The Present Condition Of French Music
( Originally Published 1915 )
We have seen how the musical education of France is going on in theatres, in concerts,- in schools, by lectures and by books ; and the Parisian's rather restless desire for knowledge seems to be satisfied for the moment. The mind of Paris has made a journey—a hasty journey, it is true through the music of other countries and other times, and is now becoming introspective. After a mad enthusiasm over discoveries in strange lands, music and musical criticism have regained their self-possession and their jealous love of independence. A very decided reaction against foreign music has been shown since the time of the Universal Exhibition of 1900. This movement is not unconnected, consciously or unconsciously, with the nationalist train of thought, which was stirred up in France, and especially in Paris, somewhere about the same time. But it is also a natural development in the evolution of music. French music felt new vigour springing up within her, and was astonished at it ; her days of preparation were over, and she aspired to fly alone ; and, in accordance with the eternal rule of history, the first use she made of her newly-acquired strength was to defy her teachers. And this revolt against foreign influences was directed—one had expected it—against the strongest of the influences—the influence of German music as personified by Wagner. Two discussions in magazines, in 1903 and 1904, brought this state of mind curiously to light : one was an enquiry held by M. Jacques Morland in the Mercure de France (January, 1903) as to The Influence of German Music in France and the other was that of M. Paul Landormy in the Revue Bleue (March and April, 1904) as to The Present Condition of French Music. The first was like a shout of deliverance, and was not without exaggeration and a good deal of in-gratitude ; for it represented French musicians and critics throwing off Wagner's influence because it had had its day ; the second set forth the theories of the new French school, and declared the independence of that school.
For several years the leader of the young school, M. Claude Debussy, has, in his writings in the Revue Blanche and Gil Blas, attacked Wagnerian art. His personality is very French—capricious, poetic, and spirituelle, full of lively intelligence, heedless, independent, scattering new ideas, giving vent to paradoxical caprice, criticising the opinions of centuries with the teasing impertinence of a little street boy, attacking great heroes of music like Gluck, Wagner, and Beethoven, upholding only Bach, Mozart, and Weber, and loudly professing his preference for the old French masters o-f the eighteenth century. But in spite of this he is bringing back to French music its true nature and its forgotten ideals—its clearness, its elegant simplicity, its naturalness, and especially its grace and plastic beauty.. He wishes music to free itself from all literary and philosophic pretensions, which have burdened German music in the nineteenth century (and perhaps have always done so) ; he wishes music to get away from the rhetoric which has been handed down to us through the centuries, from its heavy construction and precise orderliness, from its harmonic and rhythmic formulas, and the exercises of oratorical embroidery. He wishes that all about it shall be painting and poetry ; that it shall explain its true feeling in a clear and direct way ; and that melody, harmony, and rhythm shall develop broadly along the lines of inner laws, and not after the pretended laws of some intellectual arrangement. And he himself preaches by example in his Pelléas et Mélisande, and breaks with all the principles of the Bayreuth drama, and gives us the model of the new art of his dreams. And on all sides discerning and well-informed critics, such as M. Pierre Lalo of Le Temps, M. Louis Laloy of the Revue Musicale and the Mercure Musicale, and M. Marnold of Le Mercure de France, have championed his doctrines and his art. Even the Schola Cantorum, whose eclectic and archaic spirit is very different from that of Debussy, seemed at first to be drawn into the same current of thought ; and this school which had so helped to propagate the foreign influences of the past, did not seem to be quite insensible to the nationalistic preoccupation of the last few years. So the Schola devoted itself more and more—as was moreover its right and duty —to the French music of the past, and filled its concert programmes with French works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—with Marc Antoine Charpentier, Du Mont, Leclair, Clérambault, Couperin, and the French primitive composers for the organ, the harpsichord, and the violin ; and with the works of dramatic composers, especially of the great Rameau, who, after a period of complete oblivion, suddenly benefited by this excessive reaction, to the detriment of Gluck, whom the young critics, following M. Debussy's example, severely abused. There was even a moment when the Schola took a decided share in the battle, and, through M. Charles Bordes, issued a manifesto—a Credo, as they called it—about a new art founded on the ancient traditions of French music :
" We wish to have free speech in music—a sustained recitative, infinite variety, and, in short, complete liberty in musical utterance. We wish for the triumph of natural music, so that it shall be as free and full of movement as speech, and as plastic and rhythmic as a classical dance."
It was open war against the metrical art of the last three centuries, in the name of national tradition (more or less freely interpreted), of folk-song, and of Gregorian chant. And " the constant and avowed purpose of all this campaign was the triumph of French music, and its cult."
This manifesto reflects in its own way the spirit of Debussy and his untrammelled musical impressionism ; and though it shows a good deal of naïveté and some intolerance, there was in it a strength of youthful enthusiasm that accorded with the great hopes of the time, and foretold glorious days to come and a splendid harvest of music.
Not many years have passed since then ; yet the sky is already a little clouded, the light not quite so bright. Hope has not failed ; but it has not been fulfilled. France is waiting, and is getting a little impatient. But the impatience is unnecessary ; for to found an art we must bring time to our aid ; art must ripen tranquilly. Yet tranquillity is what is most lacking in Parisian art. The artists, instead of working steadily at their own tasks and uniting in a common aim, are given up to sterile disputes. The young French school hardly exists any longer, as it has now split up into two or three parties. To a fight against foreign art has succeeded a fight among themselves : it is the deep-rooted evil of the country, this vain expenditure of force. And most curious of all is the fact that the quarrel is not between the conservatives and the progressives in music, but between the two most advanced sections : the Schola on the one hand, who, should it gain the victory, would through its dogmas and traditions inevitably develop the airs of a little academy ; and, on the other hand, the independent party, whose most important representative is M. Debussy. It is not for us to enter into the quarrel ; we would only suggest to the parties in question that if any profit is to result from their misunderstanding, it will be derived by a third party—the party in favour of routine, the party that has never lost favour with the great theatre-going public,—a party that will soon make good the place it has lost if those who aim at defending art set about fighting one another. Victory has been proclaimed too soon ; for whatever the optimistic representatives of the young school may. say, victory has not yet been gained ; and it will not be gained for some time yet—not until public taste is changed, not while the nation lacks musical education, nor until the cultured few are united to the people, through whom their thoughts shall be preserved. For not only—with a few rare and generous exceptions—do the more aristocratic sections of society ignore the education of the people, but they ignore the very existence of the people's soul. Here and there, a composer—such as Bizet and M. Saint-Saëns, or M. d'Indy and his disciples—will build up symphonies and rhapsodies and very difficult pieces for the piano on the popular airs of Auvergne, Provence, or the Cevennes; but that is only a whim of theirs, a little ingenious pastime for clever artists, such as the Flemish masters of the fifteenth century indulged in when they decorated popular airs with polyphonic elaborations. In spite of the advance of the democratic spirit, musical art—or at least all that counts in musical art—has never been more aristocratic than it is today. Probably the phenomenon is not peculiar to music, and shows itself more or less in other arts ; but in no other art is it so dangerous, for no other has roots less firmly fixed in the soil of France. And it is no consolation to tell oneself that this is according to the great French traditions, which have nearly always been aristocratic. Traditions, great and small, are menaced today ; the axe is ready for them. Who-ever wishes to live must adapt himself to the new conditions of life. The future of art is at stake. To continue as we are doing is not only to weaken music by condemning it to live in unhealthy conditions, but also to risk its disappearing sooner or later under the rising flood of popular misconceptions of music. Let us take warning by the fact that we have already had to defend music 1 when it was attacked at some of the parliamentary assemblies ; and let us remember the pitifulness of the defence. We must not let the day come when a famous speech will be repeated with a slight alteration—" The Republic has no need of musicians.
It is the historian's duty to point out the dangers of the present hour, and to remind the French musicians who have been satisfied with their first victory that the future is anything but sure, and that we must never disarm while we have a common enemy before us, an enemy especially dangerous in a democracy—mediocrity.
The road that stretches before us is long and difficult. But if we turn our heads and look back over the way we have come we may take heart. Which of us does not feel a little glow of pride at the thought of what has been done in the last thirty years ? Here is a town where, before 1870, music had fallen to the most miserable depths, which to-day teems with concerts and schools of music—a town where one of the first symphonic schools in Europe has sprung from nothing, a town where an enthusiastic concert-going public has been formed, possessing among its members some great critics with broad interests and a fine, free spirit—all this is the pride of France. And we have, too, a little band of musicians ; among them, in the first rank, that great painter of dreams, Claude Debussy; that master of constructive art, Dukas ; that impassioned thinker, Alberic Magnard ; that ironic poet, Ravel ; and those delicate and finished writers, Albert Roussel and DÉodat de Séverac ; without mention of the younger musicians who are in the vanguard of their art. And all this poetic force, though not the most vigorous, is the most original in Europe to-day. Whatever gaps one may find in our musical organisation, still so new, whatever results this movement may lead to, it is impossible not to admire a people whom defeat has aroused, and a generation that has accomplished the magnificent work of reviving the nation's music with such untiring perseverance and such steadfast faith. The names of Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck, Charles Bordes, and Vincent d'Indy, will remain associated before all others with this work of national regeneration, where so much talent and so much devotion, from the leaders of orchestras and celebrated composers down to that obscure body of artists and music-lovers, have joined forces in the fight against indifference and routine. They have the right to be proud of their work. But for ourselves, let us waste no time in thinking about it Our hopes are great. Let us justify them.