About this Recording
8.120783 - TRENET, Charles: Le Coeur de Paris (1948-1954)

‘Le Coeur de Paris’ Original 1948-1954 Recordings

Now immortalised by “La mer” (a nostalgic evocation of coastal scenes near his native Narbonne) Charles Trenet was a creative chansonnier with ‘a painter’s eye for detail.’ A performing legend on a par with Piaf, Chevalier and Sablon,Trenet influenced several generations, while the self-appointed ‘clown’ of French cabaret was also a showman whose larger-than-life antics masked a broader spectrum of artistic activity and an unflagging professional dynamism. Born in Narbonne, in Aude, South-Western France, on 18 May 1913 he always had, first and foremost, a talent for words but from an early age was inclined to vocalising and musical improvisation. Reputedly, at kindergarten, when quizzed by his nanny over his singing, he replied ‘Je chante ce que j’invente’.

In 1922 Charles’ parents divorced and with his brother Antoine he moved to Perpignan, where their father was a practising lawyer. At fifteen, encouraged by the Catalan poet Bausil, he published his first verses and through this genial but eccentric man-of-letters, who also edited and published the noted sporting chronicle Le Coq Catalan,Trenet met such avant-garde figures as Giono, Giraudoux, Mauriac, Maurois, Saint-Exupéry and the painter Fons Godail, a noted cabaret set-designer under whose influence the young Charles was to exhibit, in 1927, various examples of his own work. In 1928 he joined his mother and stepfather (former silent-screen set-designer Benno Vigny) in Berlin and there aspired, if only briefly, to become a film-director! His father wanted him to be an architect, but the artistic Charles devoted himself instead to writing his first novel: Dodo Manières.

In 1930 Trenet moved to Paris and worked as a graphic artist at Pathé’s Joinville film studios. Quickly settling down to life in the capital, he frequented the nightspots of Montmartre and Montparnasse (notably Le Boeuf sur le Toit) and there, billed ‘Le fou chantant’ (= singing clown, or fool, à la Jolson) soon found cabaret stardom, while his associates in intellectual circles included fellowwriters Antonin Artaud, Jean Cocteau and his literary mentor and hero Max Jacob (1876- 1944). During 1933 Trenet’s songwriting and performing duo with his partner, the Swiss-born lyricist-composer Johnny Hess (alias Jean Laurent, 1915-1983) took off – with assistance from Joséphine Baker – and they subsequently co-wrote many successes, including ‘Rendezvous sous la pluie’ (1935) and the 1936 Grand Prix du Disque-winner ‘Vous qui passez sans me voir’. As ‘Charles et Johnny’ they recorded for Pathé and worked the cabaret circuit until both were drafted into French military service, in 1936.

Taking his lead from Mireille and Sablon and other exponents of the new-style chanson, by mid-decade Trenet was in the forefront of composer-performers who, inspired by the recently imported transatlantic idiom, had rechannelled Jazz into Swing. His musical gifts were complemented from the outset by a prolific, if sometimes unequal, poetical instinct. The author of three novels and copious reams of verse (in style at first surréaliste, in imitation of Max Jacob), the songs he penned from the late-1930s onwards captured the spirit of the age. Like Prévert and few others, he skilfully distilled nostalgia both musically and verbally with an amazing economy.

Signed by Columbia, in 1937 Trenet made his first solo commercial recordings several in collaboration with Paul Misraki (born 1908), including the title-song of his first film Je chante (1938), soon to become an early signature tune. Written during his military service,‘Y’a de la joie’was his greatest hit to date and brought an invitation to write and appear in two films, of which La route enchantée (1938; this included Grand Prix-winning ‘Boum!’ – see Naxos Nostalgia 8.120530, Charles Trenet: La mer) was the most successful. In 1943, with more limited success, he returned to the screen (as co-writer with Jacques Prévert) in Adieu, Léonard and spent the rest of World War II maintaining French morale with his songs, most significantly ‘Douce France’ (1943).

In 1945 Trenet moved to the USA where for several years he worked mainly as a writer. Where credited as lyricist, he penned the words to virtually all of his own songs; the tunes themselves may not all be his own creations, although he often claimed that they were. Many of his recordings were issued in the States and although none made the popular charts Top 30 several enjoyed wide circulation, assuring Trenet a circle of ardent admirers. 1948 brought his biggest hit of all,“La mer”. A personification of the sea hauntingly recorded in laid-back style by Trenet, it is now a key song of the 1940s, although the tune may be by pianist-composer Albert Lasry,Trenet’s regular arranger and conductor. The song has since been recorded by a wide range of other performers (4,000 times, according to one estimate) and has long featured in the vocabulary of nostalgia, most recently through the medium of TV advertising.

By the early 1950s Trenet was again domiciled in his native France, but made regular return trips to the USA and Canada. His compositions continued to be wide-ranging in mood (frequently reflecting themes and events in his own past life) and his recordings included a remake of his 1930s hit Vous qui passez sans me voir (a collaboration with Hess and Paul Misraki, 1908-98) and numbers from his 1953 film Bouquet de joie. Energetic and dynamic at every public appearance (‘Je suis né poète, je mourrai athlète’was the oft-quoted motto which he jokingly styled for an epitaph), he continued a rigorous performing schedule in France until his official retirement in 1975. As yet unwilling to retire, however, by the late 1970s Trenet had embarked on a series of farewell tours in Canada. In 1978, in collaboration with his mother (who died shortly afterwards) he published a memoir and until the late 1980s continued to make occasional tours of Europe and Canada. In 1993, in London, he appeared in a BBC radio tribute. Awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1989, he was later variously created a commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Président of the French Ministry of Culture’s Commission for Song.

Never wanting in creative energy, in 1992 and 1995 Trenet published new collections of songs and during November 1999 gave three concerts in Paris. The following year he returned, apparently undaunted in spirit if physically challenged by a series of strokes, to sing at a concert staged by Charles Aznavour. He died in a hospital on the outskirts of Paris on 18 February 2001, aged 87 years, and the following day was hailed by French President Jacques Chirac as: ‘a great artist, poet and national institution.’

Peter Dempsey, 2005

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