Et le vent du nord les emporte Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli."
We've all heard the work of Joseph Kosma (1905-69). He wrote music for Jean Renoir's classics La grande illusion, La Règle du jeu, and for Marcel Carné Les enfants du Paradis and Les portes de la nuit, (1946). But Kosma was a serious "art" composer, who knew Bartok and Kodály. He worked for the Zig Zag theatre, in Budapest, where Schoenberg and Webern were played. Moving to Berlin in 1928 he was part of Hanns Eisler's circle, and mixed with Bertolt Brecht. Escaping to Paris in 1933, Kosma knew no French, but said he was "determined to write songs whose aim would be not to merely entertain but also express man's fear of the menaces of the modern and inhuman world. For me it was a simple question of conscience".
After hearing Matthias Goerne sing Schubert with harp instead of piano at the Wigmore Hall with Sarah Christ (more HERE), I wanted to hear more. Now, I'm listening to 30 Chansons de Joseph Kosma from the French label Mécénat Musical (disrtribued by Harmonia Mundi). The singer is Françoise Masset and the harpist is Christine Icart. There are other collections of Kosma songs to listen to but I like this because harp gives them delicacy and innocence.
It matters, interpretively. Kosma himself wrote : "Il me faiilait acquérir l'elegance de la mélodie français ; et por cela, je cherchais le poete qui exprimerait cette réalité avec l'esprit a foie étincelant et retenu qui caractérise les grands poetes français". Kosma worked very closely with Jacques Prévert, and twenty of the songs in this set are to texts by the poet. At least 21 of the 50 songs Kosma wrote to texts by Prévert end piano or pianissimo, dissipating elusively, hovering into uncertainty.
When Yves Montand sang Les feuilles morte in the movie Les portes de la nuit (1946), he sang with gruff Gauloise-soaked rasps. When Masset sings it, her voice floats lightly. "C'est une chanson qui nous ressemble. Toi, tu m'aimais et je t'aimais.......Et la mer efface sur le sable, Les pas des amants désunis." Now the song seems elusive, quite haunting, like haze above water and the silent falling of leaves. All three original verses, too, to extend the atmosphere.Yet there are troubling undertones to this lightness. "Rappelle-toi, Barbara" sing Masset in another well known song (from the same film). The poet uses "toi", and the song seems intimate, but he doesn't know the woman, or her male friend, or even if they're still alive. "Quelle connerie la guerre, Qu'es-tu devenue maintenant
Sous cette pluie de fer, De feu d'acier de sang". From quasi-folk melody to numbed grief in under three imnutes.
Like Poulenc and so many other Parisian sophisticates, Kosma could satirize the banal and make it witty. L'orgue de Barbarie, Art poétque I&II and Le miroir brisé dance along lyrically, but pack a stylish punch. Maset can sing with gleeful humour. "Et la fête continue!" she sings with relish: one thinks of the circus master in Lulu. In La jour de fête she sings two contrasting voices. Masset's background is in baroque but she also sings new music and works in music theatre. The harp acts, too, Icart makes the instrument sound like a guitar in On frappe and Le guitare solaire. The transpositions, by Stéphan Aubé, are elegant and understated.
Les feuilles mortes became a big hit and an English version was written by Johnny Mercer. There was also an American movie "Autumn Leaves" which elimanted the wartime and political context of the original French film. The song became a jazz classic, recorded by Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald and others. All valid because it's a good tune, and the bar room setting of the original film lends itself to jazz club reverie. But, having heard this recording with harp accompnaiment, I'm much more attuned to Kosma as "art song", elusive and delicate. Much closer in spirit, I think, to Debussy's Les Feuilles mortes" as my friend Mark Berry remarked.
photo : Masaki Ikeda