Lost Paradises: Music and the Aesthetics of Symbolism

By Palmer, Peter | Musical Times, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Lost Paradises: Music and the Aesthetics of Symbolism


Palmer, Peter, Musical Times


IN HIS CONTRIBUTION to The concise encyclopedia of Symbolism, Francis Claudon observed over 25 years ago that an article on Symbolism as an artistic phenomenon was lacking from several renowned dictionaries of music.1 There is still no such article in Grove: the entry on 'Symbolism' in the latest edition is devoted to the symbolism of numbers. The 1986 edition of The new Harvard dictionary of music contented itself with a revision of its previous article on 'Impressionism1 - even though Stefan Jarocinski's groundbreaking study Debussy, a impresioni^m isynmboli^rn had appeared in English in 1976. On the other hand, the subject volumes of Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart now include a seven-column article on late 19th-century 'Symbolismus' by Christoph Flamm. This reflects the growing international interest in Symbolism in recent years.

Flamm begins his article by discussing Symbolism in literature. The term as a stylistic concept, he states, has established itself particularly with regard to French and Russian literature (from 1886 to 1896 and from around 1894 to 1914 respectively). Constituting a reaction against naturalist and materialist tendencies, French Symbolism was manifested chiefly in poetry, and it blossomed in the Parisian gatherings convened by Mallarmé. Flamm does not fail to mention the importance of Wagner as a catalyst in literary Symbolism. Short-lived though it was, the Revue wagnérienne that Edouard Dujardin founded with Téodor de Wyzewa provided a focus for the movement.

The Symbolist concept in art history, Flamm goes on to argue, is both broader in territorial scope and less easy to define. It embraces the most diverse treatments of imaginary, psychological and metaphysical subjects. This point is generally acknowledged by art historians, who have described Symbolism as a mind-set rather than a school, style or technique. Furthermore, the popular use of the term emphasised the irrational features of turnof-the century art at the expense of formal categorising, thus ignoring that element of structural innovation which made Symbolist art, like Symbolist literature, prophetic of future developments.

In the third and final part of his MGG article, Flamm turns to Symbolism and music. The problems involved in transferring stylistic concepts to music from the other arts are well-known, yet the associations between art and music in Symbolism are so widespread that reciprocal influences 'cannot be seriously denied'. But there has been little investigation of whether musical construction ever appropriated features of Symbolist poetry and aesthetics. For the most part, the analogies hitherto proposed between literary Symbolism and music have been based upon external biographical links; upon the incorporation of Symbolist texts (as in Debussy's opera Pelléas etMélisande or Faure's song-cycleZ.a Chanson d'Eve); and upon synaesthetic ventures like Schoenberg's early works for the stage. Schoenberg does not have an individual entry in the Encyclopedia of Symbolism. It is, however, acknowledged by Francis Claudon that he strongly resembled Scriabin in his underlining of Symbolism's 'most revolutionary aspects'.

For Flamm, Scriabin's compositions are 'undoubtedly of the greatest structural relevance to Symbolism'. In addition, his new harmonic system reflects the modernist impulse in Symbolist art. A similar radicalism - albeit one leading to very different results - can be seen in the quasi-liturgical Rosicrucian music of Erik Satie. Created during his stint as house composer to a group of artists which included Emile Bernard, Fernand Khnopff and Ferdinand Hodler, it paralleled their own esoteric combination of the archaic and the avant-garde. Flamm contrasts these thorough-going manifestations of Symbolism with Alexander Gedike's superficially enigmatic Prélude for piano op.2o, a musical paraphrase of Maurice Maeterlinck's drama Les Aveugles. Flamm's conclusion reads [in my translation]:

Understood as a combination of innovatory form (tending towards abstraction) and transcendent contents, phenomena such as Scriabin's late style could certainly be aptly described as Symbolism; this would further imply lines of tradition coming directly trom the other arts and exerting a decisive influence on the composer's aesthetics. …

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