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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A chorus of approval

By Norman Lebrecht / February 16, 2005


Nine million French people have rushed to see a film about singing. Could it change our lives, too?

One summer’s morning at the Dartington festival, where amateur musicians and professionals work together as equals, I found myself belting out a Berlioz chorus beside a man who, from the cut of his shirt and the four sharpened pencils in its top pocket, was unmistakably French.

In the coffee break, we got chatting. He and his wife were members of a Paris choral society. On discovering my occupation, he blanched. ‘Please do not write in France about this festival,’ he begged. ‘There are 500 choruses in Paris and they will all want to come.’

The poor chap was right to be alarmed. Singing, like most social activities in France, is driven by the whims of fashion. Suddenly, it has become le dernier cri de tout Paris. There is talk of young execs switching their gym cards for lunchtime choir practice. Parents are reported to be moving children to schools with better sol-fa teaching.

The French Institute of Choral Art, with some 280,000 choir members, has been swamped with new applications. Choir practice is becoming to bourgeois Paris what the book group is in suburban London.

The cause of the singing craze is a low-budget local film which, to industry astonishment, out-grossed Harry Potter, Spiderman and Shrek 2 across France, selling nine million tickets and 1.2 million soundtrack CDs. Les Choristes - released in English speaking countries this month as The Choir and nominated for two Oscars - is a plain tale of a failed musician who, teaching at a boarding school for abandoned boys in the late 1940s, overcomes a brutal regime to instil order and hope by organising his pupils into an a capella chorus.

It is not, by any measure, an original work. The plot is a remake of Jean Dréville’s 1945 classic, La cage aux rossignols (The nightingales’ cage).The elevating power of music on difficult children has been demonstrated in any number of films, exemplary to execrable, from The Sound of Music (1965) to Mr Holland’s Opus (1995).

Classical or classic-lite music is a common movie metaphor for self betterment. The soundtrack of The Chorus is an unexceptionable confection of bucolic songs by one Bruno Coulais, the exception being Jean-Philippe Rameau’s transcendent Hymne a la nuit, a choral masterpiece that evokes the rural night in all its mysterious rustlings.

Nothing about the film, not least its tiny budget of E5.5 million, portended a success on this scale, and no amount of retrospective philosophising has credibly explained it. True, there is a powerful element of nostalgia: a Proustian return to the post-war era when out-of-the-way schools were dumped with the unmentioned orphans, bastards and foundling sons of the four-year German occupation and Vichy collaboration.

True, too, that the director has intimate knowledge of his subject. Christophe Barratier, 41, was raised in boarding schools while his family was away making films; his uncle, co-producer of Les Choristes, financed the leftwing Greek director Costa Gavras and his mother appeared in Z. As a boy, Barratier sought contemplative refuge in the classical guitar, which he studied to Conservatoire standard. Once he realised that his only career option was private teaching, he reverted to the family trade with an unforgiving eye that allows the film no happy end.

Neither of these factors, however, could have precipitated a national explosion in choral singing unless Barratier had unwittingly touched on something deeper in the modern psyche – and I have some notion what that is. Choral singing is one of the last frontiers of human freedom. It is pretty much the only art you can perform without someone taxing, regulating or funding it, and it is certainly the only music that delivers an instant uplift to all participants.

‘I can turn up for Friday night rehearsal feeling like shit,’ says a friend in the Crouch End Festival Chorus of north London which is rehearsing for a Brahms Requiem with the RPO and Daniele Gatti, ‘but the moment we start singing, the whole week just falls away.’ You don’t get that sensation from playing viola in a Brahms quartet or second grave digger in a church-hall Hamlet.

Beyond the feel good bonus, joining a choir is an act of empowerment. I have seen, over recent months, a pack of twenty-somethings take possession of an ancient liturgical heritage and present it, immaculately restored, at two sold-out concerts in Bevis Marks, Britain’s oldest synagogue (a CD is released on The concert was a double revelation – of the force of tradition, and the emergence of a new communal leadership.

For the skills entailed in assembling and inspiring a chorus are those by which others run companies and countries. Bringing together two dozen voices in different registers and making them work with and against each other in harmony and counterpoint is a feat of organisation which few corporate chairmen could achieve, the more so when the singers, unpaid, are sustained by nothing more than a nebulous personal satisfaction and the social reward of a post-rehearsal pint.

What the French discovered through Les Choristes is that pleasure and a sense of worth can be obtained through a voluntary activity that bears no relation to any other part of our over-regimented lives – that singing together liberates people from time and ties and every daily obligation. Freedom is what it’s about.

Whether it will catch on elsewhere is another matter. The British choral tradition is rooted in religious faith and heavy industries, both in retreat. Mining villages that once yielded mighty choruses now feed personnel to call centres.

Two British films, Billy Elliott and The Full Monty, proposed dancing and stripping as remedies for the destruction of communities and morale. But neither film triggered a rush on the Royal Ballet School as Les Choristes has done on French choirs. The inspiration, if any, was short-lived.

Amateur choruses up and down this country are in good shape and heart, but they struggle to get an audience for public performances; and they need to give concerts as a goal that keeps members coming regularly to rehearsal. Public inference breeds artistic caution. Crouch End, which prefers to sing new works by Adams, Reich and Ades, is reverting to Messiah for its next concert.

These choral societies need our support – not, for heaven’s sake, in the form of a Royal warrant or taxpayers' subsidy, but in recognising their importance to our communities as a bastion of liberty, fraternity and occasional riotous anarchy. Support your local choir. You never know when it might save your sanity.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001