Parys/Renoir: Complainte de la butte (1954)

May 14, 2007

One of my favorite songs to sing in the past few years has been “Complainte de la butte,” which I found on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, sung by Rufus Wainwright. I knew that he didn’t write it and read that it was chosen for the soundtrack because of its reference to the Moulin Rouge, central to the movie’s imagery. In my recent infatuation with the films of Jean Renoir, I rented his “French Cancan” (1954). In the overture I heard fragments of “Complainte…” and thought I was imagining things. But no, by the end of the film, the tune was one of the core mood carriers in the film, often associated with an organ grinder.

The accordion-like oom pah pah encapsulates the sound of Parisian street musicians of the time. Its’ verse has a bass line that falls and rises in steps until it finds the dominant and starts over. It is the dramatic climb to the subdominant minor in the bridge that gives the song is emotional depth. The constant falling and rising bass lines give the song an overall nostalgic feel. The melody of the verse is almost conversational, but the bridge opens up with the long melodic lines that we all love to sing.

Here is Marcel Mouloudji singing “Complainte…” in 1955, the cover that made this song popular in the 1950s. This is the complete song–Rufus omits the introduction in his performance.

Here is a fan video of Rufus Wainwright singing the song last summer (July 2006) at the Cactus Festival, Bruges Belgium.

En haut de la rue St-Vincent
Un poète et une inconnue
S’aimèrent l’espace d’un instant
Mais il ne l’a jamais revue

Cette chanson il composa
Espérant que son inconnue
Un matin d’printemps l’entendra
Quelque part au coin d’une rue

La lune trop blême
Pose un diadème
Sur tes cheveux roux
La lune trop rousse
De gloire éclabousse
Ton jupon plein d’trous

La lune trop pâle
Caresse l’opale
De tes yeux blasés
Princesse de la rue
Soit la bienvenue
Dans mon cœur blessé

Les escaliers de la butte sont durs aux miséreux
Les ailes des moulins protègent les amoureux

Petite mandigote
Je sens ta menotte
Qui cherche ma main
Je sens ta poitrine
Et ta taille fine
J’oublie mon chagrin

Je sens sur tes lèvres
Une odeur de fièvre
De gosse mal nourri
Et sous ta caresse
Je sens une ivresse
Qui m’anéantit

Les escaliers de la butte sont durs aux miséreux
Les ailes des moulins protègent les amoureux

Mais voilà qu’il flotte
La lune se trotte
La princesse aussi
Sous le ciel sans lune
Je pleure à la brune
Mon rêve évanoui

English Translation:
En haut de la rue St-Vincent
Up on St-Vincent street
un poète et une inconnue
A poet and a stranger fell in love for a moment
But he never saw her again he wrote this song
Hoping that his mysterious woman
On some spring morning may hear him on some street corner

The moon, all too fair, in your russet-red hair sets a sparkling crown
The moon, all too red with glory, is spread on your poor, tattered gown
The moon, all too white, caresses the light in your world-weary eyes
Princess of the street, do allow me to greet you, my broken heart cries

The steps of Montmartre, all uphill, are hardest on the poor
The sails of the mill, like wings, shelter all paramours

I feel, beggar-girl, your fetters, they curl as they seek out my wrists
I feel your young breasts, your thin little waist
I lose my regrets
I taste on your mouth the feverish breath of a half-starving waif
And with your caress I sense drunkenness erasing my life

The steps of Montmartre, all uphill, are hardest on the poor
The sails of the mill, like wings, shelter all paramours

And see how she skips, the moon how she drifts,
The princess in tow
Da da da da da da da da da da
My reveries grow

The steps of Montmartre, all uphill, are hardest on the poor
The sails of the mill, like wings, shelter all paramours
…………
As a bonus, here is a guest appearance by Edith Piaf (in “French Cancan”) singing an excerpt from “Serenade du Pave.”

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