a letter of Mozart’s. I didn’t know it, but it looked intriguing and I figured I could make a go of it.
The show had been a big success in its day, and this lovely, delicate morsel was made famous, Gilles told me, by the singer Yvonne Printemps, who was married at the time to Guitry. Gilles and I worked our way through “Air de la Lettre” that afternoon, as I began to grasp the contours of its melody, my booming tenor bouncing through the open windows, off of the facing walls on that hot June day .
We also sang Kurt Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas,” after I’d spent a few minutes learning it (it was easier than the Hahn). Gilles actually knew it better in its German version – he’d performed it with a German friend of his a few years before. I loved singing it in French (it sat well on my voice), and was thrilled I could actually get through it without having to worry about whether I was getting the sense of what I was singing (that came later). Sometimes you just have to charge ahead regardless, without shame at your incompetence.
I noticed that the next day, when Gilles took part in amateur music-making at a friend’s house: everyone forged ahead, regardless of individual skill. The willingness was all.
Many Sunday afternoons Gilles joins in an amateur musical gathering at the home of his friend Vincent Bioulès, a good painter and an enthusiastic violinist. Every week Bioulès opens his beautiful home on the outskirts of the downtown area – a five-minute walk from the opera house – to his musician friends, and about a dozen or so string players of varying skill gather to make music.
I was on the outside looking in, as I often was during those first few months in France. I couldn’t quite yet participate in conversations but I contented myself to observe, to listen, to absorb. I sat on a couch in the adjoining room and watched the group gather itself into a sort of ad hoc ensemble on chairs arranged into a circle in a space that held not only a grand piano (a beautiful Bechstein) but a harpsichord and a glass-fronted cabinet containing several violins, each ripe for the plucking. Bioulès distributed music to the musicians (he has a trove of scores; his family is musical; his father helped establish an orchestra in Montpellier), and the players settled themselves, their music stands positioned just so. Gilles was at the harpsichord.
They played Bach and Vivaldi, and just as I had tried the day before to work my way through the Reynaldo Hahn song, the musicians here attempted a Mendelssohn sinfonia. There were quite a few false starts, awkward tempo changes, many missed cues, but the group soldiered on. It seemed to me to be a throwback to an earlier era of music-making, when every home had a piano and every child in a middle-class family studied an instrument. It was also something else: a gathering of eager friends.
The sound wasn’t quite up to the level of a professional orchestra, of course — how could it be? — despite the presence of a few professional players. But what it lacked in finesse it made up for in warmth and even joy. I loved being there listening to music the way it might have sounded eons ago when people actually actively played rather than merely taking it in while others did the work. I loved the kindness among the musicians, between the amateurs and the professionals. I was a stranger who couldn’t participate, but I was welcomed nonetheless. It was like my journey into French: hesitant, determined, faulty but in a way fearless.
Musically speaking it was probably bad. But it was also perfect. The flaws made the gathering more special somehow, almost heavenly. If heaven is a place where the strings sound a little sour and the beat tends to wander. If heaven is a place inhabited by amateur musicians who gather to express themselves without dreading failure, but despite it.
For a few hours on a steamy Sunday, it felt like heaven to me.