Paris in the 1860s The Origins of Impressionism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Paris in the 1860s performed on Sep 25, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Understanding art and culture as functions of seemingly unique, easily described national character traits has become a convenient and deceptive habit. There is irony, consequently, in the realization that the most significant event in the modern history of French music was the Paris premiere of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (in a revised version) on March 13, 1861. The work caused a near riot, prompting Wagner to withdraw it after the third performance. From the publication that spring of Charles Baudelaire’s two-part essay “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris” to the death of Claude Debussy in 1918, the debate over whether one ought to succumb to or resist Wagner’s ideas defined the character of French music and aesthetics.

The curious interplay between the French and the German might well be regarded as a fascinating underlying theme to this concert. No doubt our accepted notion of the history of modern painting affirms that, from Impressionism on, European modernism in the visual arts took its primary inspiration from the French. Insofar as the painters, poets, and musicians of Paris in the 1860s and after worked side by side, it can be said that not only French music but French poetry (e.g. symbolism) and French painting owed much to Wagner.

On the other side, Friedrich Nietzsche, once Wagner’s ardent champion who later crafted a compelling and penetrating critique, embraced Georges Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen as the quintessential anti-Wagnerian model of operatic greatness. Indeed, of all French nineteenth-century music, it was Bizet’s oeuvre that captivated turn-of-the century German-speaking composers and audiences. This generation was in search of some route out of the maze of imitative neo-Wagnerism. With Bizet, particularly in his one-act opera Djamileh, one could detect the disarming lightness of Offenbach and the lyric elegance and economy of Mozart–all without any loss of the seriousness and emotional power in which Wagner specialized. Bizet commanded the twin musical languages of humor and passion with equal skill and invention.

Djamileh has been unfairly neglected for most of its existence. The libretto was written during the Second Empire, in the later 1860s, and mirrors that decade’s spirit. But the collapse of the Empire, the defeat at the hands of the Prussians, and the experience of the Paris Commune intervened before the music was composed. Bizet’s decision to set a text that could easily have seemed anachronistic by 1872 reflects his attraction to an opportunity within the story that those recent historical events only enhanced: the chance to interweave the comic and the tragic. It was precisely the subtle shifts from the frivolous to the intensely romantic in Djamileh that attracted the attention and admiration of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

If Djamileh is at all familiar to today’s music lovers, it is probably because Mahler’s biographers have mentioned in passing that in 1898, during his tenure at the Vienna Opera, he revived Djamileh and conducted all of its nineteen performances between 1898 and 1903. Mahler evidently loved this obscure masterpiece. The same can be said for his friend and rival Richard Strauss. In 1945, in a letter to Karl Boehm, Strauss penned what he dubbed his “artistic testament.” He wanted to outline what should be done to revive culture after the “catastrophe” of the war. Strauss recommended that Vienna establish a permanent “opera comique” in the Theater an der Wien where the greatest of all comic operas, The Magic Flute, had been premiered. In his brief list of essential works for its repertoire, Strauss included Djamileh, which can be viewed as a source of inspiration for Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Strauss brings about a Bizet-like synthesis of Mozartian lyricism and Wagnerian drama.

Paris was a remarkable crucible of creativity in the 1860s. The aesthetic debates of that decade were central not only to the formal direction modern painting, literature, and music would take; the manner in which art and culture either influenced or mirrored national identity became a near obsession. The world from which Impressionism came also gave birth to a modern politics marked by sharp nationalist pride, conflict, and hatred. Sewn into the fabric of French controversies surrounding Wagner and the direction of modern art from the 1860s and 1870s were strands of chauvinism, racialist thinking, and anti-Semitism. The Jewish librettist of La Vie Parisienne and many other Offenbach works, Ludovic Halévy, was for years among the closest of Edgar Degas’s friends. That friendship would end in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair: Degas was a staunch believer in Dreyfus’s guilt.

In more ways than one, Offenbach, also a Jew, deserves the last word on the Paris of the 1860s and its significance. Like many “outsiders” before and since, Offenbach was able to define, distill, and parody the main currents of Parisian culture and its values and communicate them back to the majority of Parisians. This outsider created the very definition of the “cultural center” in relation to which, ironically, he remained marginal. Offenbach’s achievement went still further. In the midst of the craze for Wagner (who was among the most significant of modern anti-Semites), this German Jew, like Heinrich Heine (who also had immigrated to Paris), used wit and insight to expose and blunt aesthetic pretentiousness, smugness, hypocrisy, conceit, and the terrifying self-importance of modern wealth and political power. High on the explicit and implicit list of Offenbach’s targets for ridicule were Wagner and his Parisian followers.

That his music has been held in such high esteem by many original minds of the twentieth century is testimony to Offenbach’s understanding that comedy provides an opportunity to communicate a unique ethical critique. Amidst the laughter and irreverence, his stage works demonstrate how music and language can become instruments to combat the inflated rhetoric, fanaticism, and self-importance of everyday life that lead humans into conflict and enmity. As one laughs at oneself, one gains a precious moment of recognition that can inspire modesty, compromise, and compassion. Offenbach was the master of this cleansing kind of theater. To achieve such a result, the music had to be non-trivial (as it indeed is in La Vie Parisienne and Offenbach’s many other master-works) and every bit as compelling, memorable, and alluring as one would expect in great serious opera. Every age, especially ours, needs an Offenbach of its own.