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1 August 2014


Milord is not a tune that sits comfortably in a performance of traditional jazz, but I think all jazz musicians would do well to study it.

I was trying to learn it (if you don’t know it, may I recommend you watch Edith Piaf singing it on YouTube?) and I noticed immediately what an astonishing start the Chorus has, harmonically. Set in the key of F, it has three introductory notes (the anacrusis), normally played slowly, leading to an accented Ab as the first serious note of the tune. But this Ab is harmonised against the chord of F major! On the face of it, this should sound dissonant – a horrible clash. And yet the audience loves it. What a daring way to start!

This Chorus comprises 24 bars and is played before the Verse, in which more surprises are to be found. For a start, there is a dramatic shift of key to F minor (Ab), with a melody using the lower range of notes suited to giving a serious message (as indeed the words do).
We would expect the Verse to be 16 bars. But we are given 17 bars, not 16, as there is a ‘bonus’ pausing bar containing the anacrusis. Here's how the Verse ends.
And we would expect the 16th bar of the Verse to end on the chord of C7th (leading us back into the F major as we return to the Chorus). Well, as you can see above, although the Verse does indeed end on the chord of C7th, the melody note played against it is not a C or an E or a Bb as we would logically expect. No! It is Db!

So the C7th chord – completely logical at this crucial moment – is wrenched at its top end into a C7th with a flattened 9th. Mind-boggling stuff!

But who wrote this amazing song?

Marguerite Monnot.

Really? Who was she?
Born in 1903 at Decize – a town on the River Loire - Marguerite Monnot was home-educated by her musician parents. She was a musical child prodigy and developed into a gold-standard musician – a fine performing pianist, well grounded in theory. She studied in Paris and was taught by several classical luminaries. One of these was Nadia Boulanger (who probably trained her in harmony; Nadia was one of the most influential music teachers of the Twentieth Century). Another was the composer and teacher Vincent D’Indy; and there was Alfred Cortot, the great pianist who specialised in the works of Schumann and Chopin.

Her lifetime shyness did not help Marguerite as a performer but it did not hinder her work as a composer, when in the 1920s she started attempting (with success) to write popular songs.

At the age of 33, Marguerite was introduced to France’s best-loved singer, the great Edith Piaf, and they worked together for many years. They became friends and collaborated on many songs that became part of Piaf’s stage act. It was Piaf, of course, who made Milord famous.

Marguerite also wrote film music. And in 1955 she had a huge success when she wrote the score for the musical Irma La Douce, which I remember seeing with great pleasure in Peter Brook’s production at the Lyric Theatre, London, in 1958.

Although Marguerite wrote hundreds of songs, English readers are likely to know her best for Milord and The Poor People of Paris (La goualante du pauvre Jean) and If You Love Me, Really Love Me (Hymne à l’Amour - another technically astonishing song).

I remember a glorious version of If You Love Me, Really Love Me by Nana Mouskouri and I’m glad to find that, too, is available on YouTube: try it and make this a day to remember!

Sadly, in 1961 Marguerite Monnot died in Paris at the age of 58, following a ruptured appendix.

Marguerite Monnot’s career reminds me that the period between 1940 and 1980 was a Golden Age for popular music and its centre was France. Songs had words that were important and worth listening to, with a narrative and drama; and those words were clearly articulated by the great singers such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco and Georges Brassens. The singer was accompanied by a real, accomplished pianist or band or orchestra, playing from an arrangement that would include adventurous harmonies, changes in rhythm and key; and even accelerandos, rallentandos and pauses. (You find all these features in Milord.) There was no need for electronic amplification.

How different from the synthetic, mechanical dreary disco music of today!

Marguerite Monnot was an outstanding popular composer of the Twentieth Century and deserves to be better remembered.