French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style

French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style

French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style

French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style

Synopsis

This is the first book-length study of the rich operatic repertory written and performed in France during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Steven Huebner gives an accessible and colorful account of such operatic favorites as Manon and Werther by Massenet, Louise by Charpentier, and lesser-known gems such as Chabrier's Le Roi malgre lui and Chausson's Le Roi Arthus.

Excerpt

This book explores the history of late nineteenth-century French opera through thirteen of the most important and frequently performed works of that repertory. The main historical problem addressed -- the most pervasive leitmotif -- is the reconciliation of Wagner's influence with French operatic tradition and national identity. My choice of operas is even conditioned by le spectre wagnérien: all were either first performed or initially conceived in the decade after Wagner's death in 1883, the period when his influence was most strongly felt in France. Because of this intersection of genesis and performance, the actual time-span covered is much broader, extending from the inception of Reyer's Sigurd in the early 1860s (but premièred in 1884) to the first performance of Chausson's Le Roi Arthus in 1903 (but first planned in 1886). Wagner's shadow made no distinction between work-tables and critical reception, and this book swings between both. French critics were just as obsessed by the Wagner phenomenon as were composers, if not more so: in post-1870 politics the German composer made for eminently readable (and saleable) journalism. The vast proliferation of the Paris press in this period, as well the continuing prominent civic status of opera in France, ensured that such discussions were available to a very wide readership; few, if any, issues in musical high culture today come close to achieving this sort of public profile. Journalistic debates created an environment that opera composers could scarcely ignore.

Wagner's shadow did not fall uniformly. Indeed, reference to a mere two- dimensional 'shadow' is arguably an inappropriate metaphor, given the complexity and variety of post-Wagnerian opera, too often reduced to summary statements about the presence of leitmotifs, chromatic harmony, and legendary plots. It is self-evident that each of the nine composers represented in this volume had a different relationship to Wagner's works and theories. His influence is manifest both on a broad level of aesthetics and dramaturgy -- often watered down and passed through various nationalistic, professional, or temperamental filters -- and on a more local level, revealing the effect of his individual (and highly variegated) operas, and even of individual passages. It is also axiomatic that the influence rarely resulted in a musical style where enough features coincided to produce a texture that an informed listener might identify as 'sounding like' Wagner. This is not to say that some works are not more derivative than others, only that this derivativeness played itself out in various ways and seldom involved stylistic pastiche.

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