Academic journal article Notes

The Société Des Concerts Du Conservatoire, 1828-1967

Academic journal article Notes

The Société Des Concerts Du Conservatoire, 1828-1967

Article excerpt

The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, 1828-1967. By D. Kern Holoman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. [xvi, 620 p. ISBN 0-520-23664-5. $95.] Illustrations, facsimiles, bibliography, index.

Writing the biography of an orchestra that existed for nearly 140 years is no easy task, especially when the archival materials are as voluminous and rich as those of the celebrated Société des concerts du Conservatoire, the forerunner of the Orchestre de Paris, and doyen of the capitol's Sunday afternoon concert scene. As D. Kern Holoman's extensive study shows, file upon file yields material of jaw-dropping fascination: an orchestra that threatens to strike at the slightest hint of either inappropriate government pressure or governmental concessions to rival enterprises; that punishes a perceived Nazi collaborator by leaving the stage as he is about to begin a piano concerto; that forces its chorus to agree to its own death by attrition (simply jettisoning its female chorus members, who were never real members of the society anyway); and whose internal power struggles come slowly to the boil before overflowing into slanging matches of vivid passion. Holoman's story is, quite simply, a gripping read.

Of the many organizational approaches open to him, Holoman has elected to write a chronicle. His conductor-by-conductor sequence of chapters is enriched, however, by short "Overview" sections drawing together the main features of three large slices of the Society's history (Part 2: 1828-72; Part 3: 1872-1919; Part 4: 1919-67). Preceding the first "Overview" is a substantial Part 1 explaining the structure, personnel, and traditions of the Society, particularly as established in its earliest years, but frequently including comparisons with twentieth-century practice. Holoman has also done readers a service by publishing large swathes of the documentation associated with the project on the Internet (http://hector.ucdavis.edu/sdc/ accessed 30 August 2004).

The book's range of discursive subjects is vast, not least because of the major social, technological, and artistic upheavals through which the orchestra lived: three wars (including two occupations); industrialization; the Great Depression; artistic competition; the "star" system; the development of orchestral touring; recording and broadcasting. Local matters seem to interest Holoman most.

One of the great bonuses of his account is the attention given to the minutiae of the orchestra's finances: instrument hire costs versus drayage charges (in the early days), repeated (and largely successful) demands for favorable treatment in respect of the detested "poor tax," the payment of star soloists (once it became necessary to do so), and the negotiation down to the last centime of contracts with overseas agents organizing tour schedules (including post-tour disputes). We witness the belated recognition (precipitated by the financial crisis of around 1903) that to take market share from less august rivals the orchestra would have to begin taking publicity seriously and pay properly for a press service; and we perhaps share the sense of being caught out by unintended consequences when the broadcasting of dress rehearsals causes much of the Society's audience to skip the Sunday performance, depriving it of both the buzz of a full hall and the benefit of a full cash box. These concerns, usually marginalized in musicological discussions, emerge with refreshing clarity as the crucial issues they were, often taking precedence over such relatively unproblematic matters (for the Society, if not for outsiders) as the choice of the next fortnight's concert program. In the background, Holoman's frequent statements of accounts reveal just how paltry the annual "share" that each sociétaire in this collective received after a year of rehearsals and concerts in a Society whose founding articles nevertheless contained an exclusivity clause in respect to players' careers as orchestral concert musicians. …

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