Charles Trenet: Troubadour of Modern France

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Charles Trenet: Troubadour of Modern France


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


If one enjoys the music of French crooning, then one may be drawn to the records of Charles Trenet, now in his eighties. Yet when English speakers list celebrated French singers, they more readily give names like Chevalier, Piaf, Montand, or Aznavour. As for French songwriters few Anglophones can think of a Gallic Richard Rodgers or even Paul McCartney.

Yet Trenet has not only been a famous singer in France, but also a prolific songwriter of the first rank. Not only has he composed many catchy melodies, but also wonderful lyrics that perfectly fitted them and which have brought him the appellation controlee of 'poet' in his country. Two of his songs, Que reste-t-il de nos amours and La mer, became American standards respectively titled 'I Give You Love' (sung by Eydie Gorme et al.) and 'Beyond the Sea' (most known in Bobby Darin's version); and many of his other recorded tunes will stick in listeners' minds as the standards they remain in France. In Britain La mer is so popular that it was recently used as the background music in a television advertisement to lure more Britons onto Cross-Channel Ferries to visit France.

Trenet was born in May, 1913. Within a year his father Lucien went off to the Great War, remaining away until the boy was six. Charles thus grew up surrounded by women: a fiercely protective nanny, his refined mother Marie-Louise, two grandmothers, both indulgent, and for a time a great-grandmother, not to mention aunts, aunt-figures, and servants. Aside from a grandfather growing vines and making wine barrels, the only consistent male presence was Charles' brother, Antoine, three years his senior.

Idyllic summers at sea, where the family rented for two months, would later re-emerge in Trenet's songs. There Charles could plunge all day into an ocean and winds that were more changeable in Languedoc than on the plush Cote d' Azur. He and his brother chased crabs and shrimps, then enjoyed September rides to his grandparents' place in the country during wine harvest.

When Lucien Trenet was finally demobilized in the spring of 1919, returning as a stranger to Charles, he resumed his notarial practice in a small town, while Marie-Louise remained in Narbonne. Their separation culminated in a divorce late in 1920, still very rare in France. During the war she had met a wounded soldier named Benno Vigny, and had obviously fallen in love with him. With this new husband-to-be, a screenwriter, she would set off on various cinematic locations throughout Europe; but meanwhile Lucien packed the boys off to boarding school, embittering Marie-Louise, who hated the sudden separation. Trenet's mother has noted that from that moment came the intermittent melancholy that finds its way into her son's songs.

Behind the bars of school the boy soon realized that his first vocal compositions could already entertain fellow students. He also enjoyed his first efforts at painting and his mother's endless renditions of classics played on the piano, when he was ill. Yet Charles' penchant for things melodic also came in good part from his father. Lucien Trenet may have resembled a serious notaire, but his heart was in music. On Saturdays he would play the violin with other members of the family or with the local cure on the flute.

One moment in Trenet's young life which became crucial for his future occurred during his teenage years. Charles had remained inseparable from his brother Antoine, now approaching 16, and then Antoine apparently had an affair with a married woman, causing a local scandal. When Lucien Trenet learned what had happened to one of his clients, he sent Antoine far away to school in the Bordeaux region.

At first broken-hearted, Charles was consoled by his verse, art, and music, locating an adult mentor to help him along that route - Albert Bausil. It is a truism to say that one seeks in a mentor aspects of oneself or more simply, a confirming other, and this Bausil became. …

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