A traditional French folk tune
It is the usual Wedensday kerfuffle at Mourchon: Twenty-five Americans arriving for lunch on a Rick Steve’s
‘Villages and Vineyards of Eastern France’ tour, Mum, Grandmum, and little sister serving goats’ cheese quiche, the excitement of a new kitten who loves the chestnut cake a little bit too much, grandpa trying to ration the rosé, Dad trying to snatch some leftover fromage in between the tour and the afternoon’s picking, and a ballet outfit waiting to be worn for only the second time. Aggie, meanwhile, is curled up as if nothing were going on but the wind whistling in the vineyard. On the sofa with a book. Oblivious.
‘I’ve written a story….’ she says when I enter. Aggie is nine and plays the cello very well. She has been both well taught (not by me, I might add) and studious. However, the connection between her love of the arc of a story and that of a piece of music is about as tenuous as the connection between my love, at her age, of dancing to the Bee Gees and playing a baroque Gigue. She continues. ‘…about the traditional French folk song I am going to play you.’
It is unlike me, but I actually try, for a minute, to temper my excitement. ‘Do tell me your story, Aggie. Do you have it written down?’
‘No. Yes, well it’s at the other house, but it’s in my head. It’s about a little girl, well, it’s in the second world war and she’s in her room and she wakes up and well she feels something is different…..’
It is a beautiful story. A perfect fairy tale with all the elements we need to construct a piece of music: A young heroine, an exotic location, a premonition, a village chorus, the handsome horseman with some big news, an unraveling scroll (not quite from the right century but who cares) and lastly confirmation of the premonition.
Aggie concludes ‘…. And that is when the little girl thinks, I knew something was different about today, and she feels happy.’
First, by playing the piece (fortunately in three parts, two of which I can just about play simultaneously) we establish how many phrases we have in which to tell her story. Then by stopping at the end of each phrase, listening to the silence and identifying the feeling in the room before we continue, we decide what kind of mood each phrase has and whether it is, for example, a statement, question, answer or exclamation. There are five phrases, we decide. 1. Questioning. 2. Confirming. 3. With a sense of unraveling. 4. With a sense of excitement. 5. A joyous statement with a feeling of peaceful resolution.
Both Aggie and I are excited by the story, and after we work on it for a while I ask her if she would like for us to play it for the family. Back in the kitchen twenty-five chestnut puddings and cream are scurrying out the door, the tiniest barrista I have ever seen (little sister Lilla) is working the Nespresso machine, there is a pile of washing up to be done and coffee to be served to the punters on the lawn, but everyone, including the six week old kitten, decides they can spare a few minutes to listen to Aggie’s story.
Aggie’s story goes like this:
A little girl is in lying in her bed in her French village house. Through the open windows, on this particular summer’s day in 1945, she can hear not just the breeze and the usual birdsong, but something different. A new sound. She thinks, something special is going to happen today….
The little girl walks towards the window, looks out on the street, and sees that people are milling about everywhere. In doorways, on the pavements and the road. It is not just the normal milling either, the going-to-the-boulangerie or catching-up-with-a-neighbour milling. This is special milling. It is then the little girl catches sight of the handsome man in uniform on horseback whom everyone seems to be watching.
The man on horseback starts unraveling a very long scroll. The tension amongst the villagers is mounting…
He starts to read the script which has an endless preamble ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, His Royal Highness….’ Blah blah. The villagers are becoming impatient to know the news.
The man on horseback finally delivers the news. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! The war is over!’. The little girl is overjoyed and thinks to herself quietly, yes, I knew something special was going to happen today.
Aggie starts playing quietly, sleepily. The sleepiness makes her arm move slowly and heavily producing a perfect ‘Once-upon-a-time’ sound, with core and yet not too definite. She allows a questioning silence between phrases one and two, and yet she is eager to go on with the story so her upbeat has energy. During the second phrase, the fresh breeze at the window and the sense of confirmation make her bow move more briskly and with more attack, causing the sound to be airier with more defined edges. The bow slows down again in the first unravelling passage to keep us on tenterhooks, but speeds up naturally, almost despite itself, as the impatience to tell the news mounts. The breath before the last phrase is almost swallowed in anticipation and with the affirmative joy of the news in the last phrase, Aggie almost throws the bow in exuberation. This causes a brilliant energetic sound that, I think at the time, could sing for Europe at the end of a long war. In the closing bars, with the sense of relief and relaxation, Aggie executes a delicious diminuendo and rallentando. How she does it, I don’t know. I think perhaps it does her. She takes her bow off the string gently and sits in silence. We sit in silence with her. With Aggie the story teller and the little girl in the story Aggie told.
Aggie the cellist is nowhere to be seen.