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French Composers

The second half of the nineteenth century was a fertile time for French music.  Most notably, it was the time of Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, and their patron Charles Gounod.  Gounod is best known for his opera Faust with all its pomp and brilliance, but the best things in Faust, and all of Gounod’s works, are the quieter episodes where his essentially intimate and lyrical gift was allowed to play freely.  Gounod restored an ideal to French music.  Inspired by Mozart and Gluck, he redirected attention to the old French virtues of balance and discretion.  At the same time his love of Bach and Palestrina led him to inaugurate the reforms in religious music which were to flower most triumphantly at the end of the century.  There is, as somebody once observed, a Gounod slumbering in the soul of every French musician.

Gounod’s influence is clearly seen in his protégé Saint-Saëns of whom he once wrote: “Monsieur Saint-Saëns possesses one of the most astonishing musical organisations I know of.  He is a musician armed with every weapon.  He is a master of his craft as no-one else is…He plays, and plays with, the orchestra as he does the piano.  One can say no more.”  With talent Saint-Saëns was prodigiously endowed and only Mozart can be compared to him in the matter of early flowering and profusion of gifts. 

Another young musician to benefit from Gounod’s patronage was Massenet.  The vital point in Massenet’s career came on the 27th April 1877 when le Roi de Lahore was played to a full house at the Opéra, with the President of the Republic in one box and the Emperor of Brazil in another.  As Massenet himself realised, as if in a dream, that his ambition was fulfilled, the patriarchal Gounod arrived from on high to clasp Massenet in a wet embrace and to rave: “Dans mes bras, mon fils.  Embrasse papa!”  In the year of its creation alone le Roi de Lahore had thirty performances and drew receipts which only the most successful operas of the time were able to draw.   

In 1894, a young composer Erik Satie, presented himself as a candidate for election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the place of Gounod, who had died the year before.  He was unsuccessful and there appears to have been some unpleasantness with the vinegary Saint-Saëns, provoking an open letter to the venerable master which Satie published in the music paper Le Ménestrel.  This novel rebuke must have confirmed Saint-Saëns’ impression that Satie was a lunatic.  Yet, had Saint-Saëns been born fifteen years later it is not unlikely that he would have ranged himself with Satie, whose music, clean, austere and distrustful of emotionalism, followed in many respects the aesthetic he frequently proclaimed. 

By the nineteen twenties Satie was a pioneer of Surrealism and godfather of the irrepressible group of musicians known as “les Six”.  As early as 1916, along with Picasso, Satie had collaborated with Jean Cocteau, the brilliant central figure of “les Six” on the “ballet réaliste” Parade.  With his large orchestra, the largest he ever wrote for, Satie caught the harshness of contemporary life.  It also marked, in musical terms, the start of the Twenties which ended with Francis Poulenc’s Aubade in 1929, which was the year the ox came down from the roof. 

Cocteau, however, was not the only one in “les Six”.  Georges Auric’s musical fate was decided the day he came across one of the Sarabandes by Satie.  Poulenc, initially treated with suspicion by Satie, won the older musician’s friendship with a practical joke played on Vidal.   As for Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, friends of Auric’s and Louis Durey, a friend of Poulenc’s, they might not have initially shared their friends’ enthusiasm for Satie, but they still joined them in storming the embattled establishment of French musical life.

The second half of the nineteenth century not only produced many of the greatest works of the operative repertoire, but was also a period when light music of the highest quality flourished as well.  Light music which would in time inspire “les Six”.  The man who presided over the golden age and won immortality by forever linking the genre to his name, Jacques Offenbach, composed a hundred-odd operettas and showed himself to be an entertainer of genius.  However, he was never to achieve his greatest ambition, to write something comparable to his idol Mozart, and his last effort to show that he was able to write music worthy of a master, Les Contes d’Hoffman, fell far short of his aim.  Despite this, the great Saint-Saëns, who was not an indulgent critic, allowed Offenbach: “Great fertility.  The gift of melody.  A harmony that is sometimes refined.  Much wit and inventiveness.  Extreme theatrical skill.  Which is more than what was necessary to succeed.  He succeeded.”

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