Monday 3 November 2014

Le petit joueur de flûtiau - A royal musician puts his principles before personal aggrandizement - but whom does he represent?

Brassens tells his story of the reaction of an eminent flute player, whose talents and compositions had earned him the place as head of the King’s music, when he was offered a noble title in recognition.  It makes a charming little tale.

However, it has a deeper significance in the Brassens story.   “Le petit joueur de flûtiau“ is  Brassens’ reply to those of his friends who sought, in the early 1960s, to obtain for him  the high honour of election to the small elite cultural authority, the Académie Française

The video of this song on You tube is created by Mme Christine Mattei-Barraud, who is to be congratulated for her collage of beautiful pictures.

Le petit joueur de flûtiau
Le petit joueur de flûtiau
Menait la musique au château (1)
Pour la grâce de ses chansons
Le roi lui offrit un blason
Je ne veux pas être noble
Répondit le croque-note
Avec un blason à la clé (2)
Mon la(3) se mettrait à gonfler
On dirait par tout le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi (4)

Et mon pauvre petit clocher
Me semblerait trop bas perché
Je ne plierais plus les genoux
Devant le bon Dieu de chez nous
Il faudrait à ma grande âme
Tous les saints de Notre-Dame
Avec un évêque à la clé
Mon la se mettrait à gonfler
On dirait par tout le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi.

(Et la chambre où j'ai vu le jour
Me serait un triste séjour
Je quitterais mon lit mesquin
Pour une couche à baldaquin
Je changerais ma chaumière
Pour une gentilhommière
Avec un manoir à la clé
Mon la se mettrait à gonfler
On dirait par tout le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi)

Je serai honteux de mon sang
Des aïeux de qui je descends
On me verrait bouder(5) dessus
La branche dont je suis issu
Je voudrais un magnifique
Arbre généalogique
Avec du sang bleu a la clé
Mon la se mettrait à gonfler
On dirait par tout le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi 

Je ne voudrais plus épouser
Ma promise ma fiancée
Je ne donnerais pas mon nom
A une quelconque Ninon
Il me faudrait pour compagne
La fille d'un grand d'Espagne
Avec un' princesse à la clé
Mon la se mettrait à gonfler
On dirait par tout le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi

Le petit joueur de flûtiau
Fit la révérence au château (1)
Sans armoiries sans parchemin
Sans gloire il se mit en chemin
Vers son clocher(6) sa chaumine(7)
Ses parents et sa promise
Nul ne dise dans le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi
Et Dieu reconnaisse pour sien
Le brave petit musicien
The little flute player
The little fellow on the flute
Had charge of music at the court
In gratitude for his songs
The king offered him a coat o’ arms.
I don't want to be a noble
Answered the song-maker
With aristocrat's crest to boot.
My style would get high and mighty
They would say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us.

And my poor little steeple
To me would seem to stand too low
No longer would I bend the knee
Before the kindly God of home
I would require for my grand soul
All the saints of Notre-Dame
With a bishop along to boot
My style would get high and mighty
They would say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us

(And the small room where I was born
Would be dismal for me to stay in
I’d give up my shabby couch
For a four post, canopied bed
I would change my tiny cottage
For a sumptuous manor house
With a splendid estate to boot
My style would get high and mighty
They would say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us

I will be ashamed of my blood,
Of the folk I’m descended from,
They’d see me turn by back upon
The branch from which I orig’nate .
I would want a magnificent
Genealogical tree
With some blue blood in it to boot
My style would get high and mighty
They would say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us.

No longer would I wish to wed
My betrothèd my fiancée,
I would not be giving my name
To a mere Ninon or such
I would require as my partner
A daughter of Spanish grandee
With a princess along to boot
My style would get high and mighty
They would say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us

The little player of the flute
Gave a low bow to the courtiers
Without noble crest, or parchment
Without glory he went on his way
To his belfry and his poor house
To his parents and his betrothed
Let no-one say throughout the land
The flute player has betrayed us
And may God acknowledge as his’ own
The stout(6) little musician.

Le Petit joueur de flûtiau  - Translation Notes

1)     au château –« Castle » in English gives a picture of a  drawbridge and turreted walls etc.  “Château”  has this meaning of course, but it has also the sense of a palace such as Le Château de Versailles.  I would prefer to set the tale in the context of a monarchy like Louis XIV’s, with an opulent king free to distribute patronage at will.

2)     Avec un blason à la clé …… - Brassens is making a play on words that would seem impossible to translate. “ La clef” is “the key” in music but “à la clef” is a figurative expression.  Robert gives two examples:
a)     « Il y a une recompense à la clé”  means “there is a reward at the end of it all”
b)     A teacher might say: “Je vais vous mettre en retenue avec un devoir à la clé » meaning ; «  I am going to put you in detention with a piece of homework for you into the bargain”
The idea would seem to be therefore that of an extra factor that comes at the end of a    process- a phrase in English would be: “to cap it all”/ “ brought into the bargain”

3)     “Mon la se mettrait à gonfler” = “My la will start to inflate”.  Apparently, the “la” number tells the pitch in which a song will be sung or played.  For example Brassens, we are told, usually played his guitar in la7.  As a non-musician, I can confine myself to the figurative meaning.  “Donner le la” to the musician means “To give an A” but the phrase has a figurative meaning of   “To set the tone/ the fashion / the scale.

4)     Le joueur de flûte a trahi- « trahir » is « to betray ».  In English and in French too, I think, it is a transitive verb needing an object. 

5)     On me verrait bouder dessus – « Bouder » means « To sulk.  The transitive verb « Bouder q’n  means ; « To refuse to talk to someone” – “To have nothing to do with someone” – “To shun someone”.  “Ils se boudent” means: “They are not on speaking terms”. (Thanks again to Le Petit Robert .)

6)     il se mit en chemin vers son clocher sa chaumine – Brassens had demonstrated the same priorities in real life.  Having taken refuge in the house of Jeanne and her husband in 1944, Brassens chose to stay on there for 22 years, even after he had achieved success and had the wealth to live in comfort in an upper-class neighbourhood.  Jeanne’s cramped house number 9, Impasse Florimont had, at the start, no hot water, no gas, no electricity, no mains drainage, but Brassens felt himself cocooned in this congenial environment.  After he moved out in 1966, he continued to miss his earlier, simple lifestyle for the rest of his life (see Auprès de mon arbre).

7)     sa chaumine –is a small cottage, -the image is usually of a thatched cottage.  It is a poetic word.

8)     The stout(6) little musician. – I use “Stout” in its older sense of proud, valiant and strong.

Brassens and the Académie Française

In the 1960s, a number of Brassens friends approached him to ask for his approval as they promoted his candidature for a vacant seat in the elite assembly of the Académie Française.  This is the illustrious body established by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. 

The primary role of the Academie was and still remains the regulation the French language by determining the grammar and vocabulary that they are prepared to accept as correct.  Louis XIII was on the throne when it began its work and in the ever increasingly autocratic society of the French seventeenth century, it took its place as an instrument of central control in the cultural domain.  The Académie is limited to forty members, who are intended to hold their seats for life - or perhaps much  longer than that as they are known as “les immortels”

Academicians are mainly writers and famous past members include  Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo,  Montesquieu, Louis Pasteur; and Voltaire.  Their formal uniform features notably a long black coat and black-feathered cocked hat, richly embroidered with golden-green leafy motifs and the men wear a sword (See cartoon below).

Our knowledge of Brassens tells us that he would be an unlikely to see himself occupying a “fauteuil  de l’ Académie”.  All his life his instincts remained those of an anarchist and his constant targets were the human institutions such as the police, the military and the Church and the Academy would seem a prime example.  The group mentality of the crowd or the mob made him very uneasy.  Even small numbers banded together could threaten individuality  and he used to say: “…..à plus de 4 on est une bande de cons" He was hostile to those who attempted to assert authority over others and it would indeed have been treachery to join an elite body who sought to lay down the law for all French speaking people. 
In addition, Brassens did not identify himself with the croquants and the croquantes but with the common people of town and country.  It is in the song “Le petit joueur de flûtiau » he makes clear why he could never become an immortal of the Académie Française.

In view of this, it might seem ironical that later in life Brassens accepted  a major honour at a ceremonial of the Académie.  It was on 8th June 1967 that the Académie Française awarded him le Grand Prix de poésie in respect of the whole collection of his works.  Brassens was sponsored by  Marcel Pagnol and Joseph Kessel, who had led the campaign for  an official tribute to be accorded to Brassens, acknowledging all his works over the years.  Brassens was careful to let it be known that he had never taken the least initiative to have his name put forward. The majority of people saw the Academy’s top prize for poetry as timely recognition for a great man’s talents.  

Brassens himself was duly modest about the literary status of his songs.  He said:
« Je ne pense pas être un poète… Un poète, ça vole quand même un peu plus haut que moi… Je ne suis pas poète. J’aurais aimé l’être   ……”.  He expressed regret that he was not able to be a pure poet like the greats whom he avidly read, such as Baudelaire, Verlaine and  Rimbaud, Nevertheless he hoped that his songs might offer a simplified access to poetry.  

In fact, the many admirers of Brassens would find this modesty unjustified  He crafted his songs carefully, using many devices of poetry and gave his works true literary quality.  As I select videos from U Tube, I am struck how often French bloggers express first and foremost their admiration for the poetic quality of the songs they have seen performed.

However, after Brassens won the Grand Prix de Poesie there was a small minority that was outraged     It was said that "a music hall singer" was totally ineligible.  It must have been particularly painful for Brassens that some French satirists, with whom he would have previously assumed shared sympathies, now made him their target.

In « Le Canard Enchaîné » of the 14 juin 1967, Yvan Audouard published his mocking version of Brassens’ award ceremony at the Académie.  In his piece there are teasing reminders of Brassens’ earlier declarations, a few years earlier in “Le petit joueur de flûtiau”. The satirist has not the least doubt that “Le joueur de flûte a trahi”,  and offers his explanation for this betrayal.  This is not flattering: he claims that  Brassens’ health problems have led to a decline in his mental faculties: 
"Brassens, en ce moment, il a des ennuis avec ses rognons. Il a plus tout à fait sa tête à lui. Et puis il est si brave. Il osera pas dire non ».   

“Brave” was the word Brassens used in the last line of his song to commend the little flautist, and Audouard is pointing to a betrayal of the principles in these lines:
Nul ne dise dans le pays
Le joueur de flûte a trahi
Et Dieu reconnaisse pour sien
Le brave petit musicien.

The article in the « Canard Enchaîné » asserts  that the Grand Prix of the French Academy is in some way the anti-chamber of the illustrious body.  In accordance with this contention,  a cartoon was published showing Brassens  wearing the distinctive outfit of an Academician.  In reality Brassens was never elected to the Academy and never sought to be and was certainly never the man to wear this costume.

The writings of Yvan Audouard were well regarded and his humour is described as facetious rather than malicious.  Brassens may have been amused by it. However the description of Brassens’ medical problems remains very sad.  He was certainly not in mental decline but he was a very sick man.  He had suffered from kidney problems for many years.  In the previous month – June 1967- he had been taken seriously ill and had undergone surgery for a second time.  In the bad periods, he performed with an ambulance waiting at the stage door and the perspiration,  in which he was bathed on stage,  was attributable to his condition as well as to his habitual stage fright.  This detail is not easy to pass over with laughter.

Also among the critics at this time were lesser poets who felt themselves more qualified for the award.  In a famous little rhyme, JonathanSwift had once said that all poets should expect such irritation from their inferiors:

So naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet in his kind
Is bit by him that comes behind.
Jonathan Swift, Poetry, A Rhapsody


Stuart Armstrong said...

Thanks for these lovely pieces of poetry and history - they are much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for yet another well explained translation.