Saturday, 15 May 2010

"Frère Jacques"

Anyone, who has faced a constant noise while trying to rest or sleep, as Lowry would have experienced on board the ship Pyrrhus, while the engines constantly throbbed as it made its way across the ocean, may have turned the noise into a song.

Lowry may have originally turned the noise of the Pyrrhus's engines into the French nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques" and this nursery rhyme repeatedly crops up in his work when he is writing about being aboard a ship.

He probably uses the "Frère Jacques" the most in his short story Through The Panama which is included in Lowry's posthumous collection Hear us O Lord from heaven thy dwelling place.

The use of "Frère Jacques" becomes part of a Lowry soundscape including songs and noises which sit alongside Lowry's "cinematic" way of writing as the audience settles into the "ethereal upper circle" of Malc's imaginary flea-pit cinema.

The original French version of the song is as follows:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

This is the ship's endless song Through The Panama

The song is traditionally translated into English as:

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping
Brother John, brother John?
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong.

A literal translation of the French lyrics is:

Brother Jake, brother Jake,
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Ring the morning bells! Ring the morning bells!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Given that some maintain that nursery rhymes have serious themes when they are examined in detail (this might not always be true, however, one might infer some morbid undercurrent to the French version of this song. Admittedly, if the song originally was created to commemorate some negative event, it might have greater cultural resonance and be more likely to be incorporated into the canon of cultural elements that are transmitted from generation to generation. Once a memetic unit like this song reached sufficient familiarity and social penetration, it presumably would continue to be passed on as part of a tradition even though its original meaning had been forgotten. If one subscribes to this line of reasoning, one might expect Frère Jacques to refer to a well known figure and a well known event.

Another piece of evidence that appears to support a dark interpretation of this song is the fact that in some places such as Austria, it was at one time commonly sung in a minor key, rather than a major key, giving the song the quality of a funeral dirge.

In this vein, some have suggested that this verse might not refer to sleep, but to the death of a friar or monk, or perhaps a member of one of the religious military orders. For example, it is widely believed in France that the renowned Frère Jacques de Molay of the Templar Knights, who was executed in 1314, is the subject of the Frère Jacques song.

This claim should probably be approached with an air of caution, because there are many alternate interpretations. For example, the poet Jean-Luc Aotret has written a poem suggesting that the subject of Frère Jacques is the excommunicated Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (1236–1306).

Another candidate for Frère Jacques is Frère Jacques Clément (1567-1589), a Dominican Friar and the assassin of Henry III of France. The letters of Clément's name can be rearranged to form the famous anagram, "c'est l'Enfer qui m'a créé", which can be translated as "it is Hell that created me". Clément was drawn and quartered for committing regicide, but some believed his actions were defensible. This theory does not appear to be as popular as some of the others in the literature.

Here is Aldo Lopez Gavilan playing "Frere Jacques" in a piano solo

In the video below is another version of the song from a recording made, in 1973, by the Westview Centennial Secondary School Stage Band (Toronto, Ontario.) The musical directors were Paul Minor and L. Donskov.

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