Into the Net

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Into the Net


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


Into the net The composer as intellectual: music and ideology in France 1914-1940 Jane F. Fulcher Oxford University Press (New York & Oxford, 2005) xiv, 473pp; £45. ISBN 0 19 517473 9.

COMPOSERS WHO HAVE MUCH TO EXPRESS cannot spare time for translating it into other terms than those of their own art ' pronounced Donald Tovey, while Elisabeth Lutyens expressed herself more earthily: 1If you're a composer then bloody well compose!' Indeed, this is my immediate riposte to Jane F. Fulcher's latest volume, The composer as intellectual: music and ideology in France 1914-1940 - the successor to French cultural politics and music: from the Dreyfus affair to the First World War (reviewed in MT, Spring 2000) - which made me realise all the more forcefully that great music is the autonomous bird that ultimately escapes the intellectualist birdcatcher's net. To take two outstanding if very different examples: just as Wagner's music dramas broke free from his own dogmatic theories of Oper unddrama* so have Shostakovich's finest works, closely enmeshed as they were in the ideology and political pressures of Stalinist Russia, triumphantly outlived the fall of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it's rather ironical that one of the few major thinkers to make an appearance in Ms Fulcher's exhaustive study actually undermines her thesis, as she would have learned if she had added Isaiah Berlin's celebrated essay on Georges Sorel (included in Against the current, Oxford, 1981) to her reading list:

Sorel regards values, both moral and aesthetic, though their forms and applications may alter, as being independent of the march of events. Hence he regards sociological analyses of works of art, whether by Diderot or Marxist critics, as evidence of their profound lack of aesthetic sense, blindness to the mystery of the act of creation, and to the part that art plays in the life of mankind.

This could well be said of Ms Fulcher herself. But it's not the case, in my own view, that lier approach is entirely invalid, one-sided as it is, given the French obsession with ideas and the stultifying dominance of the Third Republic's rigid higher education system (as it was then). Her relentless seriousness at least provides a perspective to counterbalance the opposite but common perception of the period as essentially superficial, of 'high jinks' and lesbian romps (the latter featured in the entertaining biographical writings of the late lamented Michael de Cossart). Rather, as I complained previously, the sheer information overload, lack of selection and proportion, endless repetition and inflation, the drabness of the writing and complete absence of humour or irony may satisfy the Protestant (or PhD) work ethic at its most stringent, but it alienates the civilised reader and severely compromises what there is of value in her work. In marked contrast, Roger Nichols's The harlequin years: music in Paris 1917-1929 (London, 2002), duly listed in her bibliography, provides a excellent model of concise witty writing and good organisation.

The composer as intellectual opens with the Great War, with the French state propaganda machine in full blast. Previous political factions of the right and left which had so poisoned the political life of the nation were to be brought under the big tent of the union sacrée, projecting its own interpretations and meanings on to musical discourse. At the Paris Opéra, the innovative director Jacques Rouché deliberately presented works by composers on opposite sides of the Dreyfus case, notably d'Indy, Charpentier and Bruneau. The narrowly exclusive Ligue pour la défense de la musique française existed alongside Maurras's powerfully reactionary Action française movement, which emphasised the indigenously French aesthetic as essentially classical. Intellectual cross-currents nevertheless could not be entirely suppressed. Vincent d'lndy, still a highly influential and independent figure whose patriotism was never for a moment in doubt, continued to defend and perform the great German masters as part of a 'universal' tradition - Wagner he regarded as cleansing French opera of its Jewish Meyerbeerian 'taint'. …

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