Maurice Ravel composed his Trois Chansons in late 1914 and early 1915 following the outbreak of World War I. Using his own texts he wrote music for mixed a cappella choir that hearkens back to the traditional French chansons of the late Medieval and early Renaissance eras. Ravel dedicated the songs to people he thought could help him enlist in the military, and he ultimately enlisted in March of 1915, helped by Paul Panlevé to whom the second movement is dedicated.
"Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis" depicts a girl (portrayed by soprano Sarah Van der Ploeg) whose beloved has gone off to war. Three birds representing the colors of the French flag each bring a remembrance of her love—a glance of blue eyes, a kiss of purest white, and a loving heart of crimson. "Ah, I feel my heart growing cold," says the girl as she begins to understand that she will never see her love again.
Ravel sets the solo voice against a wordless chorus that often serves as something of a drone, and offers a continual refrain of "my love has gone to the war" to create a haunting atmosphere. Trois Chansons is the only music that Ravel wrote for a cappella choir, and after hearing this song one wishes that he would have composed more.
Fourth Coast Ensemble performed these songs on our What a Zoo! concerts in June of 2019. We were joined by guest vocalist Ashley McKinstry.
La vie en rose is the song that launched cabaret singer Édith Piaf to international success. The original 1947 Colombia Records pressing of the single sold a million copies in the U.S. and was the number one best selling single in Italy that year. Piaf, who authored the lyrics, collaborated with a number of composers on the music, although the musical authorship was ultimately attributed to Luiguy. This became one of Piaf's signature songs and was included on most of the subsequent albums she recorded in her lifetime.
However, success was hardly prescribed in her life. She fought to overcome many difficult circumstances to achieve success as a chanteuse, starting right from the beginning when her mother abandoned her at birth. She was raised in a brothel until age 14, when her father took her on the road and trained her as a street performer and acrobat. She became a young mother herself at age 17, and overcame extreme stage fright to make her cabaret debut at age 20. Music changed the course of her life over the next 10 years, until 1947 when she would record La vie en rose.
Knowing the basic facts of Piaf's life, one can appreciate the sentiment of this song even more. The title translates as "Life through rose colored glasses," and the lyrics describe the protective emotional cloak that a love affair can provide at it's height. "When you press me to your heart / I'm in a world apart / A world where roses bloom." This bittersweet sentiment was at the core of Piaf's greatest hits and very identity: life may do its best to break you down, but as humans we can still find beauty when we choose look for it.
I hope you enjoy this performance from Fourth Coast Ensemble's March 3, 2020 Between the Lines concert, featuring my own rendition of this iconic song with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!