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French Music Since Berlioz.

French Music Since Berlioz. Edited by Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. [xxiii, 363 p. ISBN-10: 0-7546-0282-6; ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-0282-8. $99.95.] Illustrations, index, music examples, bibliographic references, suggested readings.

The English musicologists Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter, both specialists in French music, have put together a broad survey of classical music in France since 1870 in a group of twelve essays by eleven scholars, all of them English. Described by the editors as a "mosaic," the collection mostly excludes jazz and popular music (Deborah Mawer's chapter on French music in the 1930s is an exception) and also attempts to move beyond or away from the usual emphasis on French music's close relationship with literature and the visual arts to concentrate more on "the social and political context of music" (p. xix). In the historical period after Berlioz this approach makes good sense, since his death in 1869 corresponded almost exactly with the Franco-Prussian War, with Wagner's unfortunate anti-French article "Une capitulation," and with the fall of the Second Empire and the establishment of the Third Republic. Whether there is any special need to sacrifice the conventional alliance of French music with the sister arts is perhaps debatable, but in any event the contributors to this volume take that shift with varying degrees of seriousness. One surely cannot discuss Debussy or Chausson without invoking literature and art. Messiaen, who mostly wrote his own texts, is another story, and how that story relates to society and politics is not made immediately obvious. Nor is the story of Pierre Boulez's appointment by the government of President Pompidou to run the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique (IRCAM) in 1978, a move that removed Boulez from the sphere of an international conducting career and made him into a kind of high-level researcher and functionary.

So the social and political context comes and goes in French Music Since Berlioz. Some chapters are more chronicles than anything else--useful annotated lists, in a way, but not especially informed by any broader socio-political understanding of the works, despite Richard Langham Smith's just remark in chapter 5 that "a list of operas alone, with a few comments on their relative merit, is neither the story nor the history" (p. 117). Thomas Cooper's piece on opera from 1870 to 1900, for example (chap. 2), takes us chronologically through the repertoire staged at the Opera and the Opera-Comique, from L'Africaine to Reynaldo Hahn's now forgotten L'ile du reve, with only Wagnerism and exoticism evoked as context. Cooper occasionally wades into deeper social waters, as for example when he suggests that Alfred Bruneau's operas declined in popularity as his support for Dreyfus became widely known. One wants to ask whether Vincent D'Indy's operas, by contrast, grew in popularity because of his virulent anti-Semiticism, something one instinctively doubts (Jane Fulcher has explored D'Indy's anti-Dreyfusard position and its influence on his music in her book, French Cultural Politics and Music: From the Drey fuss Affair to the First World War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]). A chronicle is not the place, however, for exploring in depth the ambiguities inherent in the effect of a composer's social and political views on the success or failure of his music.

Timothy Jones (on nineteenth-century orchestral and chamber music) and Nigel Simeone (on church and organ music) also tend toward the annotated list of works. Jones does provide some critical and analytical details, in addition to narrating the founding of various concert venues--Colonne's and Lamoureux's concert series, which would later be associated with the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum respectively, as well as the Societe nationale de musique--which helped to make French instrumental music possible. Jones is indeed more willing than most to be critical of the works he collocates as inherently significant in his essay. Both Franck's Symphony in D minor and Saint-Saens's Third Symphony (the "Organ") are classed as failures, "despite their success at infiltrating the symphonic canon" (p. 85). In a refreshing avis inhabituel, he suggests that the Chausson and Dukas symphonies, though much less frequently played, are in fact more successful aesthetically. He is oddly selective too, ignoring the Franck Violin Sonata, for example, in his discussion of chamber music, but giving space on the other hand to the string quartets of the rather obscure composer Sylvio Lazzari. Simeone mostly strides historically through the French organ and sacred repertoire, with some useful emphasis on the titulaires, or holders of the organ posts at the major Parisian churches.

James Ross brings welcome attention to the importance of the Parisian salon in French music before World War II, a subject explored in depth by Myriam Chimenes in her recent book (Mycenes et musiciens [Paris: Fayard, 2004]) but hitherto somewhat neglected. Mallarme's mardis as well as Pauline Viardot's jeudis included composers and musicians, and Chausson and Chabrier held their own salons that in turn included artists and writers as well as musicians. (One might be forgiven for wondering whether anyone ever ate at home during those years.) It is well known that Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande was "work-shopped" in the salons, and perhaps less often remarked that Chausson's opera Le roi Arthus was as well. Wagner's operas became familiar to the inveterate saloniste long before they were produced on the public stage (beginning with Lohengrin, which reached the French theater only in 1891 after a long struggle) through private performances such as those of Judith Gautier's so-called Bayreuth de poche.

Other essays in French Music Since Berlioz examine twentieth-century opera (Richard Langham Smith), Satie and Les Six (Robert Orledge), music in the 1930s (Deborah Mawer), music and World War II, and music since 1945 (both from Caroline Potter). Two different but equally accomplished chapters--Roy Howat on "Modernization: From Chabrier and Faure to Debussy and Ravel" and Peter O'Hagan on "Pierre Boulez and the Foundation of IRCAM"--incorporate substantially more musical analysis than the other essays, and are more demanding but rewarding thereby. The Boulez chapter in particular takes a good deal for granted in terms of knowledge of serial techniques. In light of their having commissioned an entire chapter on Boulez, the editors must be assumed to consider him the most influential of all post-World War II French composers. O'Hagan mentions the vexed question of Boulez's output--many pieces have been withdrawn, and many are self-described as "works in progress" (a characterization that Boulez borrowed from James Joyce, whose Finnigans Wake was thus titled until it appeared in book form). Yet one misses a more declared opinion on what Boulez's seeming reticence really means for music.

There are some unfortunate errors in this book, but they are few and far between. (Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, for example, is referred to on p. 14 as Les Enfants et les sortileges, and Theodore de Wyzewa--the "de" is inconstantly missing in the Index--is said on p. 97 to be the sole founder of the Revue Wagnerienne, with no mention of Edouard Dujardin, with whom de Wyzewa was at best a co-founder.) Though intended primarily for an informed, but not necessarily specialist audience (some analytical bits excepted), this book may be most useful for students and performers needing a broad survey for their own purposes. Ineluctably selective (serial composer Jean Barraque, for example, is not mentioned anywhere), and a little thin on such recent trends in musicology as gender, exoticism, and post-colonial concerns, the book as whole goes a long way towards providing a useful vademecum for its subject.


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Author:Whiteman, Bruce
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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