Monday, November 23, 2015


I confess: I am a francophile. No, this is not one of the lesser-known perversions, but rather an inclination towards French language and culture. I have lived in Québec for over a decade and spent time in France as well. At one point I was fairly fluent in French and I know how to curse in Quebécois! But my real qualifications are that I have long had an affinity for French culture which includes everything from the rationalism of René Descartes to the music of Guillaume DuFay to the gastronomy of Brillat-Savarin to the later music of Louis and François Couperin to the theatre of Molière to the novels and poetry of Victor Hugo to the still later music of Hector Berlioz to the still later poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. And wait, I haven't even mentioned the remarkably long tradition of French art and architecture. Skipping right over the Merovingian, Carolingian and Romanesque periods we might mention artists like Nicolas Poussin and Antoine Watteau and later ones like Claude Monet and--wait, was I about to forget about the sculpture of Rodin?

But enough of that! Suffice it to recognise that, apart from Italy and Germany in music, France really has an artistic and cultural tradition second to none in Europe, which also means second to none in Western Civilisation generally. I have had this underlined for me in recent months by my examination of some 20th century French composers who may well be, alongside a couple of Russians (Stravinsky and Shostakovich) the most interesting composers working during that time. I say this despite the fact that they have been, in scholarship over the last few decades, greatly overshadowed by the Genesis or Deuteronomy of Modernism, taught in countless undergraduate 20th century music history courses. "And in the beginning there was Schoenberg and he separated the light from the darkness and created serialism and saw that it was good and taught it to Berg and Webern. And they begat Boulez and Stockhausen and also of their tribe was John Cage. Other acolytes came from distant lands and were called Stravinsky and Bartók."

There is no denying the importance of these composers, of course. But for the ideology of modernism to be really successful, other composers who did not follow the rules of modernism, which included the necessity of techniques that erased and denied all prior musical traditions, had to be demeaned and exiled to the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. So people like Shostakovich in particular had to be decried as "hacks" and people like Olivier Messiaen, who really went off the rails with his Turangalîla Symphony, had to be ostracised whenever possible.

My discovery, or rather re-discovery of Messiaen as I hardly knew his music before, is being followed by my discovery of another fine 20th century French composer who has been unfairly thrust aside into an undeserved obscurity: Henri Dutilleux.

This reminds me that the traditions of French music extend from the very first polyphonic composers whose names we actually know, Léonin and Pérotin in the 12th century, right up to now. The great French composers who have worked in the last 100 years include not only the ones I just mentioned, but Claude Debussy (who really kicked off the 20th century), Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. And I haven't even mentioned popular music stars: Alizée! That's almost a thousand years of music of elegance, profundity, charm, grace and intensity. No other nation can claim as much.

This is Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, played by the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor at the London Proms, 2014:


Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for the lovely post about France, Bryan. You've probably already seen this John Oliver clip in which fails to mention music:

Bryan Townsend said...

That's pretty funny! I don't know him because I quit watching tv about ten or twelve years ago. He is sort of like Jon Stewart.

In my paean to France I forgot so many things: French cinema! Le Grand Bleu, La Femme Nikita, Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, La Belle Noiseuse, etc. And bande desinée!

The motto of Paris seems very suitable these days: Fluctuat nec mergitur.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of French music and cinema, let me recommend the excellent "Tous les Matins du Monde" to your musical attention with the music of Marin Marais featured abundantly.

Christine Lacroix said...

Is this what you mean anonymous?

Christine Lacroix said...

I think this is it?

Christine Lacroix said...

I don't have a television either Bryan. His clip popped up on Facebook. I'm listening to the soundtrack to "Tous les Matins du Monde" right now. Thanks Anonymous!