Jann Pasler. Writing Through Music. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008. (esp. chapters 4, 5, 7, and 9)

Deconstructing d’Indy or the Problem of a Composer’s Reputation:

Pasler argues that scholars have misconstrued Vincent d’Indy’s actions, disciples, and even enemies in an order to construct a reputation that prevents us from understanding significant aspects of his life and music (2). Although he ultimately gained a reputation as a contrarian, Pasler argues that d’Indy was a man of alliance as much as opposition, in part because in the 1880s and 1890s, republican leaders engaged with the diversity he represented as a stimulus for progress.

She takes issue with Jane Fulcher primarily, who has created a series of binaries between d’Indy and the government of the Third Republic and the state-sponsored Conservatoire: Catholicism vs. secularism, counterpoint vs. harmony, symphonic vs. operatic; music of the Ancien Regime vs. contemporary composers. Fulcher, according to Pasler, “takes the opposition [between Scholists and Conservatoire students] at false value in her portrayal of the musical world of Paris as characterized by ideological battles” or what Fulcher calls ENTER (43).

First, In portraying Conservatoire director Theodore DuBois (1896-1905) as d’Indy’s strongest opponent, the composer, his successors, and recent scholars have given short shrift to what they shared. Both were interested in Gregorian chant and in chansons populaires of the same region. Well before it was taught at the Scholastic’s, Dubois published l’accompagnment pratique du plainchant. Both wrote liturgical music for use in Catholic services and their correspondences demonstrate that they held a much more cordial relationship than we have been led to believe.

Second, Scholists such as Louis Laloy have asserted that harmony was not taught at the Scholastic’s and that counterpoint was supposed to be enough for Scholists. However, the Scholastic’s, like the Conservatoire, did begin students’ training with harmony. D’Indy published da collection of exercises for harmony exams at the Schola (cent themes d’harmonie, 1907-1908). Likewise, Charles Lenpveu’s cent legons d’harmonie shows how students might use permutations of a two-bar contrapuntal model to connect one part to another and D’Indy recognized DuBois’s talent as a teacher of counterpoint in their correspondences.

Third, The Republican Minister of Public Instruction solicited d’Indy to help reform the Conservatoire curriculum. The committee struck down some of his ideas, such as separating symphonic composition (of which he was fond) from dramatic composition but agreed that the next composer hired at the Conservatoire should be a symphonist.

Fourth, even if d’Indy gave more attention to pre-Revolutionary music history and integrated it into his composition classes more than was done at the Conservatoire, many of his educational policies were extensions of Conservatoire traditions, not their opposites, as has recently been suggested. In 1891 Ambroise Thomas, director of the Conservatoire, created a history and aesthetics class. Consequently, d’Indy, and his biographer Leon Vallas have overstated the Schola’s importance in introducing early music to French audiences. When d’Indy was a young composer, excerpts from operas by both Rameau and Gluck were in many pianists’ repertoires and amateur choruses performed cantatas by Handel and Bach.

Despite this attempt at creating a contrarian image, d’Indy was much less marginal and removed from republican institutions and their ideologies and during the raillement of the 1890s, when conservative republics and Catholics aligned, the government turned to d’Indy as someone who understood the importance of tradition and could help reform pedagogy at the Conservatoire. Although he did not share their political convictions, d’Indy, like his republican colleagues wrote music for official ceremonies and other activities subsidized by the government, such as his Cantate pour l’inauguration dune statue (1893) and Ode a Valence (1897) to commemorate President Felix Faure.

The Musical Sources of Cocteau’s Identity

Pasler argues that Jean Cocteau, like d’Indy, was concerned with his image and its meaning and argues that, through a conscious change in his musical tastes, Cocteau distinguished himself from the conventional social circles in which he and his family moved without having to separate himself from his milieu. What he found in new music, particularly in Les Six– an attitude of contradiction toward predecessors and of confrontation toward the public – allowed him to forge much of what we think of as Cocteau.

His upperclass upbringing and trips to the conservative Opéra meant that he did not initially engage with the more progressive and modern Concerts Lamoureux, Concerts Colonne, Opéra Comique, or Société Nationale. Cocteau either never heard up-and-coming performances by d’indy, Fauré, or Debussy, or vehemently criticized them when he did. Rather, his family’s trips to the Opera and Comedie-Francaise routinely allowed them to hear Beethoven, Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner.

As a writer, Cocteau knew he needed to stand out from the crowd and to achieve some sort of “glory.” But after five years of public life in 1912 he suffered a devastating review of his poetry in the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise. He turned to new music in order to distinguish himself without separating himself from his aristocratic milieu.

Stravinsky was his first love. After hearing Le Sacre de Printemps, Cocteau came to define originality as the contradiction of preceding expressions, and the creator as someone who contradicts his predecessors.” He discovered that “the true creator must contradict and the next masterpiece can only be the violent contradiction of the preceding masterpiece.”

From Satie, Cocteau learned not only the value of simplicity, but also the value of anonymity and of an empty path where each one may leave his own footprints. Satie also encouraged Cocteau to turn away from the narrowly defined milieux of aristocrats and their obsession with glory and towards the proletarian milieux and, especially, popular music. He turned away from Louis XVI and towards the painters of Montparnasse and jazz.

His work (or really lack thereof) with these composers helped him clarify his own aesthetic goals and find a revolutionary banner that distinguished himself from his contemporaries. She intervenes in understandings of Cocteau that fail to realize that he was “a friend of the group, not its mentor” and argues that “he did not appear to have any influence on their composers per se.”

Pelleas and Power: Forces Behind the Reception of Debussy’s Opera

The premiere of Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melisande (1902), provoked heated discussions in the popular press and critical reviews for well over two weeks. Pasler looks at four dozen reviews of Pelleas during the first season to argue that the controversy was fueled more by the clash of values held by the various groups in the opera’s first audiences than by the intrinsic nature of the work itself.

She finds that the political orientation of the newspapers and the social class of their readers present two sets of potential forces that the critics must have taken into account and the newspapers’ rejection of, or receptivity to, Pelleas aligned directly with their politics.

Monarchist papers like Le Gaulois and La Gezette de France attacked the opera viciously for its lack of form while republican ones like Le Petit Parisien supported it. Anti-Dreyfus papers such as Le Petit Journal took a negative view while the pro-Dreyfus Revue de Paris urged its readers to give it a chance. Writing for bourgeois socialites, the Gil Blas were reluctant to give much praise, but when writing for writers and art-lovers, the Mercure de France were full of acclamation for the most part. Finally, critics who were aspiring artists and composers might not have given the opera a positive review out of their own securities, but even Monarchist sympathizing composers such as Vincent d’Indy felt secure enough to admire something that actually challenged their own compositional approaches.

The audience themselves approached the opera differently, according to how they viewed the Opéra-Comique (where the piece debuted). High society and “snobs” defined their elitism on a certain kind of artistic tradition of the “ melodic emotions” of the music of the Ancien Regime , and they express disdain at Debussy’s rejection of traditions. There were others, however, that looked to Debussy’s opera as a means of escaping their daily routines and of being transported into an enchanted world. This praise took almost a religious quality, similarly to how Wagnerians viewed Wagner and his attempt to create a new religion in the opera house. Others, like La Gazette de France called Debussy’s music “nihilist” and the “enchanted world” he created was decadent.

Finally, how you viewed French nationalism also influenced your reception. Henri Bauer wrote “Finally, someone who will liberate French music from Wagnerian oppression!” While others called his music “anarchy,” a musical term that also critiqued a growing anarchist music in the early 1900s. Anarchists typically tended to be pro-Dreyfus, while the authors leveling criticism tended to value Wagner’s logic and “hierarchy” and, whether or not related to their praise of Wagner, also tended to be anti-Dreyfus as well.

She concludes, however, that the categories of Monarchists/aristocrats/haute bourgeoise/anti-Dreyfusards/socialites/conservative (against) vs. republicans/businessmen/socialists/Dreyfusards/professional writers/art-lovers/progressive musical public (for) does not map so easily. Sometimes journals took a stance that might not entirely align with their politics, like when Le Soleil, a monarchist paper, reviewed the opera favorably, perhaps because it was read by businessmen as opposed to nobility. Wagner fans, such as Adolphe Jullien of Le Journal des debate, might also like Pelleas.

Nevertheless, “the number of extramusical issues capable of affecting how a critic formulated his message was enormous”

Race, Orientalism, and Distinction in the Wake of the “Yellow Peril”

After agreeing in 1902 to side with the Russians in their Far Eastern imperialism, the French watched in horror as the Japanese unexpectedly took on their ally and demonstrated the capacity to defeat the west. Discourses about “The East” and Orientalism became complicated. After the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905, it was no longer unambiguous which “race” or “culture” (East or West?) was stronger.

To see how composers responded to this possible new conception of “The Orient,” Pasler looks at Albert Roussel and Maurice Delage’s travels to India, a non-French, non-threatening, colonial hold. Their experiences and recollections differed wildly, a result, she argues, that arose from their different Western preoccupations.

She focuses on where Roussel taught, the Schola Cantorum, and argued that its royalist nationalist, rural landowning clientele (who didn’t care much for colonialism anyways) and conservative aesthetic tendencies discouraged Roussel from engaging with culture like Delage. Delage, on the other hand, was a modernist who sought to innovate in an internationalist context.

Roussel, who traveled in 1909 on honeymoon conceptualized Indian music as Western by calling it a chanson populaire. The Schola’s provincial clientele defined an idea of progress not as linear but as a “spiral” and consequently considered not only Gregorian chant, but also chansons popoulaires to be a “collective inspiration” and important repository of their past. Yet while they found French chansons populaires “nourishment,” they became anxious at the comparison between musique exotique and chansons populaires.

The Schola's interest in “folk music” but only certain nationalities of “folk” influenced Roussel, whose notebook suggests more interest in writing a composition (ultimately Evocations [1910]) during his trip than in recording what Indian music he heard. The tunes he transcribed were meant to serve as a reminder of what he heard, not as a faithful reproduction of the idiosyncrasies and different concepts of timbre and intonation. However, Pasler notes that the third movement of Evocations, which repeats a fakir devotional psalm like a typical fakir might do, suggests Roussel heard more than he actually noted in his sketchbook.

In contrast, Maurice Delage was not a fully formed composer when he embarked on his voyage to India in 1912. A participant in the the Société Nationale, and then a founder of the rival Société Musicale Independente (which played more foreign music), Delage ultimately began to beyond national borders for new ideas. Pasler argues “many of Delage’s attitudes toward Indian music were rooted in his modernist inclinations,” an inclination much different from Roussel. Although Delage can’t help but refer to Western musical practices and concepts in his description of Indian music, his focus is on the Western schema’s limitations to describe what he’s actually hearing and interest in preserving the “authenticity” of Indian musical traditions, whether folk or elite. He was also interested in the timbral richness of Indian music, in the sound over the syntax. This interest in sound vibrations, nuance, fluidity, and spontaneity underlies the “impressionist” or “modernist” style and differs markedly from the Scholist focus on solid construction, linear clarity, and rigorous logic.

Pasler looks Delage’s Quatre Poemes Hindous (1912-1913) and shows how Delage came back with a recording (1905) by sitarist Imad Khan to inform his work. Delage used open- and closed-mouth singing that he heard in India to forge a personal style and borrows much thematic material from the B side of the Khan recording. She concludes that Deluge better than his contemporaries in reproducing the spirit and style of the music of North and South India.