Thank God I Don’t Know French

Copyright © by Neil Hester, 8/27/13


  Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a collection of French art songs by Fauré, Debussy, and Poulenc, performed by Véronique Gens. Oh, Véronique... I love your voice. And to the aforementioned composers: thanks for writing some exceptionally lovely music. However—I don’t necessarily love the lyrics to some of these melodiés: when I read lyric translations (which hopefully are fairly accurate), oftentimes the words are a bit too sugary and trite. I certainly don’t hold song lyrics to the same standard as poetry, for a few reasons: some written ideas are too complex to comfortably fit with music; lyrics are performed, and should be more immediately comprehensible (you can’t go back and reread and reread again while listening to a performance); and finally, especially in the context of an opera, lyrics are often sung dialogue, and people usually speak plainly and use common phrases.

  However, even with all these considerations, some of this stuff is too much for my tastes. Now, the composers are not typically responsible for the lyrics, at least directly: they often use the poetry/lyrics of collaborators or popular writers. Nor, I suspect, are the lyrics their primary concern, as long as the lyrics a) convey a basic idea upon which they can base their music, and b) can be comfortably set to music—and really, the music *is* more important than the lyrics in arias and art songs.

  In some cases, I think a more creative lyricist could have done better, without taking anything away from the easy, lyrical beauty of the music. The lyrics aren’t bad given their setting, and the pieces are still great, but they do lead me to an odd conclusion: I’m glad I don’t know French. Or German. Or Italian. Or Spanish. I like reading a translation to get the gist of a piece, but I’m happy that I don’t get the meaning of every word every time I listen to some of these pieces, because hearing some of the triter lyrics over and over would detract from my enjoyment of the music.

  Let’s have a couple examples, starting with Fauré’s Apres un rêve (After a dream). Just listen first, before reading on (it’s worth it!).




Gorgeous composition and performance, and the language is musically beautiful. Now, here’s a translation of the lyrics:


 In a slumber which held your image spellbound

 I dreamt of happiness, passionate mirage,

 Your eyes were softer, your voice pure and sonorous,

 You shone like a sky lit up by the dawn;


 You called me and I left the earth

 To run away with you towards the light,

 The skies opened their clouds for us,

 Unknown splendours, divine flashes glimpsed,


 Alas! Alas! sad awakening from dreams

 I call you, O night, give me back your lies,


 Return, return radiant,

 Return, O mysterious night.


Now, I’ve enjoyed listening to this piece with the translation and original text in front of me once or twice. However, if this were in English (or if I were fluent in French), I would still really love the music, but the lyrics would start to annoy me after a while (I mean, it’s a very romantic sentiment, but not a particularly deep one). On the other hand, if I just keep in mind the general theme of the lyrics while enjoying the sound of the language without the explicit meaning, I can listen over and over without being distracted. Odd, but true. Here’s one more excellent piece for consideration, Les chemins de l’amour (The pathways of love) by Poulenc (lyrics follow):


The paths that lead to the sea

have kept, of our passing-by,

flowers with fallen petals

and the echo, beneath their trees,

of both our bright laughters.

Alas! of the days of happiness,

radiant joys now flown,

I wander without finding their trace again

in my heart.


Paths of my love,

I still seek you,

lost paths, you are no more

and your echos are hollow.

Paths of despair,

paths of memory,

paths of the first day,

divine paths of love.


If one day I have to forget him,

life effacing everything,

I wish, in my heart, that one memory should remain,

stronger than the other love.

The memory of the path,

where trembling and utterly bewildered

one day, upon me, I felt

your hands burning.


(Here’s the French.)


  Okay now—I actually think that the last stanza of lyrics is excellent, and makes good use of the “path” theme. And really, the first stanza’s pretty good too (“and the echo, beneath their trees / of both our bright laughters” is nicer writing than is often found in classical lovesongs). However, I would get tired of the B-section, with the paths and paths and paths again. Too much of an appeal to, um, pathos.

  On the other hand, “Chemins”, even though I *know* that it means “paths”, does not automatically register when I hear it. I can choose to just enjoy the sound, without processing every word, something that’s impossible when I listen to songs in English. And y’know—I kinda like that. Which leads me to this little piece:


Dieu merci je ne sais pas français!

Thank God I don’t know French! Waitwait—I mean,

don’t get me wrong, but the nigh-pristine

Language of Love (ah! when Véronique sings

to me, to me, as I hear the siren stirrings

of her voice, precisely as warm and angelic

as the hundred times before, I fear I am sick

with impossible longing!) really loses its grace

when I can understand the words at face.

No, really—a translation’s fine, I guess,

as long as I’m careful to not possess

an actual knowing of the pretty sounds.

God forbid—for what if no poetry bounds?

So no French for me! lest I have to critique

the loveliest words of my dear Véronique.


  (P.S. An acquaintance, Jean Migrenne, informed me that my title is incorrect, and should read "Dieu merci je ne sais pas le français!" But, it's appropriate to leave the title as is, I think.)

  Before I end, I’d like to point out that there are also songs that I would gladly listen to were I to know French. (A lot of them seem to be songs *not* about love, which makes sense, ‘cause love is really, really hard to write about in a fresh way.) For one, La Belle au bois dormant, set by Debussy, is a narration of Sleeping Beauty set to music, and the fairy tale–style lyrics seem quite nice (though again, I have to trust the translation, since I can’t understand the actual text). Also, some of the Banalités of Poulenc have lyrics that are fun, funny, and/or idyllic. Here’s Chanson d’Orkenise (first piece in the video; also, not Véronique this time, though I prefer her interpretation to this one):


French and English lyrics


I could definitely listen to that!


(credit to Peter Low and David K. Smythe [recmusic.org] and Christopher Goldsack [http://www.melodie.talktalk.net] for translations)


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