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The Full Montaigne

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 10 June 2012

Jim Broadbent plays Michel de Montaigne, whose 'Essays' entertainingly ponder sex, marriage, animals, memory, and cruelty in an attempt to answer one question: 'How to live?' With music including Bach, Ligeti, Mendelssohn and Randy Newman.
David Papp, producer.

Music Played

34 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press)

    Introduction – ‘The World always looks straight ahead…’

  • Image for Johann Sebastian Bach

    Johann Sebastian Bach Sarabande (from Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825)

    Performer: Murray Perahia (piano)

    Sony 88697565602, Tr. 4

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    General philosophy – ‘I take the first subject chance offers…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘I set forth a humble and inglorious life…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘All contradictions may be found in me...’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘If others examined themselves, as I do…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘Relaxation and affability…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On shortness – ‘I’m a little below medium height…’

  • Image for Randy Newman

    Randy Newman Short People

    Performer: Randy Newman (vocals & piano)

    Warner bros 256404

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    General characteristics – ‘For the rest, I have a strong, thickset body…’

  • Image for Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ludwig van Beethoven Rondino, WoO 25

    Performer: Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble

    EMI 5 56817 2, Tr. 5

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘The only ability I have needed…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘The most painful situation for me…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On memory – ‘I am displeased with my mind…’

  • 00:17

    Gabriel Fauré (arr. Cassals) Après un rêve

    Performer: Alban Gerhardt (cello) & Cecile Licad (piano)

    , Hyperion CDA67831, Tr. 7

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On the unruly member – ‘Married people…’

  • Image for Luigi Boccherini

    Luigi Boccherini Quintet No. 4 in D major, G. 341 (3rd mvt: Fandango)

    Performer: Le concert des nations & Jordi Savall

    Allia vox AVSA 9845, Tr. 3

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On sex – ‘Love is nothing but the thirst for sexual enjoyment…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    ‘Women are not wrong…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On marriage – ‘I see no marriages that sooner are troubled and fail…’

  • 00:32

    Leon Carr/Earl Shuman Marriage is for Old Folks

    Performer: Nina Simone (vocals) Performer: Orchestra arranged and conducted by Hal Mooney

    Verve 0624 9846775, Tr. 16

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On conversation – ‘The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind…’

  • Image for Felix Mendelssohn

    Felix Mendelssohn Octet - 4th Mvt (Presto)

    Performer: Daniel Hope (violin) & Soloists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

    DG 477 6634, Tr. 7

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On cruelty – ‘I cruelly hate cruelty…’

  • Image for Thomas Tallis

    Thomas Tallis If ye love me

    Performer: Tallis Scholars & Peter Phillips (director)

    Gimell DCGMB450, CD 3 Tr. 1

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On animals – ‘Presumption is our natural and original malady…’

  • Image for Einojuhani Rautavaara

    Einojuhani Rautavaara Cantus Arcticus mvt 1 – The Bog

    Performer: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra & Leif Segerstam (conductor)

    Ondine ODE 1014 1, Tr. 5

  • Image for Jean-Philippe Rameau

    Jean-Philippe Rameau Chaconne (Quatrième Entrée: Les Sauvages)

    Performer: Les Musiciens Du Louvre & Marc Minkowski (director)

    Deutche Grammophon SACD 4775578, Tr. 17

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On negotiation – ‘In what little negotiating I have had to do between our princes…’

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    On plague – ‘I doubt if I can decently admit…’

  • Image for György Ligeti

    György Ligeti Requiem - De die judicii sequentia

    Performer: Caroline Stein (soprano) Performer: London Voices Performer: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Performer: Jonathan Nott (conductor)

    Teldec 8573 88263 2, Tr. 13

  • 00:59

    J. S. Bach (arr. Helga Thoerne) Chaconne from Paritita in D minor (BWV 1004)

    Performer: Christoph Poppen (violin) Performer: The Hilliard Ensemble

    ECM 461 895-2, Tr. 21

  • Michel de Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame

    Ending – ‘It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine…’

  • Image for Emmanuel Chabrier

    Emmanuel Chabrier Alexis Emmanuel Chabrier - 10 Pièces pittoresques - Paysage

    Performer: Kathryn Stott (piano)

    Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9158, Tr. 1

  • Introduction

    In this edition of Words & Music, Jim Broadbent plays the French sixteenth-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne.

    In his celebrated Essays, Montaigne drew on a lifetime of experience and observation to try to answer one essential question: ‘How to live?’ But far from inscrutable musings, the Essays are often earthy and direct, at once scatological and astute, philosophical and witty, playful and profound.

    The Essays were first published in 1580 and are positively Shakespearian, both in their range and their humanism. But unlike Shakespeare in his plays, Montaigne speaks as himself, and he says the most heretical things. For instance, that human beings are on a par with the animals and just a tiny part of Nature, all of which deserve equal respect; that death is just the end of life, and it is life which the important thing.

    In 1676, almost a century after his death, the Vatican caught up with Montaigne and the Essays were put on its index of prohibited books, where they stayed until 1854. But the Essays have been continuously available (if not at the Vatican bookshop) for the last four and a half centuries, not only because they are engaging and entertaining, but because they so often ignite the spark self-recognition. ‘Yes! That’s how it is! That’s how I feel!’ is a familiar sensation for Essay readers.

    ‘The Full Montaigne’ is a cheeky title for a programme featuring 30 minutes of (albeit wonderfully performed) readings from a book of over a thousand pages. But I hope seasoned Montaignistes will find themselves recognising an old friend, and those coming to the Essays for the first time will find a new one.

    For anyone who is interested in finding out more about Montaigne and the Essays, a great starting-point (and the one which inspired this programme), is Sarah Bakewell’s book ‘How to Live, or A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’.

    David Papp (producer)

  • Producer Note

    To begin the programme, Montaigne sets out the aim and method of his Essays. He continually observes himself to find out about the world because ‘each man bears the entire form of man’s estate’. But nothing is certain and ‘all contradictions may be found in me by some twist and in some fashion’. The hardest of all things is ‘how to live this life well and naturally’. Here to accompany his reflections is another difficult thing made to sound easy and natural, a stately but unassuming sarabande by Bach.

    What did Montaigne look like? He tells us, with the help of Randy Newman, that he is short and doesn’t like it; otherwise strong and healthy ‘until well along in years’. He has little talent for sport and dancing and none for music. But it seems unlikely that he ‘cannot even write so I can read it’ nor ‘read much better’. Nothing worries him but the need for health and life. ‘Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art’ – a cue for Beethoven at his most easy-going and for Montaigne to tell us that the only ability he has needed is to ‘content himself with his lot’. Suspense and deliberation are worrisome; much better to be driven ‘at a single bound directly into suffering’.

    There is no proto-Proustian cup of tea and madeleine for Montaigne. His experience will be familiar to many: the more he tries to remember something, the more elusive it becomes. And it is the same with dreams. He knows he wants to remember them even while he dreams; when he wakes, the more he strains to remember them, the more they are plunged into oblivion. Post-dream Fauré follows.

    The power – or rather powerlessness – of the will comes next, especially when it comes to the male member, ‘obtruding so importunately when we have no use for it, and failing so importunately when we have the most use for it’. Montaigne imagines himself pleading the cause of the ‘honourable member’ and defending it against other parts of the body which are envious ‘of the importance and pleasure of the use of him’ but just as guilty of defying the will. But, come to think about it, isn’t the will just as capricious?

    The unruly member still prominent, a fandango by Boccherini launches Montaigne on Sex. For Montaigne, sex for its own sake, or without mutual pleasure for both parties, or without reciprocated affection becomes tantamount to two very unsavoury episodes from the ancient world. And, in any case, not all sex is good sex: some ‘enjoyments are meagre and languid’; sometimes the ladies ‘go to it with only one buttock’. And ‘what if she eats your bread with the sauce of a more agreeable imagination?’ Moreover, what has good sex got to do with marriage? Not much, agrees Nina Simone: ‘One husband/One wife/Whaddaya got?/A sentence for life!’

    The spirited eight-way musical conversation from the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet echoes Montaigne’s view that ‘The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind… is discussion.’ With the right person, ‘Rivalry, glory, competition push me and lift me above myself.’ But beware ‘association and frequentation with mean and sickly minds’ – although impatience with stupidity is itself ‘another sort of malady which is scarcely less troublesome than stupidity.’

    Two extraordinary passages follow, ones that seem to make the centuries between Montaigne and us roll away.

    The first begins ‘I cruelly hate cruelty’. Here is a man, living at a time when violence and cruelty were woven into the fabric of everyday life, who can’t ‘see a chicken’s neck wrung without distress,’ let alone witness the violence of one man against another. ‘There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants.’ Tallis’s jewel-like setting of ‘If ye love me’ is the only music in the programme contemporary with Montaigne.

    The second, with its famous (and perfectly reasonable) question ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’ builds towards the heretical conclusion that ‘We are neither above nor below the rest: all that is under heaven… incurs the same law and the same fortune, all things are bound by their own chains of fate’. Rautavaara’s ‘Cantus Arcticus,’ with its recorded wild bird calls, emphasises Montaigne’s parting shot: those who recognise that a whole kingdom is nothing more than a tiny dot in the in the great picture of Nature, are those who estimate ‘things according to their true proportions.’

    In the next pair of extracts we are very much back in Montaigne’s sixteenth century. He was a top-level negotiator during the bloody civil war that divided France through much of his life and here he tells us that he ‘would rather fail in my mission than fail to be true to myself’. He says that he looks ‘upon our kings simply with a loyal and civic affection.’ One imagines that people must have been hanged for saying less.

    In the programme’s penultimate passage, Montaigne describes the arrival of the plague at his estate and the accommodation with death that he witnessed among the peasants, some of whom dug their own graves: ‘one of my labourers, with his hands and feet, pulled the earth over him as he was dying.’ Once again, a heretical thought: ‘It seems to me that death is indeed the end, but not therefore the goal, of life… Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.’ Bach would have been shocked, I think – but this arrangement of his celebrated violin Chaconne with its funerary hymns seems to fit.

    The end of the ‘Essays’ provides the final text of the programme, a celebration of ordinariness: ‘The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.’ Montaigne signs off by commending old age to ‘that god who is the protector of health and wisdom, but gay and sociable wisdom,’ a cue for some gay and sociable Chabrier.

    David Papp (producer)

  • Jim Broadbent

    Jim Broadbent


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