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.

Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian (1911)

By David Grayson, University of Minnesota

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

Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s sacred drama, had rather profane origins. The incident that stimulated the realization of his long-standing ambition to write a mystery play based on the life of St. Sebastian was the sight of dancer Ida Rubinstein’s bare legs as he kneeled to kiss her feet following her memorable portrayal of the sadistic title character in Diaghliev’s production of the ballet Cleopatra. In the beautiful and exotic Russian dancer, with her long legs, slim physique, slender neck, graceful gestures, and air of mystery, the Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist found his ideal incarnation of the martyred saint.

While there is a theatrical tradition of women playing the parts of young men and boys (think of Peter Pan or Cherubino), this particular instance warrants comment because it influenced both the genesis of the work and its reception. Since the Renaissance, St. Sebastian, the third-century Roman martyr who was bound to a tree and shot with arrows, has traditionally been depicted as a beautiful, androgynous, nude youth, providing church artists an opportunity to represent the male nude, often with homoerotic overtones, an aspect which may have appealed to d’Annunzio’s eclectic sexual tastes. Aware that men often played female roles in the medieval mystery and miracle plays, he called Rubinstein’s portrayal of the saint “women s revenge, but since his drama accentuated the erotic nature of the Emperor’s affection for Sebastian, he also used it to cloak this sexual taboo and thus make its expression less shocking.

Late in 1910, while still at work on the play, d’Annunzio asked Claude Debussy to compose the incidental music, but only after both Roger Ducasse and Henry Février had turned him down. Since the 1902 premiere of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which gave him international celebrity, Debussy had pursued a number of theatrical projects, but none had come to fruition. In his own words, he felt “like someone waiting for a train in a sunless waiting room. I have, at the same time, the desire to run off, no matter where, and the fear of leaving!” In this state of mind he agreed to compose Khamma, an Egyptian ballet, for the English dancer Maud Allan, and felt that Martyre would be another opportunity to see his name in lights, one that was potentially lucrative: he had the contract exempt him from any financial liability and stipulated that the play could never be performed without his music. His chief regret was that he was given only two months to write music that would normally have taken him a year to compose.

D’Annunuzio was apparently agnostic, and his interest in religion, essentially artistic. There is even something sacrilegious about his conflation of the pagan narcissism of Adonis with the Christian masochism of Sebastian, who tells the archers: “Whoever wounds me most deeply loves me most.” Adding to the decadent atmosphere, d’Annunzio’s account of the legend introduced magic, the occult, mysticism, and sexuality, further enhanced by the “oriental’ splendor and sumptuousness of Leon Bakst’s costumes and sets. Shortly before the premiere (May 22, 1911), the Vatican placed all of d’Annunzio’s works on its index of forbidden books, and the Archbishop of Paris forbade Catholics to attend performances of Martyre, at least in part, it is believed, because of the perceived inappropriateness of having the saint portrayed by a dancer, one who was not only female, but Jewish. In a letter to the press, playwright and composer defended their work as “deeply religious” and “the lyrical glorification, not only of the admirable athlete of Christ, but of all Christian heroism.”

If anything, Debussy was even less (conventionally) religious than d’Annunzio, declaring himself “neither a practicing Catholic nor a believer.” “I do not worship according to the established rites,” he told an interviewer. “I have made the mysteries of nature my religion.” Although he believed that “religious music ceased with the sixteenth century,” he claimed to have composed Martyre as if for a church. “In the last act, when the saint ascends to heaven, I believe I have expressed all the feelings aroused in me by the thought of the Ascension…. Is the faith expressed by my music orthodox or not? I cannot say. It is my faith, my own, singing in all sincerity.” Commenting on the secularism of the age he observed, “We lack the simple faith of yore.” Quite an understatement!

The performance of the complete play takes approximately five hours, including about an hour of Debussy’s music. Iris thus rarely staged and is far more often performed in concert, either the complete (or nearly complete) incidental music connected by brief narrative links, or, without voices, as four “symphonic fragments” extracted from the score.

Resurrection: Symphonic Prelude after Tolstoy, Op. 4 (1903)

By Brian Hart, Indiana University

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

At the age of 25, Albert Roussel (1869-1937) left a promising career in the Navy to study music at Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. Roussel became one of the most significant composers in France between the world wars, celebrated especially for his symphonies and ballets. His versatile style drew upon a number of diverse sources; in addition to the late Romantic language inherited from d’Indy (a pupil of César Franck), these included Debussyist impressionism, Hindu chant, and, eventually, Stravinskian neo-classicism.

Résurrection (1903), Roussel’s first orchestral work, dates from the composer’s student years. He provided no program for his so-called prélude symphonique, which takes its inspiration from the final novel of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899) concerns a young nobleman’s desperate search for spiritual redemption; his journey eventually leads him to contemplate the Sermon on the Mount, and he dedicates himself to following its commandments. The subject made an appropriate choice for a member of the Schola Cantorum, an institution originally designed for the study of religious music; d’Indy, its director, stirred waves in the aggressively secular musical establishment with his blunt assertion, “Without Faith, there is no Art.”

By far the most remarkable portion of Résurrection is the somber introduction: its dark timbres and acrid harmonies (mostly built with semitones, tritones, and ninths) create a sound world that the composer would later recreate in his underrated Symphony No. 2 and tone poem Pour une fete de printemps (1919-21). The introduction gives way to a turbulent section that presumably represents the Prince’s longing for salvation. A more peaceful passage follows, marked by arpeggios and tremolos in the harps, flutes, and violins (a characteristic style used in Romantic music to suggest redemption and celestial images). A slow coda brings back the important themes and ties them together.

As one would expect of such an early work, Résurrection shows many affinities with the musical style Roussel learned from d’Indy. Scholiste traits in this work include frequent changes of key and tempo, contrapuntal passages, complex meters (one section is in 7/4, a d’Indy favorite), the use of religious melodies–one of the main themes is based on an Easter chant–and a rhetorical conclusion in which all of the primary material is recapitulated and reinterpreted. At the same time, Roussel combines these received procedures with elements of musical impressionism; in particular, the composer manipulates his material by varied repetition rather than systematic fragmentation and development. Résurrection calls for a large orchestra that favors the winds, most notably the oboe, English horn, and flute. Although the treatment of form betrays Roussel’s inexperience–the work tends to meaner, especially near the end–the orchestration and harmonic language show a confidence that would grow steadily with each of the composer’s subsequent works.