[1] Henri Dutilleux, Music – Mystery and Memory, Conversations with Claude Glayman, trans. Roger Nichols (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001) p.98. 
[2] Letter to Jacques Durand, March 1908, Debussy Letters, ed. François Lesure, trans. Roger Nichols (London: Faber and Faber, 1987) p.188.
[3] Debussy, article ‘L’entretien avec M. Croche’ (La Revue blanche, 1 July 1901), reprinted in Monsieur Croche et autres écrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) p.51.
[4] Debussy, article ‘Lorsque le brouillard d’octobre’ (1 November 1913) reprinted in Monsieur Croche et autres écrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) pp.239-40.
[5] Debussy, article ‘L’entretien avec M. Croche’ (La Revue blanche, 1 July 1901), reprinted in Monsieur Croche et autres écrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) p.51.
[6] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (London: The Architectural Press, 1982). First published in English 1927.
[7] See Constant Lambert, Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline, (London: Faber and Faber, 1934).
[8] This English translation of the manifesto was published in the programme notes for the American première of Messiaen's Les Offrandes oubliées, given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky on 16 and 17 October 1936. Reproduced in Nigel Simeone, ‘La Spirale and La Jeune France: Group Identities’, Musical Times, Vol. 143, No. 1880, (Autumn, 2002), pp. 10-36, at p. 15.
[9] Gilles and Jean-Robert Ragache, La vie quotidienne des écrivains et des artistes sous l’Occupation (Paris: Hachette, 1989), p.152

City of Light

Caroline Rae and Caroline Potter

Paris has long been dubbed La ville lumière, a name evoking its role as a centre of ideas and enlightenment. Attracting musicians, intellectuals and creative thinkers of all kinds, it was a promised land of cultural opportunity. In the early 19th century, the expression took on a more literal meaning when Paris became one of the first European cities to install gas lighting, no doubt to quell the ever-present risk of riot and revolution that lurked in its labyrinthine narrow streets. Even after Napoleon Bonaparte sought to shape the city into an imposing imperial capital that might rival Rome, constructing new bridges over the Seine and a series of imposing monuments – not least the Arc de Triomphe – Paris remained a hotbed of revolution, monarchies being repeatedly restored and dissolved. With the arrival of Napoleon III, consecutively president and emperor, Baron Haussmann was charged to create the Paris we know today, bulldozing vast swathes of the city to construct his rings of boulevards and networks of avenues that would facilitate troop manoeuvres should uprisings need to be quashed. As a result, Paris became one of the most modern cities of its time – a beacon of light in urban planning – and the stage was set for the ever-increasing population to pursue different preoccupations.  

Any such objectives were thwarted when, in 1870, Bismarck’s Prussians marched to Paris, bombarded the city and attempted to starve the population into submission. Following catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Paris plunged into the near civil war of the Commune, bloody events that deeply affected the nine-year-old Claude Debussy whose father was among the Communards arrested, sentenced and imprisoned as a result. Thus began the Third Republic that endured to the fall of France in 1940. 

Defeat and political strife cast a long shadow, the quest for a distinctive French national identity becoming an increasingly potent motivator. Paradoxically, this period marked one of the finest creative flowerings of French art and music. With the objective of asserting cultural as well as technological supremacy on the grandest scale, Paris mounted its fourth Exposition universelle in 1889 to commemorate the storming of the Bastille 100 years earlier, and in so doing launched an era of optimism that became known as the Belle Epoque. The newly constructed Eiffel Tower, the centrepiece of the Exposition, became an icon of the city’s modernism, celebrated in literature, painting and on film for decades to come; it remained the world’s tallest structure for more than 40 years. The world came to Paris and Paris became the world. The arrival of a host of exotic foreign exhibitions and musical performances fed French artistic hunger for the ‘other’ and provided a catalyst for new artistic invention; Debussy and the young Maurice Ravel discovered the Indonesian gamelan as well as music of the Russian Five (Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov), these encounters opening new musical horizons and shaping their subsequent creative development. Yet, the Exposition devoted the majority of its formal concerts to French composers including Bizet, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Auber, with the aim of demonstrating to the world – the Germans in particular – that their own musicians were at least as advanced as foreign counterparts.  

Ironically, it was the presence of the foreign in Paris that was to have the greatest impact on the younger generation of composers, not only music of the gamelan and the Russians but also of Wagner. While such enthusiasms would seem to counter wider objectives to assert national pride through promotion of French music, fascination for the foreign paradoxically stimulated many composers to define their own sense of Frenchness. 

As Henri Dutilleux has since remarked:  


    Whatever roots artists may have, they find new life
    through contacts with foreign influences and in so
    doing actually regenerate their national
    characteristics...given the qualities of the French
    (clarity, order, balance, perfection) no other people
    is so much in need of what is foreign. [1]

Wagnérisme proved a decisive influence on the young Debussy, whose close involvement with the literary Symbolists drew him towards that sensuous world of dreams and imaginings epitomised by Wagner. Baudelaire, a poet to whom Debussy was also attracted, had been an early advocate of Wagner’s music, Debussy notably combining affections in his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889), which are redolent of Wagner in both mood and musical style. Renoir too admired Wagner’s music and painted a rheumy-eyed portrait of the composer in 1882, shortly before Wagner’s death.  

By 1900 the Belle Epoque was in full swing; Paris was a city of sumptuous elegance and creative innovation. Modernism was all the rage, these years witnessing the birth of French aviation, motor sport, moving pictures, sound recording and colour photography, while in artistic fields the design style of art nouveau emerged, followed by Fauvism and Cubism. Montmartre was an established location for artists and musicians, including Erik Satie who started his career as a café pianist, as well as a centre for cabaret entertainments. These also flourished at the Folies Bergère in the more central 9th arrondissement, an area where many musicians traditionally resided. Paris celebrated its cultural and technological glories in another Exposition universelle, asserting additional prowess through hosting the 1900 Summer Olympic Games. (While, uniquely in the Olympics, live pigeons were used as targets in the shooting events, France’s many gold medals included three for the sedate game of croquet, which permitted the wearing of hats!) With peace and stability allowing the arts to flourish, Debussy became the centre of critical attention with the premières of his symbolist-inspired Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and of La mer (1905), often considered a quintessential example of impressionism. Ravel’s fascination for the exotic orient bore fruit in Shéhérazade (1903) – composed the same year he formed his group of artists, intellectuals and musicians Les Apaches.  

‘Impressionism’ is a term often associated with French music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is more problematic than it may first appear. Originating from Monet’s Impression: Sunrise (1872), the term was adopted by critics as an insult to Monet whose innovative approach to painting was rejected by the conservative establishment of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, forcing Monet and his associates (including Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Seurat and Sisley) to exhibit independently. The term nevertheless stuck and became a way of describing the group of painters, then composers, and ultimately reverted to being an insult, at least for Debussy whose Printemps (1887) was attacked for its ‘vague impressionism’. Debussy did not mince his words in reference to the term, writing to Jacques Durand: ‘I am trying to do “something different” – in a way realities – what the imbeciles call impressionism.’ [2] In one of his first articles for La Revue blanche Debussy described impressionism as a ‘useful  term of abuse’. [3] Degas also despised the label. The word ‘impressionism’ was associated with negative connotations of the vague and blurry; composers and painters labelled in this way were in fact concerned with the opposite – precision – albeit a different kind of precision from their predecessors. When studied closely, Monet’s paintings feature tiny precise brushstrokes that, when viewed from a distance, blend colours in a new way as he sought to capture transient effects of light. Debussy’s music, like that of Ravel, is anything but vague, all details of harmony, melody, rhythm and form being precisely constructed.  

The innovation of the Impressionist painters was to leave the confines of the studio for the open air – into nature – capturing light at a precise moments in time (mostly about 20 years before the first ‘impressionist’ music). There are, of course, substantial differences between painting – which is two-dimensional and static – and music, which exists only in time. The symbolist poet Mallarmé, Debussy’s friend and colleague, believed music to be superior to the visual arts as well as literature because it was able to ‘suggest’. This idea is central to Debussy’s imaginative reproduction of natural phenomena as in the orchestral Nocturnes, premièred in 1901 and inspired by a series of paintings by James McNeill Whistler. The first movement ‘Nuages’ evokes the fleeting shapes of clouds – soundless phenomena – as they are buffeted by wind and as the sun peeks through them. Although these images may be more easily conveyed in paint, Debussy’s restricted palette of orchestral colour and subtlety of rhythm become analogues for cloud colour, effects of light and movement. In this way Debussy does more than a painting through suggesting movement in time, as he remarked in 1913:  

    Music is the art that is in fact closest to Nature...
    painters...can capture only one of its aspects at a
    time...it is musicians alone who have the privilege of
    being able to convey all the poetry of night and
    day, of earth and sky. [4]

Debussy’s love of nature was a central commonality with impressionist painters who worked outdoors: themes of water, wind and other natural phenomena are commonplace in his works. Just as the Impressionists were open-air painters, Debussy can be considered an open-air composer. In the guise of Monsieur Croche, Debussy famously wrote:  

    I prefer those few notes an Egyptian shepherd plays
    on his flute: he is part of the landscape around him,
    and he knows harmonies that aren’t in books. The
    musicians among us hear only music written by
    trained composers, never the music of Nature
    herself. [5]    

While the image of the Egyptian shepherd, by definition an untrained ‘spontaneous’ musician, links with the exoticism Debussy encountered at the two Expositions universelles, it also evokes the unaccompanied flute solo that opens Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894), his flute piece Syrinx (1913), Ravel’s flute solos in Daphnis et Chloé (1912) those in Roussel’s Le festin de l’araignée (1912) and Honegger’s Danse de la chèvre (1921). For these composers, but Debussy especially, love of music and love of nature were one and the same.  

The flute has a special place in French musical life; not only was Paris for a time the principal centre of manufacture of woodwind instruments, but French performers set new standards in flute playing. Paul Taffanel, Professor of Flute at the Paris Conservatoire, founded the French flute school that dominated performance and composition for the instrument well into the 20th century, his many pupils including Philippe Gaubert and Marcel Moyse. Taffanel’s colleague Georges Barrère was the flute soloist in the first performance of Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune aged only 18, and later commissioned Varèse’s Density 21.5 (1936).  

Into the rich cultural melting pot that was Paris of the Belle Epoque came foreign artists and musicians, notably Spaniards and Russians. Their presence fuelled further French fascination for the new and exotic in the fields of art and fashion as much as in music. (The opulent oriental-inspired fashions of clothes designer Paul Poiret are such an example.) While Picasso’s Parisian discovery of African artefacts stimulated his development of Cubism, the composers Falla, Turina, Albéniz and Granados also gravitated northwards to the French capital, attracted by the innovations of Debussy and Ravel as well as their evocations of Spanish music. Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev came to Paris in 1906. After mounting exhibitions of Russian art as well as performances of Russian music, Diaghilev founded his Ballets Russes, which became the most groundbreaking and influential company of the 20th century. 

Following their first season in 1909, the Ballets Russes stimulated an explosion of orientalism through the innovative designs of Bakst, Benois and Goncharova, while the choreographies of Fokine, Nijinsky and Massine confirmed Diaghilev’s objectives for a radical new approach to dance, which he was unable to introduce in traditionalist Russia. Most significantly, Diaghilev introduced to Paris the music of Stravinsky with the premières of The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), works that caused a sensation with their sumptuous orchestration, Russian folk melodies and, in Petrushka, startling bitonality. With a unique ability to mine the artistic resources at his disposal in Paris, Diaghilev also initiated collaborations with resident composers, working with Ravel, Hahn, Debussy, Schmitt, Falla and Satie as well as Poulenc, Auric, Milhaud and Sauguet. But it was Stravinsky’s revolutionary score for The Rite of Spring (1913) that rocked the Parisian musical milieu to the core; the savage primitivism of the music and Nijinsky’s choreography provoked the infamous riot at the work’s première at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. This was indeed the shock of the new; Paris was on the brink, and the luxuriousness of the Belle Epoque was about to end with war looming on the horizon. 

The patriotic fervour ignited by the declaration of war on Germany – yet again – touched musicians as much as the wider population; the Franco-Prussian War was still a living memory. There were demonstrations on the Place de la Concorde, Parisian taxis began transporting soldiers and munitions to the Marne, and Ravel wanted to fight for his country. (He was eventually permitted to enlist as a truck driver.) Saint-Saëns, ever the activist in promoting French nationalist interests, published an article in L’Echo de Paris condemning German music and advocating that performances of Wagner (still popular in Paris) should be banned. There was a sense among the old musical guard, epitomised by Camille Saint-Saëns, Vincent d’Indy and Théodore Dubois, that the war offered an opportunity for French music to be cleansed of its decadent foreign influences, as witnessed by the founding in 1916 of the Ligue nationale pour la défense de la musique française which proffered an unashamedly nationalist agenda. To their eternal credit, Debussy and Ravel refused to join, being more nuanced in their support of ‘la cause française’. Debussy embarked on his series of Sonates pour divers instruments (1915–17) styling himself as ‘Claude Debussy, musicien français’, and headed the second movement of En blanc et noir (1915) – which presents a musical confrontation between La Marseillaise and Ein’ feste Burg – with text from François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France; the movement is dedicated to a friend killed in action. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (1914–17) is also dedicated to fallen friends, while his reference to the claveciniste was intended to evoke a past golden age of French national pride. Debussy similarly alluded to Couperin in his set of piano Etudes (1915). 

Although many venues were closed during the war, some concerts continued. The Princesse de Polignac mounted performances at her salon, and a series of fundraising concerts for injured soldiers was established at the Salle Gaveau. The war saw musicians making a virtue out of necessity by putting on concerts in unexpected spaces. One of these was 6 rue Huyghens, an artists’ studio in Montparnasse where music by Satie and his followers could be heard along with poetry readings and exhibitions. With its many cafés, Montparnasse became the new centre for artists and writers as well as composers. Fashion designers were also part of a rich artistic scene. Having established himself during the pre-war years, Paul Poiret could easily fit into the 21st century as a clothes designer who created perfume and accessory lines; more unusually, he and his sister, Germaine Bongard, were also great supporters of the arts. Their studio and neighbouring art gallery were the locations for avant-garde performances, which included a collaboration between Satie and the multitalented Max Jacob, who exhibited paintings in Poiret’s gallery and wrote plays that were performed in his venue. Satie’s contribution to this collaboration was musique d’ameublement – ‘furniture music’, which is not to be listened to attentively but experienced as part of the environment.

The new age arrived with Satie’s Parade (1917) – the work that made a decisive break with the past and ushered in L’Esprit nouveau. Written for the Ballets Russes on a scenario by rising star Jean Cocteau, with set designs by Picasso and choreography by Massine, Parade featured a new simplicity, celebrating everyday entertainments – music hall, cabaret, fairground and circus. In his programme note for the first performance, Guillaume Apollinaire described the crazy non-plot as ‘sur-réalisme’, coining a word that was to have far-reaching ramifications for literature and art. The somewhat opportunist Cocteau seized the moment to promote the ideas further in his pamphlet Le coq et l’arlequin (1918), the title punning both on his own name and the cock as the national symbol of France: Satie was proclaimed the new master, ‘Wagnerian fog’ and ‘Debussian mists’ were ‘out’, circus, music hall and jazz were ‘in’. These ideas characterised the early works of composers who had flocked around Satie as Les nouveaux jeunes, several of whom became the group known as Les Six following Henri Collet’s Comœdia article of 1920, ‘Les cinq russes, les six français et M. Satie’. The ‘Six’ – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre – were less concerned about forming a cohesive group than manipulating the ensuing publicity to promote their individual careers, producing only one joint work, Album des Six (1920). Their other collaboration, the satirical and nonsensical Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921), based on another Cocteau scenario, excluded Durey.  

With Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel and Milhaud’s jazzy, Brazilian-inspired Le boeuf sur le toit (1920) Les Années Folles were underway and a new foreign influence – jazz – was all the rage. Americans brought jazz to Paris not only with their troops, but also through visits of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin, and eventually via Hollywood films. Jazz was everywhere: in cafés, cinemas, at Josephine Baker’s riotous Revue nègre at the Folies Bergère and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, later inspiring Django Reinhardt’s and Stéphane Grappelli’s jazz quintet the Hot Club de France. Milhaud visited Harlem to experience the phenomenon at first hand, composing his blues-inspired La création du monde (1923) as a result. Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925) and Violin Sonata (1927) also contain many jazzy features as do his two piano concertos (1930-31), completed following his 1928 tour of the United States when he visited New Orleans as well as New York. Americans had a strong artistic presence in Paris, major personalities including the Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer), Sylvia Beach, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, George Antheil and Gertrude Stein, while many composers traversed the Atlantic to study at the newly founded Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau. The Cuban-French artist Francis Picabia also had close ties with the United States (as did the half-American Marcel Duchamp) and published in New York’s avant-garde journal 291, which inspired his Parisian Dada periodical 391, while the French Surrealist painter Pierre Roy provided several covers for American Vogue magazine. Edgard Varèse resettled in Paris in 1928, returning to his adopted home in New York in 1933. 

Despite France’s tenuous financial position and the very visible presence of thousands of mutilés de guerre, Paris had turned away from the horrors of World War One and embraced a new optimism; the Germans had been defeated at last, Alsace-Lorraine was regained and the Sarre had been seized. Poulenc’s debonair and light-hearted ballet Les biches (1923) epitomised the mood of the time, while the launch of Art Deco at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes of 1925 was L’Esprit nouveau made visible. In the field of fashion, Coco Chanel’s new designs equating comfort with elegance – notably her revolutionary suit and ‘little black dress’ – underlined the growing emancipation of women; Chanel No. 5 was the must-have fragrance of the age. 

In 1924, Paris again hosted the Summer Olympics in honour of the retiring founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, who designed the Five Rings symbol as well as the Olympic motto ‘faster, higher, stronger’. Although France came second overall on the medal table, notable events included the ‘Chariots of Fire’ race with Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Johnny Weissmuller’s gold medals in swimming, and the introduction of a closing ceremony. There were associated art competitions, although no medals were awarded for music. Works by sports-mad Honegger, the ballet Skating Rink (1922) and symphonic poem Rugby (1928), captured contemporary enthusiasm for the games.  

Women played an increasingly important role both as composers and performers during the first decades of the 20th century. Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition competition in 1913, her death at the age of 24 in 1918 robbing France of someone who would have been a major composer. Later female winners of the competition were Elsa Barraine in 1929 and Yvonne Desportes in 1932, although the best known of France’s woman composers was Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six. The war years saw the emergence of the all-female Quatuor Capelle and Quatuor  Jourdan-Morhange as well as the pianist Marguerite Long. Other stars included the violinist Ginette Neveu and pianist Yvonne Lefébure who came to prominence during the interwar years, as did the all-female orchestra of Jane Evrard. Lili Boulanger’s older sister Nadia Boulanger was also active as a conductor; after winding down her compositional interests in the early 1920s, she became one of the most celebrated teachers of her age and the rallying point for Americans in Paris including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Ned Rorem. The Polish-born harpsichordist Wanda Landowska established an important performing career in France and taught at the Schola Cantorum. Women were also making their presence felt in other fields; the model, cabaret artist and racing driver Hellé Nice won the first all-female Grand Prix at the Autodrome parisien in Linas-Montlhéry in 1929. 

The 1920s break from the past was fuelled by the influence of the Italian Futurists, the rise of Dada and Surrealism, and exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s iconoclastic painting of a moustache on the Mona Lisa. The technological advances of the war stimulated renewed interest in machines; while the Futurists celebrated the automobile and Milhaud found inspiration in a farm machinery catalogue for Machines agricoles (1919), Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923) honoured the locomotive. At the same time, Le Corbusier began publishing his ideas for a new architectural modernism inspired by liners, automobiles and aeroplanes in the journal L’Esprit nouveau; houses became ‘machines for living in’, chairs ‘machines for sitting on’.[6] Radical developments also took place in literature. While André Breton became the leader of the Surrealist movement, publishing the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in Paris in 1922, made Sylvia Beach’s bookstore Shakespeare and Company on the rue de l’Odéon an important meeting place for the literary avant-garde. 

Yet, despite these innovations, the 1920s also witnessed a rediscovery of the past. The neoclassical style had already taken root in Ravel’s 18th-century-inspired  opéra bouffe L’Heure espagnole (1909) and influenced Debussy’s late Sonatas, but came to the fore in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1920) based on fragments of Pergolesi. Poulenc, the most accomplished of Constant Lambert’s so-called ‘time-travellers’,[7] evokes a romanticised Mozart in Les biches, which includes a chorus singing 18th-century texts; his harpsichord concerto for Wanda Landowska, Concert champêtre (1928) contributed to the revival of the instrument and alludes to Scarlatti and Couperin. Both works were inspired by the fête galante paintings of early 18th-century Watteau – also much admired by Debussy. Milhaud engaged with neoclassical simplicity in his six Petites symphonies (1917–23) and later went on to compose many sonatas, string quartets and large-scale symphonic works. Other French composers such as Charles Koechlin rediscovered the symphony, although the most significant of these works by Roussel and Honegger appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Never entirely at ease with the divertissement style advocated by Cocteau, Honegger had already revealed a serious streak in his Violin Sonatas of 1918–19, while Le roi David (1921) epitomised the ‘back-to-Bach’ movement and was the first of his several oratorios.

Stravinsky presented a different interpretation of the form in Oedipus Rex (1926), setting text by Cocteau based on Sophocles. The choice of subject matter owed much to Cocteau’s enthusiasms for Greek mythology, which infused his poetry, plays and films, and was echoed by Milhaud in many works, including his Opéras-minutes (1927). Despite the exhortations of Cocteau, Debussy’s music was far from abandoned during this period; several composers including Satie, Falla, Ravel, Roussel and Stravinsky were commissioned to write short memorial pieces as a ‘Tombeau’ to the composer for the 1920 commemorative edition of Henry Prunières’ journal La Revue musicale. The same year, the pianist Marius-François Gaillard, a protégé of Debussy’s widow Emma Bardac, became the first to perform Debussy’s complete piano music in public, and in 1928 conducted a gala concert to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Debussy’s death, premièring his completions of the Triomphe de Bacchus and Ode à la France

The optimism of the age stimulated an unusual spirit of generosity and artistic conscience more often associated with the 1930s’ group La Jeune France. Aiming to counter the overt nationalism of the war years, the composer-pianist Jean Wiéner introduced Schoenberg’s music to Paris in his Concerts Salades, so-called because of their mix of new music by French and foreign composers. Milhaud conducted extracts from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) in December 1921 and the work’s first complete French performance at the Salle Gaveau in January 1922. Further Schoenberg performances followed at the Concerts Colonne, and by 1931 Berg’s music also began to be heard in Paris. Schoenberg later visited Paris; Poulenc visited Schoenberg in Vienna in 1922. Other foreign visitors that were to have an impact on Parisian musical life included Bartók, Gershwin and Villa-Lobos.  

The effects of the Wall Street Crash hit Europe by 1930, the ensuing economic depression bringing a new creative seriousness in its wake: the storm clouds of war were brewing. Yet, Paris continued to celebrate its prowess and in 1931 mounted the Exposition coloniale internationale which could be considered one of the final flings of the ‘exotic display’ attitude to non-Western cultures. Indeed opposition to the exhibition was expressed by the Surrealists, by authors including André Gide (whose travelogues Voyage au Congo (1927) and Le retour du Tchad (1928) tell of exploitation of Africans by colonial masters promoting their business interests), and by the Communist Party through the medium of L’Humanité. Each of France’s colonies was represented at this exhibition, which combined cultural display and commercial advertisement. The exhibits offered opportunities for serious encounters with foreign cultures and fuelled French fascination for the exotic in a new generation of composers; Olivier Messiaen attended the Exposition, as did André Jolivet (almost certainly with Varèse), both attracted by the sacred and ritual aspects of non-European cultures, which they subsequently incorporated, albeit in different ways, into their own music. 

Messiaen and Jolivet became friends during the early 1930s, drawn together by their common interests in the spiritual and sacred. Admiring the primitive and incantatory aspects in Jolivet’s music, as well as his approach to rhythm and percussive effects, Messiaen wrote the preface for Jolivet’s piano work Mana (1935), which established a musical language that owed as much to Schoenberg as to Jolivet’s studies with Varèse. Although Varèse returned to New York in 1933, his five-year sojourn in Paris saw the completion of his percussion work Ionisation (1931) as well as most of Ecuatorial (1934).  

In 1936, Messiaen and Jolivet came together with mutual friends Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier to form the compositional group La Jeune France whose aim was a return to spiritual and humanist values. Mounting their inaugural concert at the Salle Gaveau on 3 June 1936, their manifesto opened: ‘As the conditions of life become more and more hard, mechanical and impersonal, music must bring ceaselessly to those who love it its spiritual violence and its courageous reactions.’[8] Also declaring that new music was to be promoted with ‘a spirit of sincerity, generosity and artistic conscience’, their first concert included Tailleferre’s Ballade for piano and orchestra as well as their own works – Messiaen’s Hymne au Saint-Sacrement (1932) and Jolivet’s Danse incantatoire (1936); they were perhaps not as distant from Les Six as their publicity suggested. Messiaen was already established as an organist and deeply Catholic composer, as witnessed by his first orchestral work Les Offrandes oubliées (1930) and La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) for organ, while Jolivet was a humanist for whom music had a magical, incantatory spiritual power, as evidenced in Mana and his Cinq danses rituelles (1939). But Jolivet reflected the contemporary mood when he insisted in his programme note for Cinq incantations (1936) for flute that the work ‘is not a pastiche of Eastern music or a reference to musics of so-called “primitive” peoples’: 19th-century views of ‘exoticism’ were increasingly discredited. Although the majority of La Jeune France activities took place during the 1930s and 1940s, they continued to mount concerts as a group until 1966.

The new spirituality of the 1930s also resonated with Poulenc whose compositional direction took a decisive turn towards the sacred in 1936 following the tragic death in a car accident of his friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Deeply affected by the news, Poulenc undertook a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna at Rocamadour and there rediscovered his Catholic faith, the immediate fruits of which were his Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936) and Mass in G (1937).  

Both Messiaen and Jolivet were enthusiastic composers for the newly invented ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard-based instrument invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928. Many of their works feature the instrument as a soloist, not least Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48) and Jolivet’s Ondes Martenot Concerto (1947), while Varèse incorporated it in his Paris revision of Amériques (1929) and in Ecuatorial. Composed for the son et lumière spectacles at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux (1937) requires no fewer than six ondes Martenot, and was later reworked as the ‘Louange à l’éternité de Jésus’ in the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (1941). This final Parisian pre-war Exposition dedicated to art and technology commissioned many French composers to provide music for their celebrations, but is mainly remembered for the political tensions surrounding the event. The Spanish Pavilion, set up in the midst of their Civil War by the Republican government, proclaimed the tragedies of war exhibiting Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937). The Soviet and German Pavilions, prophetically placed opposite each other, asserted their power and achievement: the Soviet Pavilion was topped with a statue thrusting the hammer and sickle, while the German Pavilion displayed the symbols of the Nazi state – eagle and swastika.

It goes without saying that Parisian musical life was deeply affected by the outbreak of World War Two. Musicians including Messiaen and Jolivet were mobilised. With the Occupation, the French Radio Orchestra moved out of Paris and Radio Paris fell under Nazi control. Concert promoters and journalists worked under censorship, and Jewish composers were proscribed (Milhaud fled France for the US in 1940). Messiaen was taken prisoner and the extraordinary story of the composition and première of his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps in a prisoner of war camp is well known. While the Nazi occupiers were eager to parade German music and the principal German musical institutions before Paris – the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Berlin and Vienna Opera all visited the French capital – the French were also determined to show that Parisian cultural life could flourish. Indeed, concerts were never more popular: Gilles and Jean-Robert Ragache, authors of a study on cultural life during the Occupation, note that the public ‘want[ed] to get away from the obsessions of the present time.’[9] Performances of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique were rallying points for critics and composers in Paris; its first complete recording was made in the most challenging of conditions in 1941, conducted by Roger Désormière, and is still a benchmark. Both the Triton and Pléiade concert organisations aimed to promote contemporary music and neglected French music of the past; as in World War One, these events often took place in unconventional venues such as galleries and were necessarily semi-private affairs. Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos was premièred at the fourth Pléiade concert on 10 May 1943. 

The Liberation of August 1944 engendered a period of optimism as well as cleansing. The French purification trials (Epuration légale) began immediately following the fall of Vichy, several prominent musicians being investigated and sentenced for their collaborationist activities, including the pianist Alfred Cortot, the composer Florent Schmitt and the critic Emile Vuillermoz. But it was also a period of new discovery characterised by an explosion of musical pluralism both in concerts and radio broadcasting, where both Daniel-Lesur and Henri Dutilleux held influential positions. (Dutilleux, particularly, had been active in French musical resistance organisations during the Occupation.) Composers previously banned, including those of the Second Viennese School, were rediscovered along with the music of Bartók, their music exerting an important influence on French composers of the post-war years. Outside musical circles, Parisian optimism was proclaimed to the world at large by the launch of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ in 1947. Despite the considerable privations and sufferings of the Occupation, the end of the war was a period of renewal, discovery and the opening of new musical horizons that affirmed Messiaen, Boulez and Dutilleux as the dominant figures in French music of the next 50 years and beyond. 

Further Reading