Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957)
Most people today know Joseph Canteloube’s name only for his Chants d’Auvergne, the traditional folk-songs he gathered over many years on his travels around his native region, and which he went on to harmonize and orchestrate. In fact he composed many other works, in a range of genres, from symphonic and chamber pieces to full-scale operas, of which the most significant are Le Mas and Vercingétorix, with their premières at the Paris Opéra in 1929 and 1933 respectively. Nevertheless his reputation among music-lovers remains that of a regionalist composer, given his various well-known anthologies of songs from around France, notably Le Chansonnier alsacien (1952), Chansons champenoises, Chansons du veillois (1929), Chants du Languedoc (1948), Chants du Pays Basque (1949), Noëls d’Europe (1954), Anthologie des chants populaires franco-canadiens (1953), Les Chants des terroirs français, and so on. He also wrote books and articles about the folk-music that inspired him, for example Les Chants des provinces françaises, published in 1947. The Chants d’Auvergne, a series of five collections published between 1923 and 1954, form the heart of this original creative process.
Canteloube was born in Malaret, in the south of the Auvergne region. “I lived in the depths of the countryside, in a place where the peasants still loved to sing. I began to travel around the farms and villages to listen to their songs, asking old men and women, the herdsmen and shepherds in the pastures, the laborers and harvesters in the fields to sing to me.” This then was the start of the composer’s painstaking research into the rich seam of Auvergnat folk-music. Like Bartók in Central Europe, he gathered, albeit perhaps less systematically and scientifically than his Hungarian contemporary, songs and melodies, beginning to add harmonies to them and often using them as the basis for short works for voice with piano or orchestra.
In 1906 he left the Auvergne for Paris, where he studied piano with a former pupil of Chopin, before enrolling at the renowned Schola Cantorum, by then headed by Vincent d’Indy. While at the Schola Canteloube confirmed his taste for “the power and purity of those musical and poetic sources that are the earth and its non-intellectualized projections, folk-songs and dances, rustic legends and epic tales”. D’Indy was a great proponent of this view, known for his attachment to the traditional roots of music and the medieval sources of the repertoire. “I have never sought to undertake some sort of simplistic musicology”, wrote Canteloube, “I just want my work to be meaningful, to be that of a musician who wants to celebrate and share with others the music he loves.” One of Canteloube’s fellow students in Paris was the composer Déodat de Séverac, about whom he wrote a monograph in 1951 and whose aesthetics he also shared: “He advocates a return to one’s own land and people, to the light, air, sun and colors of home, not out of any kind of vain pretension, but out of a sense of absolute necessity.”
Naturally enough, perhaps, Canteloube’s love of his regional musical inheritance developed into nationalism, which in turn led him to an association with the Vichy regime during World War II. A key figure in Pétain’s cultural policies, he wrote in the right-wing periodical L’Action française, “The songs of the earth need their backdrop, their setting, their accompaniment of nature and fresh air. Only the immaterial art of music, with its moving, impalpable harmonies, timbres and rhythms, can evoke this atmosphere. I would go so far as to say that it has the right to do so, for many peasant songs can be qualified as the purest form of art, in terms of their sentiments and expression, if not their form.”
Canteloube’s artistic beliefs might clearly be labelled reactionary in comparison with those of some of his contemporaries. He also wrote, “At a time of over-developed intellectualism, we are witnessing a proliferation of the strangest, most outlandish and contradictory doctrines; the spread of the most preposterous and ridiculous trends… Today audiences are presented with “things” that are called music but that have none of the characteristics which music dictionaries would agree are required in order for music to be defined as such. These “things” are preceded by explanatory circulars, written in quasi-scientific jargon, which most of the time is incomprehensible and unbelievably pretentious.”