Musical Institutions Before 1870
( Originally Published 1915 )
It is not by any means the oldest and most celebrated musical institutions which have taken the largest share in this evolution of music in the last thirty years.
The Académie des Beaux-Arts, where six chairs are reserved for the musical section, could have played a very important part in the musical organisation of France by the authority of its name, and by the many prizes that it gives for composition and criticism, especially by the Prix de Rome, which it awards every year. But it does not play its part well, partly because of the antiquated statutes that govern it, by which a handful of musicians are associated with a great number of painters, sculptors, and architects, who are ignorant of music and mock at the musicians, as they did in the time of Berlioz ; and partly because it is the custom of the Academy that the little group of musicians shall be trained in a very conservative way. One of the names of these musicians is justly celebrated—that of M. Saint-Saëns ; but there are others whose fame is of poorer quality, and others still who have no fame at all. And the whole forms a little group, which though it does not put any actual obstacles in the way of the progress of art, yet does not look upon it favourably, but remains rather apart in an indifferent or even hostile spirit.
The Conservatoire national de Musique et de Déclamation, which dates from the last years of the Ancien Régime and the Revolution, was designed by its patriotic and democratic origin to serve the cause of national art and free progress. It was for a long time the corner-stone of the edifice of music in Paris. But although it has always numbered in its ranks many illustrious and devoted professors—among whom it recognised, a little late, the founder of the young French school, César Franck—and though the majority of artists who have made a name in French music have received its teaching, and the list of laureates of Rome who have come from its composition classes includes all the heads of the artistic movement to-day in all its diversity, and ranges from M. Massenet to M. Bruneau, and from M. Charpentier to M. Debussy—in spite of all this, it is no secret that, since 187o, the official action with regard to the movement amounts to almost nothing ; though we must at least do it justice, and say that it has not hindered it. But if the spirit of this academy has often destroyed the effect of the excellent teaching there, by making success in academic competitions the chief aim of the professors and their pupils, yet a certain freedom has always reigned in the institution. And though this freedom is mainly the result of indifference, it has, however, permitted the more independent temperaments to develop in peace—from Berlioz to M. Ravel. One should be grateful for this. But such virtues are too negative to give the Conservatoire a high place in the musical history of the Third Republic ; and it is only lately, under the direction of M. Gabriel Fauré, that it has endeavoured, not without difficulty, to get back its place at the head of French art, which it had lost, and which others had taken.
The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, founded in 1828 under the direction of Habeneck, has had its hour of glory in the musical history of Paris. It was through this society that Beethoven's greatness was revealed to France. It was at the Conservatoire that the early important works of Berlioz were first given : La Fantastique, Harold, and Roméo et Juliette. It was there, nearer our own time, that Saint-Saens's Symphonie avec Orgue and César Franck's Symphonic were played for the first time. But for a long time the Conservatoire seemed to take its name too literally, and to restrict its sphere to that of a museum for classical music. In later years, however, the Société des Concerts, with M. Marty, began to consider new works. Its orchestra, composed of eminent instrumentalists, enjoys a classical fame ; though it is now no longer alone in the excellence of its performances, and has perhaps lost a little the secret that it claimed to possess for the interpretation of great classical works. It excels in works of a neo-classic character, like those of M. Saint-Saëns, which are stronger in style and taste than in life and passion. The Conservatoire concerts have also a relative superiority over other concerts in Paris in the performance of choral works, which up to the present have been very second-rate. But these concerts are not easy of access for the general public, as the number of seats for sale is very limited. And so the society is representative of a little public whose taste is, broadly speaking, conservative and official ; and the noise of the strife outside its doors only reaches its ears slowly, and with a deadened sound.
The influence of the Conservatoire is, in music especially, an influence of the past and of the Government. One may say much the same of the Opera. This ancient association, which bears the imposing name of Académie nationale de Musique and dates from 1669, is a sort of national institution which is more concerned with the history of official art than with living art. The satire with which Jean-Jacques describes, in his Nouvelle Héloïse, the stiff solemnity and mournful pomp of its performances has not lost much of its truth. What is lacking in the Opera today is the enthusiasm that accompanied its former musical struggles in the times of the " Encyclopédistes and the " guerre des coins." The great battles of art are now fought outside its doors- ; and it has become by degrees a showy salon, a little faded perhaps, where the public is more interested in itself than in the performance. In spite of the enormous sums that it swallows up every year (nearly four million francs),' only one or two new pieces are produced in a year, and they are rarely works that are representative of the modern school. And though it has at last admitted Wagner's dramas into its repertory, one can no longer consider these works, half a century old, to be in the vanguard of music. The most esteemed masters of the French school, such as Massenet, Reyer, Chausson, and Vincent d'Indy, had to seek refuge in the Théâtre de la Monnaie at Brussels before they could get their works received at the Opera in Paris. And the classical composers fare no better. Neither Fidelio nor Gluck's tragedies—with the exception of Armide, which was put on under pressure of fashion—are represented ; and when by chance they give Freischütz or Don Juan, one wonders if it would not have been better to let them rest in oblivion, rather than treat them sacrilegiously by adding, cutting, introducing ballets and new recitatives, and deforming their style so as to bring them " up to date." In spite of the changes of taste and the campaign of the press, the Opera has remained to this day as it was in the time of Meyer-beer and Gounod and their disciples. But it would be foolish to pretend that it has not its public. The receipts show well enough that Faust is in greater favour than Siegfried or Tristan, not to speak of the more recent works of the new French school, which cannot be acclimatised there.
Without doubt, the enormous stage at the Opera does not lend itself well to modern musical dramas, which are intimate and concentrated, and would be lost in its immense space, which is more adapted for formal processions like the marches in the Prophète and Ada. Besides this, there is the conventional acting of the majority of the singers, the dull lifelessness of the choruses, the defective acoustics, and the exaggerated utterance and gestures of the actors, demanded by the great dimensions of the place—all of which is a serious obstacle to the conception of a living and simple art. But the chief obstacle will always lie in the very nature of such a theatre—a theatre of luxury and vanity, created for a set of snobs, whose least interest is the music, who have not enough intellect to create a fashion, but who servilely follow every fashion after it is thirty years old. Such a theatre no longer counts in the history of French music and its next directors will need a vast amount of ingenuity and energy to get a semblance of life into such a dead colossus.
But it is quite another affair with the Opéra-Comique. This theatre has taken a very active part in the development of modern music. Without renouncing its classic traditions, or its delightful repertory of the old opéra-comiques, it has had understanding enough, under the judicious management of M. Albert Carré, to hold itself open for any interesting productions in dramatic music. It takes no side among the different schools ; and the representatives of the old-fashioned light opera with their songs elbow the leaders of the advanced school. No association has done more important work, among musical dramas as well as musical comedies, during the last twenty years. In this theatre, which produced Carmen in 1875, Manon in 1884, and the Roi d'Ys in 1888, were played the principal dramas of M. Bruneau, as well as M. Charpentier's Louise, M. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and M. Dukas's Ariane et Barbebleue. It may seem astonishing that such works should have found a place at the Opéra-Comique and not at the Opera. But if two musical theatres of different kinds exist, one of which pretends to have the monopoly of great art, while the other with a simpler and more intimate character seeks only to please, it is always the latter that has a better chance of development and of making new discoveries ; for the first is oppressed by traditions that become ever stiffer and more pedantic, while the other with its simplicity and lack of pretension is able to accommodate itself to any manner of life. How many artists have revolutionised their times while they were merely looked upon as people who amused ! Frescobaldi and Philipp Emanuel Bach brought fresh life to art, but were scorned by the so-called representatives of fine art ; Mozart's opere bufe have more of truth and life in them than his opere serie ; and there is as much dramatic power in an opéra-comique like Carmen as in all the repertory of grand Opera to-clay. And so the Opéra-Comique theatre has become the home of the boldest experiments in musical drama. The most daring or the most violent ventures into musical realism, after the manner of Charpentier or Bruneau, and the subtle fantasies of a delicate art of dreams, like that of Debussy, have found a welcome there. It has also been open to various kinds of foreign art : Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, Verdi's Falstaff, the works of Puccini, Mascagni, and the young Italian school, Richard Strauss's Feuersnot, Rimsky-Korsakow's Snégourotchka, have all been played. And they have even given the classic masterpieces of opera there : Fidelio, Orfeo, Alceste, the two Iphigénies ; and taken more pains with them and mounted them with more pious zeal than they do at the Opera. The operas them-selves are more at home there, too, for the size of the theatre is more like that of the eighteenth-century theatres. It is true that the stage rather lacks depth ; but the ingenuity of the director and the admirable scenic artists he employs has succeeded in making one forget this defect, and accomplished marvels. No theatre in Paris has more artistic staging, and some of the scenery that has been designed lately is a masterpiece of its kind. The Opéra-Comique has also the advantage of excellent conductors, and one of them, M. Messager, who is now Director, has, by his clever interpretations, greatly contributed to the success of the works of the new school.