Sunday 24 May 2020

The Gendarmes duet - as good as G&S

Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon were the performers I first saw doing this piece; the recording seems to have been filmed from the TV screen, some years later. Tear and Luxon were among the leading British operatic and recital singers of that era* - and revived many of the 'parlour songs' from the 19th and early 20th century.

The show depicted in the video was a long-running (30 years) and popular BBC programme called The Good Old Days, which was a pastiche Victorian-ish Music Hall filmed in an old theatre in Leeds.

The "Gendarmes Duet" is an excellent piece, with music by Offenbach (a good enough tune in its own right to become a favourite march in the USA) and the robustly witty English lyrics later added by HB Farnie. One of the few comic songs to match Gilbert and Sullivan.

We're public guardians bold, yet wary 
And of ourselves we take good care 
To risk our precious lives we're chary 
When danger looms, we're never there 
But when we meet a helpless woman 
Or little boys that do no harm 

We run them in, we run them in 
We run them in, we run them in 
We show them we're the bold [or beaux] gendarmes 
We run them in, we run them in 
We run them in, we run them in 
We show them we're the bold gendarmes. 

Sometimes our duty's extramural 
Then little butterflies we chase 
We like to gambol in things rural 
Commune with nature face to face 
Unto our beat then back returning 
Refreshed by nature's holy charm 


If gentlemen will make a riot 
And punch each other's heads at night 
We're quite disposed to keep it quiet 
Provided that they make it right 
But if they do not seem to see it 
Or give to us our proper terms 


*Tear and Luxon show the strengths and weaknesses of the voice training methods - and selection processes - associated with the English choral tradition; both were part of Benjamin Britten's clique at one time. Tear, for example, has a technically robust but hard voice, excellent diction and intelligent 'pointing' of the lyrics. He was best in 'character' tenor roles, rather than the usual heroic lead parts. To my ear, both voices have overtones that blur the focus of the notes, so that one is unsure whether the intonation is a bit off, or not. This is common defect of chorally-trained English tenors (notably Peter Pears!). These qualities seem to be derived from the nature of the chorister's job - he must be able to sing difficult music, at sight, on a daily basis; and be intelligent enough (like Tear) to get a singing scholarship at one of the leading universities. All of which means that sheer beauty of vocal tone is sacrificed - since many/ most of the most beautiful singers are not good at reading music, and are of modest intelligence. 

Note added: I've come across an interesting 1982 interview with Luxon, which makes clear that his own background and abilities were very different from Robert Tear; for example he states that he does not have perfect pitch and was not a brilliant sight reader. But he says that most modern singers do and are; by contrast with earlier generations when all sorts of people became professional singers: people, at least in England in my generation or the generation before, just wandered into singing from just about every profession you could name. Hardly anyone “trained” to be a singer. It just didn’t happen. Most of my contemporaries were truck drivers or miners or engineers, architects, bank clerks, school teachers… What Luxon does not say is that there is a big price to pay for this technical expertise when it comes to solo singing - and that price is reduced beauty of tone; which is, after all, what singing is mostly about for most ordinary people.  


dearieme said...

It's been many a decade since I heard that. I now remember liking it when I was a boy. Where could I have heard it? In a Panto, maybe?

P.S. "gambol".

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Thanks, corrected (I lazily cut and pasted the lyrics).

It used to be the kind of song performed in student revues and the like; and these two did in on tv a few times.

dearieme said...

Please, Sir! Please, Sir! Please Sir!

I know where I heard it after boyhood. We sang it at my rugby club. After beer had been taken we used different lyrics.

Karl said...

I recognized the tune at once. “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country's battles in the air, on land and sea.”

How delicious to know that the music was originally comic bombast.

But then, it’s generally known that the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner is a tavern chorus. They must have had a higher class of drunkard back in the day.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

For opera fans, there is a readily available video of a good Le nozze di Figaro featuring Benjamin Luxon, from Glyndebourne 1973. Here is the Glyndebourne archive entry:;
and here is a link to the performance:
Luxon and Kiri te Kanawa are the Count and Countess, Knut Skram and Ileana Cotrubas are Figaro and Susanna, and - perennial heartthrob of mine - Frederica von Stade is Cherubino. Other players are excellent too, especially Nucci Condo as Marcellina. A really enjoyable performance to watch, as the players are all very good and evidently enjoying themselves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I love the Tear performance of A.A. Milne Pooh and other songs and poems set by Harold Fraser-Simson - which settings you can clearly tell Nigel Hawthorne knew, from his Pooh Penguin audiobook work (also delightful). Why are these splendid recordings not constantly available? (Sadly only got an evasive answer the time in inquired of Penguin about the latter...)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Luxon gives a master-class here in something I wondered about when I sang in choirs as a boy - before my voice changed and ended that: What should a solo singer do with his hands?
In that Figaro I mentioned, Luxon is a wonderfully haughty Count. At the end of Act I, when he banishes Cherubino to the army, I have the impression Frederica von Stade is genuinely frightened of him. Good acting by both.