I’ve been listening to Lucienne Boyer’s recording of “Parlez-moi d’amour” (1930) on and off for about twenty-five years and have never grown tired of hearing it. I came to the song through a two-disk CD I bought of chansons françaises, the type of music performed in the cabarets and music halls of Paris over the first half of the 20th century. This was the milieu in which singers such as Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Aznavour, and Juliette Greco were formed. Madame Boyer, because of the clarity and warmth of her voice, and to no little degree thanks to her luminous physical beauty, was for many years one of the scene’s brightest stars.
I believe the first time I heard her sing this song, I was performing some sort of low-grade household chore. Perhaps I was washing dishes or chopping onions for that night’s dinner. Whatever it was, I had to stop midway through and give myself over to the sound of this wondrous voice pouring from the speakers in a language I didn’t entirely understand. What made me do that? What made me put aside the task at hand, shut out all distractions, and surrender completely to the music?
The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich once compared the experience of listening to great music to the act of faith a religious person must make in their first approach to God. “There is a philosophy,” he wrote, “which says that in order to feel God, you must begin to believe in Him, just as in order to feel the warmth of a stove, you must come close to it. This is also true with music. In order to feel its warmth, you must come close to it, and open your heart to it.”
Please note he doesn’t say you must open your mind to the music, but your heart. For Rostropovich, a romantic if there ever was one, music appreciation is a matter of feeling, not thought. To properly appreciate a given piece of music, you don’t need to be familiar with the composer’s biography or recognize the key in which the piece is written. All you really need, at least at the beginning, is to open your heart to what you hear. “The key,” he says, “to finding happiness in music and to understanding it is not knowledge, because the music itself will teach you whatever you need to know. The key is feeling. What a treasure chest that key unlocks!”
In answer, then, to the question I posed above: I suppose what made me stop in the middle of my chores to focus my ears exclusively on Lucienne Boyer’s voice was the depth of emotion her performance released in me, the profundity of feeling her song unfastened in my heart.
Well, so much for my initial response to Madame Boyer’s performance. But now you may wonder what has kept me listening to the recording for twenty-five years? What makes the song sound fresh every time I hear it? I think it may have something to do with the way “Parlez-moi d’amour” embodies the French concept of gentillesse, a term that is usually translated into English as “kindness.” But as the novelist Patrick Modiano has noted, this type of kindness is rooted in what he calls une noblesse du cœur, a nobility of spirit. And it’s just this sense of an affection that is elevated by its own intensity into a spiritual as well as a physical longing that makes the song, to my mind, a perfect expression of romantic desire.
If you examine the song’s lyrics in French, you may notice something that seems, at first glance, remarkable. Even though the woman speaks with real passion, she addresses the man in the formal rather than the familiar style: parlez-moi, je vous aime, vous savez, votre voix, etc. Which suggests that she and he have not yet been intimate. That she has only recently conceived a desire for him, that she is just on the verge of surrendering completely to someone who remains, for the moment anyway, an acquaintance rather than a lover.
Note as well that the song’s romantic ambiance is emphasized by its time signature. The composer Jean Lenoir wrote the song in ¾ or waltz time. The waltz is a dance that places two people in each other’s arms, and to that extent it can serve as a preliminary to sexual intimacy. The song itself, in the way the woman speaks to the man, has all the aspects of a preliminary encounter, but one that she hopes will lead to something more cohesive. She doesn’t beg the man, but she does implore him. She doesn’t whine, but she does beseech. It’s in that sense of a madness that is still just barely within the subject’s ability to control that I find the nobility of spirit that suffuses the song.
In a very real sense, the song (and the way Madame Boyer sings it) is an act of seduction. She is asking this man for something she knows he may refuse—to express affection for her and to treat her with kindness. But she wants him so badly that she’s willing to gamble, to place all her chips on one number. If she wins—C’est fantastique! If not, she’ll just have to shrug and continue on her way—Voila tout.
During the Second World War, Lucienne Boyer, like a number of her fellow-entertainers, remained in Paris and continued to perform at different night clubs and halls. Many of these places were patronized by German army officers and their French sympathizers in the paramilitary organization known as the Milice. Madame Boyer opened her own cabaret, Chez elle, on rue Volney in the second arrondissement, where a placard by the front door stated that no Jews were allowed.
This was during that unspeakably bleak and dreary time so finely captured by François Truffaut in his penultimate film, The Last Metro (1980). A time in Paris when joy itself seemed to be verboten. Like the theatre owner played by Catherine Deneuve in Truffaut’s film, Lucienne Boyer was married to a Jew. Posting that notice by the entry to her club was one means she employed to keep her husband from being deported to the camps.
Although Madame Boyer released a number of successful recordings, “Parlez-moi d’amour” was without a doubt her greatest hit. The composer of that song, Jean Lenoir, was also a Jew (birth name: Jean Bernard Daniel Neuburger), and during the Occupation the public performance of any of his works was strictly forbidden.
In a book published in 1977 called Livret de famille (Family Record, 2019), the Nobel-prize laureate Patrick Modiano tells the odd story of a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1942 when his parents, still in their twenties, went to a nightclub in Paris with the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa and his French wife, Flo Nardus. Hayakawa was in his fifties at the time and quite famous for his roles in a string of Hollywood movies. After the war, he would resume his film career to star as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
That night in Paris, the two couples went together to a cabaret where Lucienne Boyer was the featured performer. To close the evening and celebrate the dawning of a new year, she chose to sing the song she’d been expressly ordered never to perform again, “Parlez-moi d’amour.” You can listen to the original recording here.
1. The quotations from Mtislav Rostropovich come from his Introduction to Ted Libbey’s The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection: The 300 Essential Works (Workman Publishing: New York, 1994), p. xi. Rostropovich gave his intro the title “On Listening to Music.”
2. Patrick Modiano’s comments on the root meaning of the word gentil come from an article he wrote on the poet Gérard de Nerval and published in Le Monde on July 1, 2004: “Gérard, de la rue des Bons Enfants.”
3. Modiano’s account of his parents’ New Year’s Eve celebration comes from his book Livret de famille (Editions Gallimard: Paris, 1977), p. 169. This work was translated into English and published by Yale University Press in 2019 as Family Record.