Chants d’Auvergne

by Sophia Starmack

The Auvergne is France’s most rural and least populated region. When the last volcano erupted here 6,000 years ago, the magma deposits hardened and formed low, rounded hills called puys, where today lentils are grown and herders send their red, big-horned cows to eat the bitter flowers that scent the local cheese. The composer, Marie-Joseph Cantaloube de Malaret, was born here in 1879. When Canteloube was a child, his father took him for long walks in the harsh countryside around Annonay, the family estate. His biographer, Cougniaud-Raginel, wrote that the young Canteloube heard on the way the dance couplets in the villages, the songs of the open air in the valleys, the pastoral melodies on the heights; he breathed the nature and life of this Auvergne which seeped little by little into the roots of his heart.’

The train line ends in Clermont-Ferrand, Puy de Dome. The city is one low puddle of black churches and tire smoke. Outside the station, the driver lights a Bastos, standing very straight. We sit. The bus climbs into the mountains. Green small lentils grow in the fields. We stop for a herd of cows. Every time two roads meet a crucifix rises.

Canteloube’s most famous work is the Chants d’Auvergne, a collection of lavishly arranged folk songs. The orchestration reflects the sweeping, empty landscapes and the imagination, and humor, required to survive a life of farming, herding, and cheese-making. The lyrics are drawn from lullabyes, love laments, and festival tunes in both French and Occitan, the traditional regional dialect. The “Bailero’ is a popular soprano aria and has been recorded by Kiri Te Kenawa, Frederica von Stade, Dawn Upshaw, Barbra Streisand, and others.

This town’s Virgin is black. My pamphlet says she was carved from light wood but one day turned the color of ash. She waits on her throne above the altar, balancing her son on her lap. The church is silent. Someone strikes a match. Afterward I walk past the grocer’s. He’s hauled a barrel of salted eel out to the sidewalk. It’s Friday.

Cantelouble’s mother sent him at age four to piano lessons with a woman named Amélie Daetzer, who was rumored to have been more than good friends with Chopin. Her method was based on the private writings of the great composer. At age 19, after six months of work as a bank clerk, Canteloube went to Paris to study music at the Schola Cantorum, where he met his teacher and mentor, Vincent D’Indy. D’Indy often insisted on the student-teacher relationship as “a spiritual experience.’

My students smoke in the courtyard. I watch them from the teachers’ room, above the chapel where no one prays. These are baby work, says the philosophy professor, handing me my copies from the machine with a concerned look. You must not be playing games with them. On Wednesdays I walk to the one-room cinema. My students and I smoke in the dark.

Occitan is the language of the troubadour poets, one of the Latin-based dialects spoken in medieval France. The langue d’oc, from the south, used the word oc for yes. The langue d’oil, from the intellectual center of Paris, used the word oil, which eventually became the modern oui. Canteloube was one of several young Auvergnat artists who, in the 1920s and 1930s, attempted to cultivate appreciation for the traditional language of the Midi, or southern region. I don’t meet anyone who speaks it, although everyone has a delightful twang: pang instead of pain, montang instead of montagne. “French people like this accent,’ the concierge of my building tells me. “It makes them think of holiday, of the sun.’

Kate and I share thick ham, two kinds of potatoes with cheese, and all the wine we can. When we finally trudge up the hill the sun is gone. In the village square, weird stone beasts leer from under the lamplight. Kate is afraid of the dark. “It looks like someplace you’d get sent to avoid the bomb,’ she shudders. I hold her hand.

France was home to the greatest number of battles on the Western Front during World War I. One million men were killed, and of those who returned home countless numbers were amputees, survivors of mustard gas, shell-shocked. After four years of war, the French countryside was devastated, forests and farmland ripped to shreds. “You can travel in a motor going forward in a straight line for fifteen hours and see nothing but ruins,” wrote an American volunteer. Having come home to the family estate at the beginning of the war, Canteloube had no desire to return to Paris after its end.

MaryCarmen finds Odile at drawing class. Odile looks like a shriveled apple, or a twelve-year-old boy. We all walk to the bar. Once Odile lived in Paris and sold china at the Galleries Lafayette, but she quit to live in a medieval walled city. She’ll take me there. I buy her a whiskey. The waitress is offended when I tip too much.


In a 1941 article defending the orchestral arrangement of folk songs, Canteloube wrote, “When the peasant sings at his work, or during the harvest, there is an accompaniment which surrounds his song…. Only poets and artists will feel it…. It is nature herself, the earth which makes this, and the peasant and his song cannot be separated from it.’ Canteloube published this assertion in Action Française, the magazine of a nationalist and far-right political party founded during the Dreyfus Affair. After World War II, the magazine was accused of fascist sentiment.

In the teachers’ room, the professors are making a raclette, which means melted cheese. They get drunk and sing. Someone has photocopied the words, about carrots, shit, and bosoms. By midnight my teeth are knocking together and my eyes won’t focus. I beg to be driven home. MaryCarmen brings two aspirin, finds me naked, shaking under the sheet.

In addition to collecting folk songs, Canteloube wrote two operas. The first, Le Mas, won the 1925 Prix Heugel and earned its composer the sum of 100,000 francs. Loosely translating the program notes to the Paris Opéra premiere, a contemporary New York Times reporter wrote, “There is a love theme…. It is twilight, the herds and flocks are returning, everything is quieting down. The voices of the herders, the bells of the flocks die away, only the notes of the insects are heard….’ Canteloube’s 1933 opera, Vercingétorix, chronicled the Gauls’ defeat by Julius Caesar. It was met with lukewarm reviews.

It’s 55 degrees in December. “The bears did not go to sleep,’ says Monsieur Lopez. He’s invited me over to sample a local liqueur made from gentian, the bitter mountain flower. It tastes like neon yellow cough syrup. There is another regional drink made from chestnuts and apples. It’s sweet, he says, but there isn’t any in the house.

In 1901, Canteloube married Charlotte Marthe Calaret. One of the more humorous of the Chants d’Auvergne is “Malurous qu’o uno fenno,’ or, “Unhappy he who has a wife.’ Charlotte gave birth to two twin boys in 1903.

Odile and I heave open the square kitchen window and smoke. The cows eat and say nothing. Her five-foot frame is lost in men’s work-shirts, bagged trousers, old scarves. I try to tell her I hate it here and I’m leaving, but she beams at me from under her hat and enormous glasses. She might be sixty, I decide.

It took Canteloube thirty-one years to finish the Chants d’Auvernge, which were published serially in five volumes. “Peasant songs often achieve the purest level of art,’ he claimed, “if not in their form, then in their feeling and expression.’ He died two years after the final book was completed, in 1957.

The moon hinges on the mountain like a fist pressed to an eye. One light burns in a dorm room across the stone path. In the village square, the donkeys kneel in the grass. The cleaning women knit as they walk, yarn passed over the shoulder. The cows graze and moan and lower their horns. The tiny glint of bells hangs over the night.