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The Rebirth of French Music

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

Modem French Composers.
By Edward Burlingame Hill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

Writing about “The National Society of Music” in 1885, M. Saint-Saens said: “Not long ago, perhaps fifteen years, a French composer who had the audacity to try his fortunes in the field of instrumental music had no other means of getting his works played than to give a concert himself, and invite his friends and the critics to it. As for the public, the mane of a composer, at once French and living, printed on a poster had the effect of putting everyone to flight.”

During the greater part of the nineteenth century Paris was a musical city in the sense that New York is musical today. It was a market-place to be exploited by one attractive foreign personality after another. Insidious propaganda in behalf of the Italian school, intended to discourage native ambition and felt in every great capital, had been emboldened by the residence in Paris and the monstrous popularity of Rossini and Meyerbeer, the two most picturesque prostitutors of the art of music—one an Italian, the other a German characteristically living where business was good.

The bright, pure flame of French musical art, lighted by Couperin and Rameau early in the eighteenth century, had been snuffed out by the indifference of the Parisian public, busily idolizing their imported gods. M. Pasdeloup, an orchestral conductor, said to an aspiring young composer: “Write me symphonies like Beethoven and I will perform them,” a request which has won its author imperishable fame—of a kind.

It was not until shortly after the war of 1870, when perhaps the foreign importations fell to a low mark, that the French people realized the need for a national school. A conscious effort was made to rekindle the glorious ideals of the past. Professor Hill’s “Modern French Composers” are of this period, from about 1870 to the present day with a glimpse into the future for good measure.

The organization of the National Society, the work of Saint-Saens as a composer and pamphleteer and Charles Lamoureux, the conductor with a leaning towards young French composers, infused new life into French music. The winner of the Prix de Rome felt a greater distinction. The pioneers were not all geniuses of the first rank, but Chabrier, Reber, Lalo, Gouvy and others had something to say and said it intensely in the Gallic idiom. Henceforward, the French composer who would write German or Italian music was headed for oblivion, complete, instantaneous and well merited. The national school was reincarnated as distinct and individual in its utterance as the Russian.

In two chapters and throughout the book as well, Professor Hill pays tribute to the works and influence of one of the greatest and most lovable men in music—Cesar Franck, professor of organ at the Conservatoire. Franck was a mystic given to divine contemplation. He recalls William Blake. In his music and in his life “he spoke rather with angels than with men.” J. K. Huysmans in his penetrating glances at church music in “En Route” speaks of the glowing spirituality of the mass at Ste. Clotilde, where Franck was organist. To earn money he ran about Paris on foot giving piano lessons to girls who probably never practised. He was not allowed to teach composition at the Conservatoire, but through the force of his character and the high idealism with which he regarded his art, he gathered about him as private pupils and disciples such men as Vincent DTndy, Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Charles Bordes and William Lekeu, some of whom are still carrying forward the ideals of their master.

Possibly it is the remembrance of the storm of abuse and ridicule that raged about the head of Claude Debussy with his arresting idiom—impressionism in music—which causes Professor Hill to be so excessively polite to the “Groupe des Six” and to their “arch-instigator,” Eric Satie. Ultra-violet movements in music-of-the-future carry the burden of critical judgment into the next genern”jor.. at least—considerably farther, one might wager, in the case of the “Groupe.” The public and especially the French public loves a squabble in the musical world and we are all too much inclined to credit every revolutionary with the genius and sincerity of a Debussy or a Wagner. And it is this very trait of ours coupled with universal ignorance of the question that the insincere revolutionary preys upon.

Professor Hill’s chronicle is an inspiring story of high hopes in the main fulfilled, containing the critical observations of a scholar, a musician, and an unusual amount of literary charm for a book of the kind.


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