French Music: From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure

French Music: From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure

French Music: From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure

French Music: From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure

Excerpt

French music is not generally popular in England, for it lacks the quality which most endears any work to the public. It lacks, that is to say, a strongly flavoured emotional content, either moral and uplifting as in Beethoven or introvert and lowering as in Tchaikovsky. In general the musical public probably agrees with W. J. Turner, who thought Debussy a purveyor of 'first-class bonbons and you can't live on bonbons all the time . . . and as for Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Dukas, Roussel and all the other French composers whose music I have heard, they seem to me to be merely clever'. In the same essay Turner stated his major premiss, one which the majority of French artists of all descriptions would reject. The function of art, he writes, is to reveal the soul of man; and he goes on to say, quite truly, that if this be admitted Debussy's is a 'singularly one-sided, incomplete and inadequate revelation. . . . It is the sublimity of the soul that makes the music of Beethoven and Bach so immeasurably greater than that of Wagner and Debussy.'

This is not a book on aesthetics, a treatise on the sublime or a study of racial characteristics; and it is not my wish to contradict Turner's contention. But it is important to grasp the fact that, for good or for evil his view of art is not generally held in France, by composer or by public; and that to seek in French music primarily for a revelation of the composer's soul or for marks of the sublime is to look for something which the French consider a by-product. This instinctive shying away from the obviously great, highsounding aims no more betokens artistic cynicism or impotence than the refusal to make a display of personal temperament and characteristics argues a lack of personality or character. The French composer is consciously concerned with the two data which no one can question--his intelligence and his senses. Music has remained in France longer than elsewhere the art of arranging sounds in agreeable and intellectually satisfying patterns. Every composer worthy of his name will inevitably reveal himself, his character, in his music; but this revelation is a by-product to the French, whereas to Turner and the majority of English music- lovers it is of primary importance. The French composer is unhappy with such a word as sublimity, which suggests to him a . . .

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