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ClassicsOnline Home » TRENET, Charles: La Mer (1938-1946)
In his various capacities of writer, composer and performer, Charles Trenet is the foremost chansonnier of the modern school of French cabaret. His songs were championed by Sablon, Piaf, Marjane, Montand and countless other stars and the composer of La mer and many other favourites still fills a special niche in the affections of cabaret audiences.
Charles Trenet was born in Narbonne in the south of France, on 18th May, 1913. In January 1915, when his father, a keen amateur violinist, was called to serve in World War I, the infant Charles, along with his elder brother Antoine, was placed in the care of his maternal grandfather. From an early age, both brothers were encouraged to write Poetry. In his youth, Charles' main artistic impulse, however (apart from a slim volume of early verse published when he was fifteen) was for painting. Following their parents' divorce in 1920, the brothers were sent to a Roman Catholic boarding-school until 1922, when they transferred to Perpignan to live with their father. Their mother meanwhile had remarried to the silent-screen set-designer Benno Vigny, a coincidence which fired Charles' early interest in the techniques of cinema.
In 1926, Charles met the Catalan poet Albert Bausil. Through this eccentric man-ofletters, the editor and publisher of the satirical Narbonne sporting journal Le Coq Catalan, Trenet came into contact with such up-and-coming figures of the French literary scene as Cocteau, Giono, Giraudoux, Mauriac, Maurois, Saint-Exupéry and the painter Fons Godail, a noted cabaret set-designer through whose good offices young Charles was encouraged to exhibit, in 1927, various examples of his own work. In 1928, he joined his mother and stepfather Vigny in Berlin, where the latter had been commissioned to create sets for the film studios. In Berlin, he heard - and was inspired by - imported American jazz, but so far dreamt only of being either a set-designer or a film director! His father hoped he would study to become an architect, whereas the artistically-inclined Charles preferred instead to pen his first novel Dodo Manières.
First and foremost a poet, since considered by many on a par with Jacques Prévert, Trenet's outstanding talent was for writing From the outset of his career, his musical inclinations were complemented by a finely-tuned poetical instinct. The author of three novels and a prolific versifier - at first in the surréaliste style of his literary mentor and youthful hero Max Jacob (1876-1944) - most of the songs he wrote from the mid-1930s onwards nostalgically enshrine the spirit of their age in a skilful economy of words.
Inspired principally by the Surrealists in painting too, Trenet enrolled as an art student in Paris, in September 1930. In his sparetime he worked on sets at the Pathé studios at Joinville and frequented the Parisian nightclubs which were the regular haunts of various kinds of artists. In 1932, at the College Inn in Montparnasse, he first met - and swiftly struck up a close friendship with - Johnny Hess (1915-1983), the Swiss-born lyric-writer, composer and pianist. Their interests, musical and otherwise, coincided and they formed a cabaret double-act. After an interim of a year spent gathering repertoire and honing their act (generally, Hess wrote the tunes, Trenet the lyrics of their songs) but failing to impress the management of the Casino, they appeared at first elsewhere in the French capital at such venues as the Palace and the Fiacre. Gradually, they progressed to more prestigious nightspots, including the Villa D'Este, the Européen, the ABC and the Alhambra and, by the end of 1933, were recording exclusively for Pathé. Although their discs proved by no means major sellers, the duo were popular in certain circles and their recording contract continued until 1936.
Billed as 'Charles et Johnny', they continued their double-act until both were drafted into the French forces, although Trenet meanwhile also embarked on a solo career and, in 1937, for Columbia, cut his first solo discs. "Fleur bleue" coupled with "Je chante" proved a hit disc - the latter song subsequently became the title of the Trenet film.
During 1938 Trenet recorded the first of many noted solos, including “J'ai ta main”, “Pigeon vole” (a collaboration with pianist-arranger Paul Misraki, born 1908), “Vous oubliez votre eheval” and “J'ai connu de vous”. All published by the prestigious Parisian firm of Raoul Breton, these were swiftly followed by such international successes as “Bourn!”, “Vous êtes jolie”, “Il pleut dans ma chamber” and “La route enchantée” (also a Trenet film-title). His hits of early 1939 included “Les enfants s'ennuient le Dimanche” and “Les oiseaux de Paris”, while later that year he consigned to shellac “La vieille” and “Hop! Hop!” Originally "created" by Lucienne Boyer, “Que reste-tu de nos amours?” ranked among Trenet's biggest hits from 1943 onwards, while La mer (through subsequent best-selling revivals of its English translation "Beyond The Sea" by Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan and others, not to mention this Trenet original of 1946 with it various recent applications in the field of TV advertising) has acquired mythical - and more than Golden Disc - sales proportions.
The energetic, dynamic Charles Trenet was a regular in his native France until the late 1970s, when he was persuaded to give a series of farewell tours in Canada More recently, he has sung both in Canada and Europe - during the mid and late 1980s - and appeared in a BBC radio tribute in London, in 1993. Now based in Paris, despite a rumoured (albeit unsubstantiated) slight stroke, his enthusiastic verve remained unimpaired when he appeared in an Aznavour concert as recently as 2000.
Peter Dempsey, 2001
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TRENET, Charles: La Mer (1938-1946)