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Paris And Music Post by :Colleen Category :Essays Author :Romain Rolland Date :November 2011 Read :2719

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Paris And Music

The nature of Paris is so complex and unstable that one feels it is presumptuous to try to define it. It is a city so highly-strung, so ingrained with fickleness, and so changeable in its tastes, that a book that truly describes it at the moment it is written is no longer accurate by the time it is published. And then, there is not only one Paris; there are two or three Parises--fashionable Paris, middle-class Paris, intellectual Paris, vulgar Paris--all living side by side, but intermingling very little. If you do not know the little towns within the great Town, you cannot know the strong and often inconsistent life of this great organism as a whole.

If one wishes to get an idea of the musical life of Paris, one must take into account the variety of its centres and the perpetual flow of its thought--a thought which never stops, but is always over-shooting the goal for which it seemed bound. This incessant change of opinion is scornfully called "fashion" by the foreigner. And there is, without doubt, in the artistic aristocracy of Paris, as in all great towns, a herd of idle people on the watch for new fashions--in art, as well as in dress--who wish to single out certain of them for no serious reason at all. But, in spite of their pretensions, they have only an infinitesimal share in the changes of artistic taste. The origin of these changes is in the Parisian brain itself--a brain that is quick and feverish, always working, greedy of knowledge, easily tired, grasping to-day the splendours of a work, seeing to-morrow its defects, building up reputations as rapidly as it pulls them down, and yet, in spite of all its apparent caprices, always logical and sincere. It has its momentary infatuations and dislikes, but no lasting prejudices; and, by its curiosity, its absolute liberty, and its very French habit of criticising everything, it is a marvellous barometer, sensitive to all the hidden currents of thought in the soul of the West, and often indicating, months in advance, the variations and disturbances of the artistic and political world.

And this barometer is registering what is happening just now in the world of music, where a movement has been making itself felt in France for several years, whose effect other nations--perhaps more musical nations--will not feel till later. For the nations that have the strongest artistic traditions are not necessarily those that are likely to develop a new art. To do that one must have a virgin soil and spirits untrammelled by a heritage from the past. In 1870 no one had a lighter heritage to bear than French musicians; for the past had been forgotten, and such a thing as real musical education did not exist.

The musical weakness of that time was a very curious thing, and has given many people the impression that France has never been a musical nation. Historically speaking, nothing could be more wrong. Certainly there are races more gifted in music than others; but often the seeming differences of race are really the differences of time; and a nation appears great or little in its art according to what period of its history we consider. England was a musical nation until the Revolution of 1688; France was the greatest musical nation in the sixteenth century; and the recent publications of M. Henry Expert have given us a glimpse of the originality and perfection of the Franco-Belgian art during the Renaissance. But without going back as far as that, we find that Paris was a very musical town at the time of the Restoration, at the time of the first performance of Beethoven's symphonies at the Conservatoire, and the first great works of Berlioz, and the Italian Opera. In Berlioz's Mémoires you can read about the enthusiasm, the tears, and the feeling, that the performances of Gluck's and Spontini's operas aroused; and in the same book one sees clearly that this musical warmth lasted until 1840, after which it died down little by little, and was succeeded by complete musical apathy in the second Empire--an apathy from which Berlioz suffered cruelly, so that one may even say he died crushed by the indifference of the public. At this time Meyerbeer was reigning at the Opera. This incredible weakening of musical feeling in France, from 1840 to 1870, is nowhere better shown than in its romantic and realistic writers, for whom music was an hermetically sealed door. All these artists were "visuels," for whom music was only a noise. Hugo is supposed to have said that Germany's inferiority was measured by its superiority in music.(204) "The elder Dumas detested," Berlioz says, "even bad music."(205) The journal of the Goncourts calmly reflects the almost universal scorn of literary men for music. In a conversation which took place in 1862 between Goncourt and Théophile Gautier, Goncourt said:

"We confessed to him our complete infirmity, our musical deafness--we who, at the most, only liked military music."

(Footnote 204: One must at least do Hugo the justice of saying that he always spoke of Beethoven with admiration, although he did not know him. But he rather exalts him in order to take away from the importance of a poet--the only one in the nineteenth century--whose fame was shading his own; and when he wrote in his William Shakespeare that "the great man of Germany is Beethoven" it was understood by all to mean "the great man of Germany is not Goethe.")

(Footnote 205: Written in a letter to his sister, Nanci, on 3 April, 1850.)

"Well," said Gautier, "what you tell me pleases me very much. I am like you; I prefer silence to music. I have only just succeeded, after having lived part of my life with a singer, in being able to tell good music from bad; but it is all the same to me."(206)

And he added:

"But it is a very curious thing that all other writers of our time are like this. Balzac hated music. Hugo could not stand it. Even Lamartine, who himself is like a piano to be hired or sold, holds it in horror!"

It needed a complete upheaval of the nation--a political and moral upheaval--to change that frame of mind. Some indication of the change was making itself felt in the last years of the second Empire. Wagner, who suffered from the hostility or indifference of the public in 1860, at the time when Tannhäuser was performed at the Opera, had already found, however, a few understanding people in Paris who discerned his genius and sincerely admired him. The most interesting of the writers who first began to understand musical emotion is Charles Baudelaire. In 1861, Pasdeloup gave the first Concerts populaires de musique classique at the Cirque d'Hiver. The Berlioz Festival, organised by M. Reyer, on March 23rd, 1870, a year after Berlioz's death, revealed to France the grandeur of its greatest musical genius, and was the beginning of a campaign of public reparation to his memory.

(Footnote 206: We remark, nevertheless, that that did not prevent Gautier from being a musical critic.)

The disasters of the war in 1870 regenerated the nation's artistic spirit. Music felt its effect immediately.(207) On February 24th, 1871, the Société nationale de Musique was instituted to propagate the works of French composers; and in 1873 the Concerts de l'Association artistique were started under M. Colonne's direction; and these concerts, besides making people acquainted with the classic composers of symphonies and the masters of the young French school, were especially devoted to the honouring of Berlioz, whose triumph reached its summit about 1880.(208)

(Footnote 207: I wish to make known from the beginning that I am only noticing here the greater musical doings of the nation, and making no mention of works which have not had an important influence on this movement.)

(Footnote 208: In the meanwhile France saw the brilliant rise and extinction of a great artist--the most spontaneous of all her musicians--Georges Bizet, who died in 1875, aged thirty-seven. "Bizet was the last genius to discover a new beauty," said Nietzsche; "Bizet discovered new lands--the Southern lands of music," Carmen (1875) and L'Arlésienne (1872) are masterpieces of the lyrical Latin drama. Their style is luminous, concise, and well-defined; the figures are outlined with incisive precision. The music is full of light and movement, and is a great contrast to Wagner's philosophical symphonies, and its popular subject only serves to strengthen its aristocratic distinction. By its nature and its clear perception of the spirit of the race it was well in advance of its time. What a place Bizet might have taken in our art if he had only lived twenty years longer!)

At this time Wagner's success, in its turn, began to make itself felt. For this M. Lamoureux, whose concerts began in 1882, was chiefly responsible. Wagner's influence considerably helped forward the progress of French art, and aroused a love for music in people other than musicians; and, by his all-embracing personality and the vast domain of his work in art, not only engaged the interest of the musical world, but that of the theatrical world, and the world of poetry and the plastic arts. One may say that from 1885 Wagner's work acted directly or indirectly on the whole of artistic thought, even on the religious and intellectual thought of the most distinguished people in Paris. And a curious historical witness of its world-wide influence and momentary supremacy over all other arts was the founding of the Revue Wagnérienne, where, united by the same artistic devotion, were found writers and poets such as Verlaine, Mallarmé, Swinburne, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Huysmans, Richepin, Catulle Mendès, Édouard Rod, Stuart Merrill, Ephraim Mikhaël, etc., and painters like Fantin-Latour, Jacques Blanche, Odilon Redon; and critics like Teodor de Wyzewa, H.S. Chamberlain, Hennequin, Camille Benoît, A. Ernst, de Fourcaud, Wilder, E. Schuré, Soubies, Malherbe, Gabriel Mourey, etc. These writers not only discussed musical subjects, but judged painting, literature, and philosophy, from a Wagnerian point of view. Hennequin compared the philosophic systems of Herbert Spencer and Wagner. Teodor de Wyzewa made a study of Wagnerian literature--not the literature that commentated and the paintings that illustrated Wagner's works, but the literature and the painting that were inspired by Wagner's principles--from Egyptian statuary to Degas's paintings, from Homer's writings to those of Villiers de l'Isle Adam! In a word, the whole universe was seen and judged by the thought of Bayreuth. And though this folly scarcely lasted more than three or four years--the length of the life of that little magazine--Wagner's genius dominated nearly the whole of French art for ten or twelve years.(209) An ardent musical propaganda by means of concerts was carried on among the public; and the young intellectuals of the day were won over. But the finest service that Wagnerism rendered to French art was that it interested the general public in music; although the tyranny its influence exercised became, in time, very stifling.

(Footnote 209: Its influence is shown, in varying degrees, in works such as M. Reyer's Sigurd (1884), Chabrier's Gwendoline (1886), and M. Vincent d'Indy's Le Chant de la Cloche (1886).)

Then, in 1890, there were signs of a movement that was in revolt against its despotism. The great wind from the East began to drop, and veered to the North. Scandinavian and Russian influences were making themselves felt. An exaggerated infatuation for Grieg, though limited to a small number of people, was an indication of the change in public taste. In 1890, César Franck died in Paris. Belgian by birth and temperament, and French in feeling and by musical education, he had remained outside the Wagnerian movement in his own serene and fecund solitude. To his intellectual greatness and the charm his personal genius held for the little band of friends who knew and revered him he added the authority of his knowledge. Unconsciously he brought back to us the soul of Sebastian Bach, with its infinite richness and depth; and through this he found himself the head of a school (without having wished it) and the greatest teacher of contemporary French music. After his death, his name was the means of rallying together the younger school of musicians. In 1892, the Chanteurs de Saint-Gervais, under the direction of M. Charles Bordes, reinstated to honour and popularised Gregorian and Palestrinian music; and, following the initiative of their director, the Schola Cantorum was founded in 1894 for the revival of religious music. Ambition grew with success; and from the Schola sprang the _École Supérieure de Musique, under the direction of Franck's most famous pupil, M. Vincent d'Indy. This school, founded on a solid knowledge, not only of the classics, but of the primitives in music, took from its very beginning in 1900 a frankly national character, and was in some ways opposed to German art. At the same time, performances of Bach and seventeenth-and eighteenth-century music became more and more frequent; and more intimate relationship with the artists of other countries, repeated visits of the great Kapellmeister, foreign virtuosi and composers (especially Richard Strauss), and, lastly, of Russian composers, completed the education of the Parisian musical public, who, after repeated rebukes from the critics, became conscious of the awakening of a national personality, and of an impatient desire to free itself from German tutelage. By turns it gratefully and warmly received M. Bruneau's Le Rêve (1891), M. d'Indy's Fervaal (1898), M. Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900)--all of which seemed like works of liberation. But, as a matter of fact, these lyric dramas were by no means free from foreign influences, and especially from Wagnerian influences. M. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, in 1902, seemed to mark more truly the emancipation of French music. From this time on, French music felt that it had left school, and claimed to have founded a new art, which reflected the spirit of the race, and was freer and suppler than the Wagnerian art. These ideas, which were seized upon and enlarged by the press, brought about rather quickly a conviction in French artists of France's superiority in music. Is that conviction justified? The future alone can tell us. But one may see by this brief outline of events how real is the evolution of the musical spirit in France since 1870, in spite of the apparent contradictions of fashion which appear on the surface of art. It is the spirit of France that is, after long oppression and by a patient but eager initiation, realising its power and wishing to dominate in its turn.

I wanted at first to trace the broad line of the movement which for the last thirty years has been affecting French music; and now I shall consider the musical institutions that have had their share in this movement. You will not be surprised if I ignore some of the most celebrated, which have lost their interest in it, in order that I may consider those that are the true authors of our regeneration.


(The end)
Romain Rolland's essay: Paris And Music

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