A wintertime oasis of warmth, food, songs and friendship marked La La La’s annual Bastille soirée in Northcote last night. The choir has spent much of the past term polishing and preparing for the evening, and the results showed.
They performed sixteen pieces, from cheeky drinking or marching songs through to slow courtly dances. Some of the choral highlights were: Les Colchiques, a piece by Melbourne-based composer Lewis Ingham commissioned especially for our choir; a composition by the great Fauré (of Clair de lune and Requiem fame) from when he was himself still a young music student; and the piece Cadet Rousselle which tied in nicely with our guest speaker’s talk (see transcript below).
Afterward, members of the audience and choir alike enjoyed conversation and food from the tables bursting with platters of fine cheeses, biscuits, fresh cakes, madeleines, delicious dips and other hors d’oeuvres, as well as French wines (served elegantly by David and Louise), and hot drinks for those who wanted warmth before braving a cold homeward trip.
A big thanks to friends and family who contributed to making the evening a success, and of course to our valued sponsors Melbourne French Theatre, Breizoz Crêperie, Le Café Flo, and LCF Fun Languages; six recipients from the audience went home very happy with their door prize winnings.
Some photos from the event
Here’s a short gallery of photos capturing the evening. Image credits to Cristina Wells.
A transcript of guest speaker Prof Peter McPhee’s talk
If you missed coming to the concert, or would like to revisit the colourful, wide-ranging and educational talk that Prof. Peter McPhee gave, we’ve transcribed his talk here for you:
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The first thing I want to do is to congratulate the choir on a wonderful array of songs. I was particularly thrilled to hear the third one, the Cadet Rousselle, that was about a real revolutionary, Rousselle. He was from a town in Burgundy called Auxerre, and he was a typical French revolutionary in all sorts of ways. He was someone who was a minor official, didn’t have much money, but was a fervent revolutionary. His peers in the town of Auxerre, when they did their National Guard training or were getting ready to volunteer for the army, most of them would have been barefoot or just wearing wooden clogs, marching, doing their practice. Rousselle, they loved him: he was one of the lads, a bit of a joker—and they made up a song about him. An earlier version of that song from the Revolution was a marching song, and when they did their military practice, they’d sing chorus after chorus about young Rousselle and everything he got up to. So, it was wonderful to hear that song about him.
So, yes, two-hundred and twenty-eight years ago, this famous fortress in Paris—the Bastille—was stormed. It was a very important moment in a great insurrection. It was a violent moment, a bloody moment. And what we really commemorate when we celebrate the storming of the Bastille is the response that the revolutionary National Assembly made to that event, made with a key moment in the French Revolution, because they articulated a document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which is a foundation document. It’s one that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 draws on, with certain key propositions that resonated across France. They involved everybody and resonated across much of the world: the idea that people are born with rights; that rights are not privileges that kings or queens bestow on people as privileges—they belong to people because of being human. The idea that those rights should be equal for everybody; that people should have equal rights and responsibilities. The principle that all authority in society should come from consent, should come from some form of popular sovereignty. The idea that if there are any social distinctions in society, they must be based on usefulness, on capacity, not on the fact that you are part of a noble family going back hundreds of years. And very importantly, the idea that people should exercise these rights limited only by the need to respect the rights of other people, the respect for others’ human rights. This is a fundamental proposition, which of course is very difficult to put that in practice, but it is a core principle of the French Revolution.
Now, I want to say a few words about the impact of the French Revolution on the daily lives of people outside France. Today, one French person in every seven lives in the Paris metropolis. At the time of the French Revolution, it was about one person in every forty—97% of people lived in provincial towns and villages. That Declaration of the Rights of Man mattered to them because it was about the rights of all people, it was about consent, it was about elections, popular sovereignty and so on. But there are other elements of the French Revolution which are equally important. The single most important social change that the French Revolution brings—and it transforms that society forever—is the abolition of a social system based on feudalism or seigneurialism where people would give up at harvest time commonly up to a quarter of their produce for the local lord, usually a noble family. That’s gone from 1793. For the vast mass of French people, they had more of their own produce to keep. It’s interesting that the average height of French people increases within a generation; they just have more to eat. It’s a very significant social change.
The other privileged body in French society apart from the nobility was the Catholic Church. For important minorities in France – Protestants and Jews above all – the French Revolution represents the freedom to worship in public. No longer is the Catholic Church the only church that is permitted to have public worship. When religious minorities in France look back on their history, if they are Protestants, Jews and even Muslims, it was the time when they’re told everybody has the right to freedom of expression, even religious. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stated this very deliberately.
There are other minorities in the French population that look back at this time as the foundation moment. If you are a homosexual man or woman, this is the moment where there’s a huge debate about what should be subject to capital punishment. Should there be capital punishment at all in France? And one of the things the National Assembly does very deliberately is say, “Well, homosexual acts are no longer capital offences.” It’s a key moment in the acceptance of different forms of sexuality.
There are a half a million slaves in French colonies, in the West Indies. The date for them, the fourth of February 1794, is the date when the French republic says, “We are abolishing slavery.” This is a crucial moment in the lives of those people. The birth of the new free nation called Haiti comes from that.
Of course, a group in a population that’s by no means a minority are the women of France, the peasant women of France—the biggest single group. For them, the French Revolution has an extraordinary specific benefit. And that is that it introduced the idea of equal inheritance between sons and daughters, in a land where there generally had been a system of primogeniture, where it was the oldest son that inherited, or where it was up to the parents who got what. To introduce a law that says “sons and daughters will inherit equally,” which is still the basis of French and European law today, is a huge shift in the position of girls within the family because no longer can they be told to marry the boy next door or not to marry the boy next door. From now on, they can say, “my share’s coming to me whatever.” It’s an extraordinary moment for them.
But the French Revolution affects people’s lives in all sorts of ways. We take for granted, don’t we, that we have a decimal system of currency, we measure things in kilometres, kilograms, litres, hectares? French revolutionaries believed that they needed a rational system of measurement, a decimal system. Today, every country in the world bar three, including the United States of America, has that system devised during the French Revolution as being a sensible, rational thing to do. It gets complicated when it’s applied to the calendar. So struck are French revolutionaries by the significance of what they’re trying to achieve that, in 1793, they decide that, “Well, that silly old calendar with its seven-day week and its months of uneven length and all the rest of it; I wonder if we could decimalise that too.” They do, for thirteen years, have weeks of ten days. They get rid of all the saints’ names from the calendar. They think that the days should be named after farm implements and values and famous people. It becomes very unpopular in many parts of the country, you can imagine a ten-day week, as it clashes with a much older Christian rhythm for the seasons of the year, and it really highlights the way the French Revolution is both an extraordinary set of transforming events and also extremely divisive. There are huge number of people for whom the French Revolution represents a change to the rhythms of life. The French Revolution is finally successful but at a huge cost of life, because it rips the Church apart, because it leads to the invasion of foreign armies who are wanting overthrow the French Revolution. It leads to a period of rule called ‘The Terror’ in hindsight.
But the most important thing of all to say is that when we think about the Bastille and the fourteenth of July – and we’re just about to hear the song La Marseillaise—that was a war song, it’s bloody song written during the French Revolution to inspire the lads as they went off to fight invading armies. It’s not until 1879, 90 years later, it becomes the national song of France, but it still has words that are about war and defence of the homeland. But we need to remember that above all, what those songs were defending was the principles of 1789: principles that have inspired people ever since who believe that people are born free and equal, and that they have rights worth defending.
Enjoy the rest of the concert, thank you.
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See you all, either for our next event—a combined concert with the Diamond Valley Brass Band on October 22—or at next year’s Bastille Concert. Vive la France!