About this Recording
8.573973 - TEA FOR TWO - Songs and Chansons from the Belle-Époque to the Roaring 20s (Decouture, Brocard, Frivol'Ensemble)
English  French 

Tea for Two
From the Belle Epoque to the Roaring Twenties

 

‘I am quite convinced that there is no city in the world where as much music is consumed as in London’, noted Berlioz in his column in the Journal des Débats on 29 July 1851. The observation remained pertinent at the turn of the 20th century.

London and Paris shared an artistic vitality that set them apart. Many British artists appeared on stage in Paris, and London was equally enthusiastic about welcoming not only singers and conductors, but also composers and works originating in the French capital. French music glittered, Parisian taste was de rigueur—London willingly subscribed to it. There was a constant process of cultural exchange, with the periods of Anglomania that gripped Paris at regular intervals mirrored by London’s passion for works and shows given the stamp of approval by the City of Lights.

The ties between the two capitals became even closer at the start of the Third Republic (1870) and again with the signing of the Entente cordiale (1904)—in the intervening years, English music hall had been exported to Paris, where the playboy Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) had become a celebrity. London raved about French composers, who were even commissioned to write ‘English’ works, while syncopation reached France from the US in the early 1900s, having already swept through London’s West End, and established itself for good after the First World War. In turn, Paris also loved London’s hit shows. The London premiere of No, No, Nanette—music by Vincent Youmans (1898–1946)—on 11 March 1925 was such a success that the Broadway premiere took place just a few months later, and in France, the Isola Brothers, new owners of the Théâtre Mogador, soon acquired the rights. On 29 April 1926, the show triumphed in Paris as well. Tea for Two, one of its hit numbers, was on everyone’s lips and played at all the dance halls.

The Mogador’s orchestra was led by Percival Mackey, musical director at the Palace Theatre in London. This was a fair exchange given that London had been welcoming French conductors to direct its orchestras and theatres for decades. André Messager (1853–1929) was one of those who had a successful career on the English side of the Channel, as a composer, conductor and administrator—he worked in the latter role at Covent Garden between 1901 and 1907. Brought to the London music world’s attention in 1891 when the D’Oyly Carte Company gave the British premiere of La Basoche, Messager was then commissioned to write a new opera for the company. It was Richard D’Oyly Carte who had first brought Gilbert and Sullivan together, and who had produced all their successful operettas. Sadly, the pair fell out and stopped writing together, leaving D’Oyly Carte very much in need of a new hit by a fashionable composer. Messager accepted his offer—not only was it an attractive commission, but by then he had fallen for the love of his life, the composer Hope Temple (also known as Dotie Davis, 1859–1938), who was one of his pupils. She had already written a number of very popular songs and her level of fame can be gauged by the fact that Joyce mentioned the most famous of these—My Lady’s Bower—in relation to his heroine Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Messager therefore wrote Mirette (Savoy Theatre, 3 July 1894) in collaboration with Temple, who became his second wife the following year.

Mirette enjoyed a run of 101 performances, with a break during the Savoy’s summer closure, during which the show was revised, Adrian Ross rewriting the lyrics and the plot being reworked. Messager had written an opéra comique, but an English opéra comique. His revised score won general approval and demonstrated his skill at setting English and its rhythms. Musically and stylistically, Mirette clearly drew on the work of the leading composers of Paris’s Opéra Comique, figures such as Auber and Boieldieu. Although it was adapted from a French libretto by Michel Carré (fils), it was never staged in France—presumably this had something to do with the failings of the original text.

Messager’s Parisian hits led to transfers to London (Les P’tites Michu, Véronique, Fortunio, etc.) and to the premiere of a new work, the three-act romantic opera Monsieur Beaucaire (Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, 7 April 1919), with lyrics by his usual English librettist Adrian Ross. The style of English operetta was well established by then: there had to be a touch of the exotic—in this case provided by the improbable exile to 18th-century Bath of the son of the King of France, disguised as a barber—the story also had to be sentimental and romantic, and stay within the bounds of decency, and the music had to alternate between the lyricism of grand opera and the lightness of comic opera. Gold and Blue and White, recorded here, was dropped for the London premiere, and not heard in France. This number reveals the operatic specifications of the English musical, specifications met by Messager, although what came to him more naturally was the kind of concise, refined and elegant lightness we hear in the duet Lightly, lightly.

Messager was not the only non-British composer to write for the London stage: Ivan Caryll (1861–1921), real name Félix Marie Henri Tilkin, was born in Liège but primarily active in London and New York. The leading light of the team of composers put together by George Edwardes for his musical comedies (Edwardes was the influential manager of London’s Gaiety and Daly’s theatres), Caryll wrote his only musical in French for Paris in 1908. This was S.A.R. (Son Altesse Royale—‘His Royal Highness’), a hit at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. That success led the Trianon-Lyrique to revive the work, just as profitably, in 1924.

The well-off fringe of British society frequented Parisian theatres, enjoying the work of composers such as Rodolphe Berger (1864–1916), who was born in Austria but settled in the French capital. Berger was the king of the slow waltz, his career launched by the huge success of the Marche des Cambrioleurs, a comic song first performed by Victor Lejal in 1898, but he was equally at home writing for the Opéra Comique, the café-concert, the salon or for private theatres. In April 1908, the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin staged Le Chevalier d’Éon (libretto by Armand Silvestre and Henri Cain), unquestionably his most musically polished work. Some critics accused him at the time of putting his name to music he had not penned, but as we listen, especially at a distance of 110 years, to the Récit et Cavatine de Lauranguy, the good-natured and engaging soldier who befriends and protects the Chevalier of the title, it becomes evident that such allegations must have been false. Berger captures the spirit of the time, just as Raoul Moretti did in the 1920s. All the tics and clichés of hit tunes, the melodic turns, gimmicks and other formulas inspired by one musician or another are blended together in Berger’s score, and yet his music retains its own recognisable character.

Another Parisian hit, just a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, was Les Contes de Perrault (Théâtre de la Gaité, 27 December 1913) by Arthur Bernède and Paul de Choudens, music by Félix Fourdrain (1880–1923). The show’s creators wove together Perrault’s famous fairy tales with enormous skill and wit, and Félix Fourdrain’s score is meticulously crafted and truly inspired. In it he captures all the poetry—and imagination—of Perrault’s work; the Rêverie de Cendrillon perfectly represents the many joys of these fairy-tale retellings.

If there’s one song that illustrates the fluidity of Franco-British musical exchanges during the First World War, it’s Roses of Picardy by Haydn Wood (1882–1959). Composed in the autumn of 1916, it soon became popular with both British and French soldiers: Pierre d’Amor’s French version was published in Paris before the Armistice. It was widely disseminated and underwent numerous transformations, from arrangements for wind band to versions for mandolin or harp.

Messalinette, ou le tour du demi-monde en 80 nuits (Scala, 19 February 1902) must have been a secret gift from Victorian England. This two-act opérette-bouffe by Pierre-Louis Flers and Rodolphe Berger was a lavish fantasy that entranced Parisians and tourists alike.

Berger here exploits a popular and dynamic café-concert vein in the spirit of the fin-de-siècle song. Messalinette, fantaisie-sélection is one of those medleys designed to fit on the two sides of a 78rpm record—the aim being to popularise a particular show and introduce its big numbers to a wider audience (as well as to sell records to those who’d already been won over by the show live)—while also sticking to a rough outline of the plot.

Where else but Paris would it have been possible to attend a musical with lavish sets and costumes, featuring ballet and semi-clad streetwalkers, whose main theme was the female orgasm? For this is the problem faced by Messalinette, a demi-mondaine who has never experienced the phenomenon, despite her many sexual adventures. Spicy, witty, bawdy, and yet still elegant, this show on a contemporary theme is the precursor of the ‘modern operetta’ of the 1920s—all about fantasy, sex and song.

In the early 1900s, the slow waltz reigned, with its evocations of sweet, nostalgic and sometimes painful memories of love. Reynaldo Hahn (1874–1947) later paid homage to the genre in Une Revue… (Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, 28 October 1926)—a one-act work with lyrics by by Maurice Donnay and Henri Duvernois. La Dernière Valse conjures up the age in which Paulette Darty (1871–1939), known as the ‘Queen of the slow waltz’, was one of the biggest stars in Paris, the first to perform two such emblematic pieces as Berger’s Amoureuse and Satie’s Je te veux.

Louis Beydts (1895–1953) casts a similarly fond glance back at a not-so-distant past in L’Escarpolette (from the second act of Moineau; Théâtre Marigny, 11 March 1931), which pays homage to his teacher Messager’s Véronique.

Messager had also taught, and become friends with, Marcel Lattès (1886–1943), who emulated his master in writing a delightful show for London: Maggie (Oxford Theatre, 22 October 1919), guaranteeing himself some well-crafted lyrics by borrowing Adrian Ross from Messager. Maggie is a salesgirl in love with a young man who only has eyes for a film star, for whom, with a bit of make-up, she is the exact double. Of course, she takes advantage of this coincidence to disguise herself as the actress and win the heart of the man in question. Maggie, the Movie Queen reflects the post-war period and a change in taste: in London, as in Paris, contemporary themes were taking centre-stage, and syncopation and ‘American’ accents were finding their way into musical theatre. In 1919, a little bit of London even moved to Paris, when Sir Alfred Butt (1878–1962), the impresario at the head of a veritable empire in the West End, where he ran several prestigious theatres, had the Théâtre Mogador built to the plans of the London Palladium for his French mistress Régine Flory (?1891–1926). Famed on both sides of the Channel, this French star enjoyed many a triumph in his London theatres.

On 21 April 1919, the Mogador opened its doors with the revue Hullo, Paris!, based on two London hits produced by Butt—Hullo, America! (1918, starring Elsie Janis and Maurice Chevalier) and Vanity Fair, a revue in which Régine Flory had dazzled at the Palace Theatre in 1916 (with a run of 265 performances). She had particularly shone in the duet Some Sort of Somebody by Jerome Kern (1885–1945), borrowed from the musical Very Good Eddie (1915). So popular did the number become that it was included in The Canadian Soldiers’ Song Book that Canadian troops carried with them into the trenches. Régine Flory imported the duet into Hullo, Paris!, performing it at the Mogador with baritone Jack Hulbert. Paris had by then thrown itself into the Jazz Age—the popular music now being written there (and sometimes the art music too—Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges of 1919–25) was steeped in American rhythms. Even before this, during the war years, English could be heard from time to time on the stages of Paris. Yvonne Printemps, a stunning Prince Charming in the Contes de Perrault at the Gaité in 1913, had become Sacha Guitry’s leading lady of choice the moment she met that most Parisian of writers. The essence of this young star’s inimitable charm seems to emanate from Je chante la nuit, a slow foxtrot written by Maurice Yvain (1891–1965), to the words of his protégé Henri-Georges Clouzot, for the diva’s farewell recital in 1938. Printemps starred opposite Guitry at the Bouffes-Parisiens in L’Illusionniste (28 November 1917), playing a young English music-hall artist, who speaks so little French that the illusionist, British in (stage) name only, has to learn English in order to seduce her. While Guitry, as Teddy Brooks, performed magic tricks, Printemps sang and danced to Everybody Rag with Me, a lively ragtime number written in 1914 by Gus Kahn (lyrics) and Grace LeBoy (1890–1983) (music).

The first performance of its French incarnation, On r’met ça!, was given by Maurice Chevalier in 1915, in Dörnitz Altengrabow, the camp in which he was being held as a prisoner of war. The French lyrics were by fellow prisoner Joë Bridge, who, with Chevalier, wrote and organised the revue On r’met ça!, staged at the theatre built in the camp by and for prisoners at Christmas 1915. Later, after Chevalier’s lover, the legendary French actress Mistinguett, had helped obtain his release in 1916, the number became part of his solo stage act.

This album, an inevitably incomplete and subjective survey of the music of this period, perfectly captures the spirit of exploration central to Les Frivolités Parisiennes, and to all the ensemble’s concerts and productions. The pleasure of making and sharing new discoveries lies at the heart of Tea for Two, a gourmet musical overview of a rich and varied repertoire, still full of surprises for audiences today.

Christophe Mirambeau
English translation: Susannah Howe


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