Faith: Meditation and Mysticism in Turn-of-the-Century France

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Faith: Meditation and Mysticism, performed on April 28, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anyone living in the late 1990s in America might be tempted to think that he or she is trapped in an age peculiarly weighed down by doubt, aimlessness, and pessimism. If one is to believe the daily press and many cultural and political pundits, ours is a time when fundamental moral values have deteriorated, civility is in decline, and standards of art and culture have been cast adrift. Above all, the old verities of decency, reason, and objectivity have been undermined. As a result, we are told, many in our midst are turning once again to religion and mystical and metaphysical traditions in order to find firm bearings in a troubled age.

This cliché-laden depiction of cultural ennui and hopelessness today can be compared to the state of affairs at the turn of the century in Europe, particularly France. Perhaps the ends of centuries bring out admixtures of psychic and sociological insecurities. Numerological symmetries seem to take their toll on the way we think about history. The fact remains, however, that the late nineteenth century was a time in which artists, writers, and intellectuals were deeply concerned about the direction of society and culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, modernity seemed to have gone awry. The shift from a rural to an urban culture brought with it poverty, decadence, and an impersonality that appeared to exist in stark contrast to an idealized, pre-industrial world. despite enormous progress in science and technology, advances in rationality struck many observers as having been achieved at the cost of basic spiritual values and sensibilities. The attraction to Wagner’s Parsifal as a symbol of the renewed spirituality owes much to this state of affairs.

Max Nordau was perhaps the most famous turn-of-the-century cultural critic to charge modern art with reveling in decadence and degenerate depravity. In his view, the progress of modern civilization had been turned on its head by the generation of musicians, painters, and poets who had come of age during the second half of the century. By 1900, the most infamous of the culprits were probably Friedrich Nietzsche and his one-time hero, Richard Wagner, Parsifal‘s overt claim to purity notwithstanding. In differing ways they were both held responsible for subverting common sense and the moral yardsticks of Christianity.

The result was that painting, dance, and music were accused of celebrating the erotic, gaudy, the decadent, and the self-indulgent. There was indeed a fascination with what psychologists now might term the unconscious and instinctive, the seemingly basic currents of human emotion that lay below the controlled exteriors of Victorian-era bourgeois existence. The popularity of Oscar Wilde coincided with a widespread belief in Darwinism and a confidence in evolutionary progress. Progressive theories of history existed side-by-side with a fascination with the “primitive” and with sexuality and violence.

The so-called progress of modern life that was visible in the spread of literacy and the development of art and music–the creation of a public space with civilized inhabitants in the urban centers of Europe and America–filled some of Europe’s most prominent figures with horror. The most famous voice in the wilderness was that of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist. After the publication of Anna Karenina in 1876, Tolstoy became increasingly committed to spreading his own version of the teachings of the Gospels. His amalgam of utopian socialism and primitive Christianity led him to a scathing critique of modern culture, art, and civilization. His last novel, written twenty years after Anna Karenina, entitled Resurrection, was his valedictory effort to reconcile art and morality. In it, Tolstoy confronts the issues of sexuality and morality that obsessed him. Prince Nekhludov struggles to shed himself of the habits and instincts of elegant cultivation to reclaim an ascetic, transcendent spirituality characteristic of simple, anti-modern rural life.

Of Tolstoy’s three large-scale novels, Resurrection is now the least favored and known. But when it was published in English, it was tremendously popular. It was initially banned in England, but the ban was revoked through public pressure. Eventually a stage version was created for the English public. European intellectuals at the turn of the century heard in the later Tolstoy a prophetic voice. Even if his solution seemed irreconcilable with modernity (and this was the view of the great German sociologist Max Weber), its purity, authenticity, and appeal remained undiminished. Appropriately, Tolstoy dedicated all the receipts from this novel to a utopian pacifist community in Russia. The young Albert Roussel was therefore not alone in his attraction to Tolstoy and to this tale of a spiritual journey that confronts two of life’s leading temptations: the allure of external culture and one’s inner instinctual forces, both of which threaten each individual’s capacity for goodness.

If Tolstoy was the late nineteenth century’s conscience in search of a return to simple Christian virtue, the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio embraced all of the fin de siecle’s contradictions. He was notorious for every form of degenerate behavior. He was so obsessed with luxuries, that it was said even his horses slept on Persian rugs. His works were put on the Vatican’s Index, and he was reviled as the emblem of contemporary moral depravity. But matters are never that simple. d’Annunzio was no doubt part posturing charlatan. But he was also a successful poet and a figure of charismatic public flamboyance. He later distinguished himself on the field of battle and became one of the icons of Italian fascism.

On the surface, d’Annunzio was the polar opposite of Tolstoy. What links them together, however, is their shared dissatisfaction with the conceits and conventions of modern life. Beneath d’Annuzio’s radical disregard for bourgeois standards was a genuine desire to fashion for his contemporaries a world view that transcended mere materialism and surface rationalism. He turned not to the traditions of ascetic Christianity but to Paganism. Despite the disingenuous eroticism of the text, d’Annunzio and Debussy were in search of a new source of religious spirituality for their times.

Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien was therefore not merely an extravagant theatrical enterprise. As Debussy himself admitted, even though he was in no sense conventionally religious, a spiritual quest not unlike Tolstoy’s is distinctly audible in the music he wrote for d’Annunzio. Scholars have tried to downplay Debussy’s contribution by suggesting that he composed the work reluctantly and just for the money. Perhaps he was in search of a theatrical triumph comparable to that of Pelléas et Mélisande. But the fact remains that he completed the project and did not disavow it. A composer’s estimate of his own work may not be the best guide, and neither is posthumous criticism. The music to Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien achieves a spiritual clarity and a translucent beauty. Debussy’s music infuses Tolstoy’s dimension of simple truthfulness into d’Annunzio’s overheated, multimedia extravaganza.

A word should be said about this performance of Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. The value of reviving this work has frequently been brought into question. Marcel Proust thought the music trivial, and more recently, Pierre Boulez has rejected claims that the music is of more than passing interest. Yet this work, despite practical obstacles, has been repeatedly brought back to life. The version being performed tonight restores all of the narration (including the prologue) used by D.E.. Inghelbrecht, the French conductor and friend of Debussy who selected the text with the composer’s approval. Previous performances have generally cut the narration or dispensed with it entirely. We have chosen to restore the full narration in the form in which Debussy’s score was revived after the first World War because the effectiveness of his music depends on its interruption by either the spoken word or dramatic action. Debussy wrote this work as incidental music to a drama. Therefore, to perform Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien as one continuous musical composition with sequential movements is to distort it. Debussy’s music functions as a call and response to words and action. In part, it accompanies words and action. But the medium of music played a distinctive role in a theatrical production that was originally part mime, part theater, and part dance. The restoring of the extended narration honors the cumulative power and impact of the music as part of a larger whole. If Debussy had been asked to write a tone poem, symphony, or opera, his musical materials and decisions might have been different.

In today’s concert, the audience can experience some inkling of the way Debussy conceived of music functioning within the realm of the mystical, magical, theatrical event. If Tolstoy in his novel sought to use his gifts as a writer to serve the moral betterment of mankind, in Saint-Sébastien Debussy sought to make his unmatched command of musical timbre and color serve as the medium of spiritual transformation.