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.

Istar, Op. 42 (1896)

By Peter J. Rabinowitz, Hamilton College

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.

From the intensity with which he pursued military history to the rigor or his famous course in composition, Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) was an exacting man. Sometimes his perfectionism revealed itself in an admirable high-mindedness: when the faculty of the Conservatoire resisted his proposals for a more intellectually stringent curriculum, d’Indy co-founded a new institution, the Schola Cantorum, that would carry out his ideas. Sometimes, less pleasantly, his severity emerged in the form of narrow-mindedness, both political (he was an ardent anti-Semite) and musical (his intolerance for loose design made him unable to appreciate Debussy). But at all times, he seemed ruled by a passion for clarity. “There are,” Romain Rolland insisted, “no shadows about him.”

Given his inflexible asceticism, it might at first seem surprising that d’Indy was a devout Wagnerian, especially at a time when Wagner’s hyperemotional scores represented the avant-garde and when German music was scorned in France. But there’s no real contradiction, for his interest was not in the erotic excess or the rich scoring of Wagner’s operas but rather in their formal mastery and their artistic seriousness of purpose. As a result, d’Indy was able to reconcile his Wagnerianism with a pioneering revival of early music(including Palestrina and Monteverdi)as well as with a dedication to French musical nationalism both in his choice of subject-matter and in his lucid instrumental technique.

Istar (1896), his most familiar score after the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, is one of his works that does not center on French material; but it does embody d’Indy’s style both in its meticulous construction and in its limpid orchestration. The program, from Babylonian myth, tells the story of Istar, the goddess of love and fertility, who descends into the underworld to retrieve her dead lover. She passes through seven gates, and at each she has to discard one piece of jewelry or clothing; she only achieves her aim when she stands naked beyond the last gate. If you know the Salomes that Richard Strauss and Florent Schmitt composer a decade or so later, you can imagine the kind (if lurid music that such a situation might have drawn from them. But d’Indy typically, produced something loftier, displacing the story’s sensual potential by focusing on its invitations for structural ingenuity.

Specifically, Istar is a controlled exercise in the form of seven Variations–with a curious twist. Although the work makes considerable use of two themes that are presented at the outset–a brief descending horn call and a longer melody with dotted rhythms that represents Istar’s walk from gate to gate–it soon appears that there is a third theme generating the variations, too. Yet it is too difficult to grasp its precise outline, for in contrast to most traditional essays in the genre, Istar begins with the most complex of the variations, not with the simplest. The main theme becomes progressively more distinct as Istar discards her garments, but we only hear it clearly in the seventh variation, where its shape (and its motivic relationship to the other themes) is finally revealed in a striking unison statement. The walking theme, now radiant, crowns the coda, as the music dies away.

Symphony No. 3, Op. 11 (1896)

By Adrian Corleonis

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.

On March 9 1828 the newly formed Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire, at its initial performance, offered Parisians a first hearing of Beethoven’s Eroica, which proved a revelation to the young Berlioz as it provoked a furor among musicians and the public. It was, no doubt, Inescapable that so colossal a master should become all things to all men. Berlioz responded readily to Beethoven’s dramatic conception of the symphony and to his pictorialism, Though his superficial use of thematic recall, after the manner of the final movement of the Ninth, prompted d’Indy to ask, “did [Berlioz] really understand him?” Franck seems to have found the use of the fugue, variation, and the achievement of formal unity by thematic recall and transformation in Beethoven’s last works happily suggestive–matters which d’Indy read out of Beethoven through Franck into the heavy-handed dogma of cyclic form and a general emphasis on “musical science” which looks forward to the modern preoccupation with technique.

Magnard studied privately with d’Indy between l888 and 1892, and, from 1896, taught counterpart at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. Accordingly, He saw the way Beethoven’s technical resourcefulness and formal perfection parallel an expressive inevitability an ideal, or Platonic, realization which he attempted to emulate, with varying degrees of success. While Magnard’s saturnine exaltation is his own, the tension between Classical means and exalted ends makes for a peculiar intensity which the critic Paul Landormy characterized as “violent meditation,” while the composer himself acknowledged a “pessimistic enthusiasm.” An obvious instance is the d’Indyist employment of a chorale (often of Gregorian provenance) to resolve conflict and pronounce a final benediction, which misfired badly in the finale of Magnard’s Fourth Symphony by seeming to be tacked on, though it succeeds splendidly in the Third, from its mysterious opening through its potent recall at the end of the first movement to, above all, its triumphant momentum in the last movement which draws the work together in a magnificent and compelling affirmation.

In matching manner to matter, the Third Symphony and the opera Bérénice (1905-1909) are among Magnard’s most balanced and noblest works. In the Symphony, a habitual repertoire of gestures resorted to from work to work in almost ritual fashion-the oft-remarked brusquerie, the slowly, ecstatically swaying syncopations, an obsession with fugal writing, manic evocations of rustic dance (harking back equally to Beethoven and Berlioz) set off by somber lamentations, among others-attain their most telling point. how reactionary this Beethovenian inheritance must have seemed may be gauged by the fact that during the years in which Magnard composed his Third Symphony, the mid-1890s, Debussy completed his Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune and began work on the Nocturnes. But, then, as Busoni remarked- Busoni who, at his own expense, gave Debussy’s Prélude its Berlin premiere in November 1903 and Magnard’s Third its first performance in Germany in January 1905–”At all times there were-must have been-artists who clung to the last tradition and others who sought to free themselves from it. This twilight condition seems to me to be the stable one…” What counts, finally, is expressive power, which the Third Symphony possesses to an intense degree. Magnard’s “classicism,” in fact, masks a highly original temperament which may well leave the listener with an ambiguous tang of new wine in old bottles.

Psalm 47, Op. 38 (1904)

By Robert McColley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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.

Igor Stravinsky knew and greatly admired the pathbreaking Psalm 47, Op.38, which Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) completed in 1904 and first heard in a highly successful public performance in December, 1906. Some supposed its bold harmony and powerful display of brass and percussion influenced Stravinsky’s celebrated Sacre du Printemps (1912). More to the point, however, is its undisputed place as first in a series of great twentieth-century compositions based on the Old Testament, breaking with the generally restrained and devotional tradition in European sacred music, and capturing in imaginative re-creation the vigor, exaltation, and passionate intensity of the ancient texts. One thinks especially of Lili Boulanger’s masterful setting of Psalm 130, Du Fond de l’Abîme (1917), Arthur Honegger’s Le Roi David (1921-3), and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931).

To be sure, oriental and specifically Turkish elements had appeared to fine effect in scores by Mozart and Beethoven, and in the “modern music” of Florent Schmitt’s youth: works of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov eagerly imported from Russia, and French masterpieces such as Samson et Dalila (1877) by Camille Saint-Saëns, and Hérodiade (1881) by Jules Massenet. But Schmitt had evolved a musical orientalism which was more than decoratively exotic; in Psalm 47 it seemed to express a veritable cultural soul foreign to the late Romantic sensibilities of 1906, and in the composer’s next masterpiece, La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50, a luxuriant eroticism equally foreign.

Schmitt would return to his oriental style from time to time in his extraordinarily long career, perhaps most notably in the extensive score he composed for the silent film based on Flaubert’s Salammbô (1925). But he was far to eclectic to be content with a single style. Many of his piano pieces in the 1890s reflected the influence of Gabriel Fauré, one of his teachers at the Paris conservatory. His next great success after Salomé was a Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 51, that he had started in Rome in 1901; it was very much in the style of César Franck’s great piece for the same group of instruments. Schmitt would go on to work in virtually every musical form except opera; one of his later successes was a Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra, first performed in 1932 by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the composer as soloist. Devoted to travel, Schmitt absorbed cultural influences from near and far, and regularly published trenchant criticisms of the classical music of France and the world.

A native of Lorraine, Schmitt was a favorite in the city of Strasbourg, with its Alsation blend of French and German cultural elements. There, his Symphony No. 2, Op. 137, had its world premiere, a few months before the composer’s death, under the baton of the venerable Alsation conductor, Charles Munch. Schmitt was present, and enjoyed a standing ovation from the audience. Henri Dutilleux composed a memorable epitaph for the durable and prolific composer: “Florent Schmitt was the last of that great family to which Ravel, Dukas, and Roussel belonged. He remains one of them who, by a happy assimilation of German and central European influences, recalled the French school to certain notions of grandeur.”