Thursday, January 31, 2008

Les Feuilles Mortes

Jacques Prevert in Paris, with friend

"I like spring,but it is too young, i like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because it's tone is mellower, it's colours are richer,
and it is tinged with a little sorrow."

- Lin Yutang

"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life"
- P.D. James

February at last, and here I'm writing something autumn-related!
Yes, I'm a little slow on the uptake at times; it's just that I came upon an upcoming birthday notice (February 4, 1900) for the French poet/lyricist, screenwriter, and - here's the tie - purveyor of the "original" Autumn Leaves lyric, Jacques Prevert. Of course the original title in French for the song was "Les Feuilles Mortes", the English translation resonating with a thud as "The Dead Leaves". those of us with a musical ear, would have hoped for the melodious and visually attractive French word "automne" in the title; not to be! At this point, I would add that the English version of the lyrics, written by Johnny Mercer, are, though exquisite, quite different.

Here, with the introductory verse and the refrain - which accompanies the gorgeous melody known to all, of Prevert's musical collaborator Joseph Kosma - is the French "Les Feuilles" followed by a fairly literal translation into English by Chuck Perrin:

Oh! je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
Des jours heureux oů nous étions amis
En ce temps-la la vie était plus belle,
Et le soleil plus brűlant qu'aujourd'hui
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent a la pelle
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié...
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent a la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié
La chanson que tu me chantais.

C'est une chanson qui nous ressemble
Toi, tu m'aimais et je t'aimais
Et nous vivions tous deux ensemble
Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis.

Oh I wish so much you would remember
those happy days when we were friends.
Life in those times was so much brighter
and the sun was hotter than today.
Dead leaves picked up by the shovelful.
You see, I have not forgotten.
Dead leaves picked up by the shovelful,
memories and regrets also,
and the North wind carries them away
into the cold night of oblivion.
You see, I have not forgotten
the song that you sang for me:
It is a song resembling us.
We lived together, the both of us,
you who loved me
and I who loved you.
But life drives apart those who love
ever so softly
without a noise
and the sea erases from the sand
the steps of lovers gone their ways.

Unlike his more intricate screenwriting work (eg. my longtime favorite, the brilliant Les Enfants Du Paradis), Prevert's poems were very simple, often reading like surrealist laundry lists or the guileless word-collage of a child; simple sentiments delivered with a twist. In "Feuilles", the rake gathering leaves juxtaposed against the lost love is a very Prevertian touch - an ordinary utilitarian object with no romantic "charge", together with an intangible sentiment - connected by, the more obviously metaphorical, leaves.
My favorite musical version of "Autumn Leaves" is the Miles Davis / Cannonball Adderley take from Somethin' Else. The misterioso introduction, ending vamp and Miles' bare and elegant solo. Most "poetic" of all, his choice to resolve the line on the 6th (E against G minor) of the chord in the 7th bar, rather than the expected minor 3rd. I like to think Prevert tipped his hat to that.

one more poem by Jacques:

Paris at Night

Trois allumettes une à une allumées dans la nuit
La premiére pour voir ton visage tout entier
La seconde pour voir tes yeux
La dernière pour voir ta bouche
Et l'obscuritè tout entière pour me rappeler tout cela
En te serrant dans mes bras.

Three matches one by one struck in the night
The first to see your face in it's entirety
The second to see your eyes
The last to see your mouth
And the darkness all around to remind me of all these
As I hold you in my arms.

Here is a lovely version in French by Yves Montand that starts with a reading of the verse.


persephone2u said...

Let's hear it for Miles Davis! One of my favorite musicians he is. Those were beautiful song lyrics and the poem was truly sublime.

I think I could handle sitting at that nice little table where Jacques is sitting right about now. Good old Paris...

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Yes, that nice little table in Paris looks like an ideal place to while-away an hour or two!
Looking at the picture reminds me of a paragraph I read out of an informative article out of the London Independent written by Robin
Buss concerning a bio of Prevert by Yves Courriere that came out in 2000:

"For most writers, a tendency to loaf around in cafes smoking, drinking and chatting with friends would count as a serious enemy of promise; for Prevert, it was the only way to realise his talents. He loved to collaborate and worked best as a member of a group. For a filmmaker, this is an invaluable quality. He and Marcel Carne gathered a team that included the set designer Alexandre Trauner, the composers Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma, plus their favourite actors: Gabin, Arletty, Michel Simon, Jules Berry ... It is no accident that one of Prevert's best scripts was his film for Jean Renoir, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, made at the time of the Popular Front, the story of a group of workers who turn their business into a co-operative; or that his tragic vision saw Jean Gabin as a social outcast, friendless and alone. Unpretentious, untemperamental, he made no special claims for his work, either in film or in poetry - which he once said were much the same thing; and he still has the power to delight and to refresh."

Anonymous said...

What a lovely poem- Paris at Night.
THe French, and the English was very nice.
I know of "The Autumn LEaves" or "The Dead Leaves," but I'd never read that little one of the three matches....

Love You!!

luke clancy said...

also interesting is Serge Gainsbourg's La Chanson de Prevert which is one of those rare and great 'song-about-a-song' songs in which Serge adds another level of nostalgia to the gem by remembering enjoying the song (or having a lover who did) at some point in the past...

Oh je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
Cette chanson était la tienne
C’était ta péférée je crois
Qu’elle est de Prévert et Kosma
Et chaque fois Les Feuilles mortes
Te rappelle à mon souvenir
Jour après jour les amours mortes
N’en finissent pas de mouri

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