French Music (1870 - 1945) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

French Music (1870 - 1945)

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The directorship of L'Ecole Royale de Musique et de Declamation was held but briefly by Francois-Joseph Gossec from 1786 until the revolutionary turmoil of 1789.

On 3 August, 1795, the Convention Nationale created the Conservatoire de Musique et de Declamation in Paris under the directorship of Bernard Sarrette to be 'la plus vaste école de ce genre créée en Europe'. Five inspectors: Gossec, Grety, Mehul, Leseur and the Italian, Cherubini, were appointed, and 110 professors recruited. A steady stream of student composers began to study there, and in 1803, the Concourse de Rome de l'Academie de France convened and awarded 23-year-old Albert Androt with the very first Grand Prix de Rome. The chance to pursue his bursaried studies at the Villa Medici, and the commissions to come following this great honour should have launched his musical career in grand style. Had he not suffered a fatal haemorrhage the following year, he may have become better known.

More or less every year after that, another student would be helped towards future greatness, and many subsequently came to make a good living from their music. And yet very few of their names are today remembered, and German composers such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms dominated the Romantic period, as their earlier compatriots did the Classical. The French Romantic School never materialised, and a reason for this failing lies in the roll call of Directeurs du Conservatoire.

  • Bernard Sarrette (1795 - 1814)
  • Maquis de la Rouziere (1815 - 1815)
  • Francois-Louis Perne (1816 - 1822)
  • Luigi Cherubini (1822 - 1842)
  • Esprit Auber (1842 - 1871)

Cherubini and Auber were competent enough composers in their own field, but they were not figures around whom a recognisable and independent national style could develop. Light and Comic Opera was commercially very successful in Paris throughout the Romantic Period, and with the Conservatoire and associated bodies dominated by composers of that style, there seems to have been little room for anything else. Composers who did not conform to the popular and commercial tastes of the era, such as Gounod, Bizet, Franck and Saint-Saëns remained peripheral and disunited.

The name that perhaps should have appeared as Directeur in 1842 is that of Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869). His Symphonie Fantastique, written in 1830 and just three years after the death of Beethoven, displayed orchestral texture and rhythmic invention that was very much ahead of its time. Greatly admired by Liszt, it is perhaps the outstanding French composition of the half-century prior to 1870. It was also distinctly French in style. Yet as he composed perhaps his last major work Les Troyens a Carthage in 1864, his genius was recognised outside France but barely acknowledged within it.

The contrast with his close contemporary Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857) is startling. A national hero within his own lifetime, the emerging generation of Russian composers, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Balakirev had a clear starting point from which the Russian Nationalist school could blossom. It was the Conservatory of Saint Petersburg that led the way into the 20th Century.

Just as the political events of 1789 determined the course of French music through the late Classical and Romantic periods, the political upheavals of 1870 were to seal off the empty room of French Romanticism, and open a new door in preparation for a true Nationalist. Step forward the organist of La Madeleine, one Camille Saint-Saëns...

Composers of this Period

Major Historical Influences

Those interested in the details of the politics of this time should consult the Guide Entry on The Rise of the French Third Republic.

The Franco-Prussian War

In the years leading up to 1870, France's international influence had declined. The emperor, Napoleon III, attempted to reverse this decline by initiating a war against Prussia. This brief conflict, lasting from 19 July, 1870, until 10 May, 1871, was disastrous for France. The emperor was captured, the army defeated, and a humiliating surrender imposed. During the war Paris was besieged, and the citizens suffered great hardship. The French people blamed their fate on the traditional style of government, and many rebelled against it. While the war was in progress, the people of Paris rebelled, establishing the Paris Commune, which governed the city until it was violently overthrown by French government troops at the end of May 1871.

These events mark a turning point in French culture, clearly visible in the literature and arts. In music, those composers active before the war, such as Franck and d'Indy, wrote in a classical style, regarding music as a discipline, rather than an emotional expression. They applied carefully-constructed patterns of rhythms and tonality to create subtle effects. This music was appreciated by sophisticated listeners, but it was constructed as an exercise in technical prowess, rather than to deliver a message, or communicate the composers' feelings.

Later French composers inherited this tradition. One group, the Nationalists, such as Saint-Saëns, Lalo and Fauré, developed on the Berlioz tradition, but in the music they composed after the war, they changed that traditional style significantly. There was a search for a new French style, and to establish a new national identity. The following works are typical examples of this emerging new style, more modern, yet still recognisable as music of the Romantic period:

  • Saint-Saëns - Symphony number 3 (The Organ Symphony) - 1886
  • Fauré - Song Lydia - 1865
  • Fauré - Requiem - 1887
  • Lalo - Symphonie Espagnole - 1875
  • Lalo - Opera Le Roi d'Ys - 1888

The other recognisable group was the opera composers, namely Bizet, Gounoud, Delibes and Massenet. Later in the period, towards the end of the century, a group called the Franckists evolved from Saint-Saëns's Societe Nationale, forming a distinct symphonic school. Their members included Franck, Chausson and d'Indy, composing Romantic works such as:

  • Franck - Six Organ Pieces - 1862
  • Franck - Symphonic Variations - 1888
  • Franck - Symphony in D minor - 1889
  • Chausson Poeme 1875
  • d'Indy - Symphony number 1 On a French mountain air - 1886
  • d'Indy - Opera Fervaal - 1897

Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc began their work in this period, and so were educated in the newer style. They pursued the search for something 'typically French', but their ideas diverged. Ravel was strongly influenced by his teacher, Fauré, and so constitutes the modern end of the 'Nationalist' thread. Debussy was strongly influenced by Impressionism, something that Ravel followed to a much lesser extent, while Satie was a declared anti-impressionist and iconoclast.

The Great War

The new paths taken by French music as well as other arts over the turn of the century were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Much of France became a battlefield, and the nation was often in despair, fearing that they would be on the losing side. Strong feelings about the war permeate the music written at that time. One poignant example is Ravel's composition Homage at the Tomb of Couperin, which is described here.

After the war, which first exposed French culture to American influences, composers became interested in Jazz - an influence which can be seen in the works of Debussy, Ravel and Satie. Debussy used jazz techniques such as the pentatonic scale and chords with major 7ths and 9ths, giving his pieces a jazz-like feel. Ravel took the same jazz chords, but applied them classically, making them sound more restful and integrated with contemporary French music.

World War II

Shortly after this war started, France was overrun, and the government collapsed. This seems to mark the end of the period where French music had its own distinctive style, with the exception of the work of Francis Poulenc. His music, up until 1936, had been light and uncomplicated, but after that it became intense and religious in character. Poulenc remained in France during the German occupation. He took the freedom poems of Paul Elouard - one of these, Liberte was the poem of the French Resistance movement - and set them to music, creating a piece called La figure humaine (1943). While he was holding secret rehearsals of this work in France, he smuggled a score to England, where the BBC Singers rehearsed it. In 1945 the BBC premiered it as a live broadcast. When Paris was liberated later in 1945, the BBC sent some singers to France, where they combined with Poulenc's choir to perform the work in Notre Dame cathedral.

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