As the summer season of music festivals kicks off with the fête de la musique, is France doing enough to introduce children to their musical heritage – or is classical music just for the elite?
Musical education falls into two distinct categories in France: school and music school. You don’t learn an instrument at school, though most school music sections have practicing facilities. The two are parallel and complementary, the amount of interaction depending on the personality and the energy of individual teachers, as well as on available funding.
Music, an obligatory subject in the Education Nationale syllabus in primary and collège, acquaints children with different types of music and musical history. Sadly, with one hour a week, plus choir, teachers can only scratch at the surface here.
At lycée level, usually one lycée per department has a music section, offering “enseignement facultative musique” and “arts du son”. The former continues the non-specialist approach to music, with a music option in Baccalauréat L. ‘There is no time or staff to teach instrumental music at school,’ explains Olivier Bougenec, music teacher at Lycée Cordouan, Royan, (dept. 17) ‘but many pupils study at the music school as well. What we offer is musical education, like you might study history of art. It’s for everyone, not just those who want to study music at university.’
A new hour-and-a-half per week course, “arts du son”, offers familiarisation with sound production techniques. In both, the emphasis is on practical group work and cultural outings.
Rare, however, is the small town without its Ecole de Musique, though the smaller ones, run by associations, will not employ state-qualified teachers. Larger towns, like Saintes of festival fame, boast their own Conservatoire.
Dependent on local authority and/or departmental funding, a music school provides tuition, musical theory (solfège) and orchestral or ensemble practice for amateurs and future professionals and puts on concerts locally. Open to everyone, it still remains a school, with a set syllabus leading to national diplomas, not to be confused with music in a Centre de Loisirs. Lessons in music school, however, can be expensive.
At the top of this pyramid, the two national conservatoires, in Paris and Lyons, produce professional musicians, all hoping to make a career in a very competitive world.
International violinist and former conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Janiscek was in Saintes last year giving a week of intensive training to the Jeune Orchestre Atlantique. The JOA, average age 25, is a unique training opportunity in period instruments for French and international musicians.
Asked if he found a difference between the place of music in France and elsewhere, his immediate reaction was, ‘Here it’s for an élite, it’s about winning competitions, passing exams. In central Europe, and in the UK, music is part of life.’
This feeling is echoed by Patrick Oliva, baroque violin masters student at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, Paris. ‘Music shouldn’t be an occasional activity limited to concert halls, but except in regions like Alsace where the musical heritage is more Germanic and every village has its orchestra or harmonie (brass and wind ensemble), the only music this generation will remember is the pop and rap they listen to non-stop. That’s the real problem, the future of Western classical music.’
The north European model does not, however, mean more professionals, thinks Jean-Nicolas Richard, head of the Saintes Conservatoire, whose premises are in the convent buildings of the Abbaye aux Dames, a proximity that pays off in terms of interaction between Conservatoire pupils, JAO musicians and summer festival participants. For Richard, the lack of widespread musical culture in France is counterbalanced by the considerable demand on the international music market for graduates of the renowned Conservatoire system. But, says organiser of the Saintes festival Jean-Pierre Girard, ‘after the Conservatoire, there is no structure to help young musicians.
As for music in primary school, Saintes may be luckier than other towns. During Piano en Saintonge this year, 23-year-old Gaspard Deheane performed to two interested primary school classes, and answered questions ranging from the number of hours he practiced daily (around five) to the function of the piano pedals, the meaning of nocturne and why the music suddenly went faster. During the evening concerts, several young Conservatoire pupils sat wide-eyed, watching young professional barely twice their age attacking Liszt, Brahms and Wagner.
Music schools all over the country invite primary school children in the framework of specially timetabled music classes (CHAM), but Saintes goes one step further with the Abbaye’s “Voix d’enfance” and the Conservatoires’ “Chant’école” programmes, both designed to introduce children to singing and performing as young as possible.
In Royan, a town half the size of Saintes, the physical closeness of the Lycée Cordouan to the town’s Ecole de Musique has allowed them to join forces for musical productions. Both Olivier Bougenec and music school director Yann Le Calvé would agree that, to obtain municipal backing and funding, you need to invest personally. Both have intensely busy lives, no doubt the fate of much-maligned music teachers everywhere. Bougenec frequently lectures to adult audiences in Royan and puts on school choral and music concerts. Le Calvé plays first violin in the Poitou-Charentes orchestra and runs a local youth musical academy in the summer that attracts international musicians and puts on smaller events all year round.
For Le Calvé, a local music school’s aim is not to produce professional musicians, but music lovers and listeners. ‘To date, music is the only international language we have invented. Yet no music school can pay its way. So we have to look ahead. We need to train pupils and their parents to be listeners. By offering children free seats for concerts, by involving them young, we hope to produce not just music lovers but future voters open to the idea of subsidising culture.’
by Jacqueline Karp. (A version of this article first appeared in the French Paper)