Against the Grain: The German Influence in French Music at the Turn of the Century

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Against the Grain: The German Influence in French Music at the Turn of the Century, performed on April 13, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

French music in the late nineteenth century can be understood as possessing a tripartite character. One aspect was associated with Jules Massenet: a tradition of well-crafted but stylized music that appeared to lack substance and suffered from the apparent absence of compositional gravity. Another strain reflected the not always consistent amalgam of French composers who were influenced by Richard Wagner and by German traditions of instrumental composition, particularly by Beethoven. And a third development–equally indebted to Wagner–emerged in the 1890s. It proved to be the dominant one; at its center was the work of Claude Debussy, whose Prélude à L’Après_midi d’un faune of 1894 marked a turning point in French music.

The works heard today are on the program for two reasons. First, Albéric Magnard’s Symphony No. 3 (1902) and Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 (1904) are relatively unknown but are by any standard remarkable pieces of music that deserve more frequent representation in the orchestral repertory. Vincent d’lndy’s Istar (1896) has fared somewhat better, because it was a favorite of Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch. The second reason is that today, when we think of turn-of-the-century French music, the only composer who initially comes to mind is Claude Debussy. The originality of Debussy’s music propelled him to prominence not only as an innovator but also as a representative of a distinctly French sound and style. But Debussy’s tong shadow over the French fin de siécle tends to obscure the richness of French musical life of which he was only one part. Of course, many works by Saint-Saëns survive in the repertory. So does the music of Gabriel Fauré, and we encounter regularly a few works by Edouard Lalo. Belgian born César Franck’s D-Minor Symphony (1888) also stands out in the French symphonic tradition. Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony has retained some popularity in part on account of its use of the organ. But Saint-Saëns is often perceived as standing apart from French music as a sort of French Brahms. In the end, the distinctive tradition of French composition has been associated almost exclusively with three names: Franck, Fauré and Debussy. Today’s concert seeks to restore the balance somewhat by bringing back onto the concert stage music of French composers who were contemporaries of Debussy, but who forged an ambivalent synthesis between Wagner and German musical traditions and a French sensibility. An important figure in the development of that synthesis was César Franck.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Paris in 1861 set the direction of French music until the outbreak of World War I. Baudelaire’s famous essay “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris” and the later founding of the Revue Wagnerienne serve to remind us how important Wagner was to the world of French letters well beyond the realm of music. Too often, we are content to speak of music in reductive nationalist terms, but the idea of a “French” or “German” style seems practical when talking about nineteenth-century music, because identity was a primary concern of the composers themselves. At the same time, however, there was a concurrent assumption of transactional traditions. Crucial to that notion was the concept of classicism, itself an invention of the later nineteenth century. Despite the unmistakable Germanic ideology and content of Wagner’s music dramas, they were as popular outside of Germany as they were in Germany even after 1871. The French defeat at the hands of the Prussians inspired composers in France not to abandon Wagner, but to appropriate him. In fin de siécle England and France, Wagnerism remained as much of a cult as it was in the new German empire.

The French engagement with German traditions of music-making in the nineteenth century began with the deification of Beethoven. The first performance of Beethoven’s symphonies in Paris by Habeneck and the writings of Hector Berlioz on Beethoven were pivotal events in the evolution of music in France. The Magnard symphony reflects the struggle among French composers to develop a tradition of symphonic music which could match the sequence of German achievement, predominant since Beethoven and unbroken until the era of Bruckner and Mahler. There is no better example of the French obsession with Beethoven and German music than the case of Romain Rotland (1866-1944). Rolland won the Nobel Prize for his novel, Jean-Christophe, based on the image of Beethoven (which first appeared in 1904, precisely when Psalm 47 and Magnard’s symphony were either being written or performed). He wrote eight books on Beethoven and was among other things an ardent admirer of Strauss and at the same time a powerful force in turn-of-the-century French musical criticism.

The embrace of an ideology of universalism and internationalism in music-making coexisted therefore not only with the search for individual originality, hut with the development of distinctly national cultural identities. In the case of France, the career of Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) makes this point most poignantly. D’Indy was perhaps the most energetic and influential as well as controversial figure in French musical life at the turn of the century. He revered Franck (his uncle, an amateur composer, studied with Franck). But Franck’s negative reaction to d’Indy’s early music inspired d’Indy to study the craft of musical composition in a rigorous manner. Parsifal was, in d’Indy’s opinion, an unimpeachable model of musical and dramatic achievement. In the early 1890s, he was asked to submit a plan for the reorganization of the curriculum of the Paris Conservatory. D’Indy had contempt for what he regarded to be the sloppy and lackadaisical traditions of Massenet and the Paris Conservatory. Later, he also opposed Debussy. D’Indy’s recommendations, which called for the imposition of a rigorous curriculum, involving close study of the German symphonic tradition, including Beethoven as well as medieval and Renaissance music, were rejected. D’Indy then used his wealth to found a rival institution, the famous Schola Cantorum, which became known for its emphasis on the study of counterpoint and complex formal strategies. But for all of his advocacy of Wagner, and the symphonic form as developed by German-speaking composers, d’Indy was a nationalist. He used French folk material, and in Istar turned to the East for inspiration and participated in a quite distinctly French fin de siécle Orientalism. At the same time, he was time devoutly Roman Catholic and arrived at an anti-Semitism as virulent as Wagner’s, though formed independently of the German composer’s influence.

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914), like d’Indy, came from a prominent family. He had the particular misfortune of being the son of Francis Magnard, who later became the editor of Le Figaro, the most influential newspaper in Paris. Magnard struggled against the loss of hearing in his career. Like Smetana and Beethoven, he became increasingly isolated and even misanthropic as a result of his disability. Above all, Magnard was eager to show that any success he had as a composer was not the result of family influence. It was perhaps this determination to gain respect in his own right that led him to leave the Paris Conservatory and study with d’Indy. Magnard wrote to a friend that “the artist who does not draw his strength from self-denial is close to death or dishonor.” This exacting Christian asceticism tinged by a sort of vague Nietzscheanism was not too dissimilar from d’Indy’s own ethos. Magnard’s Third Symphony, which closes this program, was one of the few works to gain him international recognition. It was performed by Busoni in Berlin during the 1905-06 season. As Martin Cooper has noted, in contrast to d’Indy’s music, the influence of César Franck is less audible, even though Magnard considered himself one of Franck’s disciples. In this symphony, one senses a direct affinity with contemporary German symphonic practice. Magnard was extraordinarily talented. His obscurity derives from the fact that he was killed by the advancing German army in 1914. Apparently, when German troops trespassed onto the grounds of his estate, Magnard shot and kil1ed a German soldier. The Germans responded by burning his house to the ground, killing all its occupants, including the composer. It is to the credit to the late conductor Ernest Ansermet , who performed and recorded the Third Symphony at the end of his life, that this work retains any contemporary presence at all.

In contrast to Magnard, Florent Schmitt (1870- 1958) took his entire training at the Paris Conservatory. But like d’Indy, early in his career he became attracted to German music. Schmitt traveled throughout Europe, and his first efforts at composition, including Psalm 47, mirrored the influence of trends outside of France. The two most prominent figures in terms of their influence on Schmitt are, finally, Debussy and Strauss. What all these French composers shared was an on going and nearly obsessive engagement with the legacy of Wagner, the classical traditions of German music exemplified by Beethoven, and the vitality of late-nineteenth-century German Romantic composition, most elegantly represented by Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. It is no accident that Mahler and Bruckner in particular were received coolly in France. The skeptical reaction of the French was a result of rivalry and pride, perhaps tinged with envy. Only Debussy and Fauré found independently in their maturity a stylistic’ and compositional originality which set them wholly apart. But the overvaluing of stylistic’ originality is a common error which often prevents us from coming to terms with first-rate music that unabashedly shows its debt to prior models and practices.

The plain truth is that both French and German composers of the later nineteenth century understood their task as reacting to the challenges that took their most daunting shape in Wagner’s last work, Parsifal. The issues of composition that concerned composers of this time were whether classical symphonic forms and procedures were still applicable, despite Wagner’s abandonment of them. Was it possible, as d’Indy suggested, to turn to medieval and Renaissance music as new sources of inspiration that could be melded with Wagnerian strategies of sound and color? If instrumental music had an unambiguous dramatic function, was it necessary to have a program and if so, what sort of program? For all of the explicit and implicit critique of Christianity, evident in most of Wagner’s work (Parsifal notwithstanding) what was the future relationships) between religion and music, particularly Roman Catholicism? The works on this concert grapple with each of these questions. Istar uses aclassical strategy–variation–but reverses its sequence in almost Ivesian manner. Classicism in d’Indy is merged with a late_nineteenth_century Wagnerian sensibility. And there is a program that is set of variations follows closely. In contrast, Magnard eschews all programs, and presents a convincing achievement in the four_movement symphonic form. It has a distinctly French Aspect it in both the dance movement and pastorale, but in a manner that makes it understandable that while Schmitt was composing the Psalm, he was contemplating a ballet on the subject of Salome. Like Debussy’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, sensuality and religiosity of the fin de siécle seemed capable of being paired much the way Wagner had done so alluringly in Parsifal.

It is hoped that this concert will encourage listeners to explore other works by these three composers, and seek out the riches of the late nineteenth-century music written in France. What is “against the grain” in this concert is not so much the German influence in French music, but rather a challenge to the ideology which has driven the development of the canonic repertory in the twentieth century. Central to that ideology is the simplistic application of nationalist criteria. We celebrate Sibelius because he appears quintessentially Russian, and Elgar for being typically English. Although within these nations there were spirited debates about developing autonomous national styles, it is a mistake to overlook the repertoire of the past that does not seem to us sufficiently typical according to reductive definitions of national spirit. If we set aside criteria linked to nationalism, we will rediscover an enormous treasure of symphonic music produced between 1885 and 1918 throughout Europe of outstanding quality, written by composers who regarded the nationality of Beethoven and Wagner as either secondary or irrelevant.