Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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National-classical music : French

  • MusicFrench
  • Cultural Field:
    Sight and sound
  • Author:
    Ellis, Katharine
  • Text:

    The relationship of the French to musical nationalism went through two main phases that overlapped during the late 1860s. The second phase became fully apparent after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and established principles of national music that lasted beyond World War One.

    During the earlier period, the Revolutionary principle of assimilation ensured the continuation of a cosmopolitan approach whereby Italian, German and French composers could contribute equally to the grandeur of French music so long as their musical style conformed to French taste. Concomitantly, French imperialism from Napoleon onwards, and the notion of the mission civilisatrice, gave French lyric genres international influence that encouraged a confident sense of French universalism. In the later period, angst about French inferiority to Germany underpinned wholesale reconsideration of French nationalism, which became more overtly contested between isolationists and cosmopolitans, especially in light of the divisive rise of Wagner. The place of France’s own regional folk-musics as national identifiers within classical composition sat uneasily with the principle of centralisation, a principle that had bound France as a unity since the Ancien Régime, but which was pursued more energetically as a demand for unity-in-uniformity by post-Revolutionary governments of all stripes.

    The Revolution’s new musical traditions had brought French grandeur to the outdoor music of massed festivals in praise of the new Republican order. The official music of François-Joseph Gossec and Étienne Méhul foregrounded the sonority of the military wind band alongside simple choral writing with slow-moving harmony suitable for large spaces. Such techniques are also noticeable in the otherwise more German-inspired music of Berlioz (e.g. in the Requiem, Te Deum, the “March to the scaffold” from the Symphonie fantastique, and the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale).

    New national impetus for composition came in 1803 with Napoleon’s extension of the Prix de Rome competition to music. The requirement to write an operatic scene (cantata) in the final round sealed the place of tragic recitative opera (leading to grand opéra) as the main national genre. The assimilation-of-foreigners principle allowed monumental operas of visual and orchestral richness such as Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), and Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836), to become defining works of a new and eclectic genre of French Grand Opera – almost overshadowing Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828), which actually initiated the genre. These grand operas became mid-century France’s most conspicuous operatic export and almost its musical raison d’être, even though the smaller-scale genre of opéra comique (opera with French dialogue) was represented by an infinitely greater number of works (also exported), was written by a much higher proportion of French composers, and was much deeper-seated as a national genre. Composers of opéra comique stretched from Philidor in the late 1750s, to Jules Massenet at the turn of the 20th century; French Grand Opera all but died with Meyerbeer, in 1864, with a late flowering in 1871 in the form of Verdi’s Aida.

    Instrumental, solo vocal and orchestral music of this first period hardly contributed to a sense of musical Frenchness. It was neither yoked to national causes nor used programmatically (in the manner of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, for instance) to portray national sites or evoke historical events. Nor was it supported by significant government money. Berlioz aside, late Classicism with hints of Mendelssohn characterized orchestral and chamber music to Gounod and Bizet. Song posed other challenges. Here, the Viennese point of reference was not Beethoven, but Schubert, and the question of superiority was not so clear-cut. The 1830s and 1840s witnessed debate as to whether the light, strophic, French romance should be set aside given the new emotional depth apparent in songs such as the Erl-King. But the romance continued to thrive as a beacon of French sociability.

    The late 1860s saw the beginnings of a crucial change in France’s musical relationship with a Germany that was fast becoming recognized as the only force that could threaten French musical pride. The events of 1870 rendered the desirable imperative: France needed to banish the frivolous or superficial (effeminate), and to embrace the serious (masculine). A wish to catch up with a nation that appeared more deeply musical than France (especially in terms of amateur singing) catalysed a new intensity of performing and composing activity in various genres, including choral music, incidental music to plays, orchestral and chamber music, and song. The first two of Massenet’s three oratorios, Marie-Magdeleine (1873), Ève (1875) and La Vierge (1878), were premiered by conductor Édouard Colonne at his Concert National amid a craze for German Baroque monumentalism that had begun with a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1868, to be followed by Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus in the early 1870s. Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust and L’enfance du Christ benefited posthumously from the same movement.

    Orchestral, chamber music and song gained an important new forum in 1871, when Camille Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine set up the concert society La Société Nationale de Musique. Its motto, ars gallica, disguised the extent to which the music it premiered represented an assimilation and transformation of models deriving from or made famous in Germany and stretching from Beethoven to Wagner via César Franck. Even the mélodie was, during this period, referred to as le lied français.

    The French repertoire of tone poems dates largely from the post-1870 period, starting with Saint-Saëns’s Le rouet d’Omphale (1872). There is, however, very little sign of French-themed programmaticism; instead, subjects from Classical myth jostle with themes from foreign literature, from Schiller (D’Indy’s Wallenstein trilogy, 1873-81) to Kipling (Charles Koechlin’s Jungle Book cycle, 1908-40).

    The pervading centralism of Paris meant that French composers came late to the idea of evoking the nation’s regions (the petite patrie) via folk-sources. In Second-Empire Paris, folk-inspired stage works with tragic endings appeared incongruous to a society where the rural connoted either backwardness or pretty couleur locale, and both Gounod’s Provençal opera Mireille (1864, after Mistral’s Mirèio), and Bizet’s incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s L’Arlésienne (1872) initially flopped. Both eventually became totemic works for regionalists active within the Midi these works portrayed. In the concert hall, D’Indy’s Symphonie cévenole (Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français) of 1886 brought French folk-music into the orchestral repertoire and presaged the openness to compositional regionalism of the curriculum at the Schola Cantorum (from 1896), with pupils including Déodat de Séverac and Joseph Canteloube.

    Nevertheless, heritage (patrimoine) trumped the petite patrie. The year 1864 saw the first of Massenet’s series of seven orchestral suites; his most popular being the Scènes pittoresques (1874, general rural couleur locale) and the Scènes alsaciennes (1882, portraying a region painfully lost to France in 1870). At the hands of Massenet, Debussy (Petite suite, 1889), Fauré (Dolly, 1896) and others, the revivified genre of the suite, which linked back to golden ages of French music headed by Claude Gervaise in the 16th century and Couperin and Rameau in the 18th, put dance at the heart of newly focused desiderata as to what had made French music sound French (or un-German) across history, invoking the French auto-ethnotypes of directness, concision, clarity of line, elegance.

    The resulting national/Neoclassical trend was perceptible from Emmanuel Chabrier to Les Six and the French pupils of Nadia Boulanger. World War I helped turn such music into a form of national memorial (Ravel, Le tombeau de Couperin, 1917), while from the 1920s it haunted the music of Poulenc in the guises of both wit and nostalgia, culminating in the Suite française of 1935.

    Word Count: 1268

  • Article version:
  • Project credit:

    Part of the “Music and National Styles” project, funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences

    Word Count: 16

  • DOI:
  • Ellis, Katharine (2010). “Paris, 1866: In search of French music”, Music and letters, 91: 536-554

    Fauser, Annegret (2001). “Gendering the nations: The ideologies of French discourse on music, 1870-1914”, in White, Harry; Murphy, Michael (eds.) (2001). Musical constructions of nationalism: Essays on the history and ideology of European musical culture, 1800-1945 (Cork: Cork UP), 72-103

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Ellis, Katharine, 2020. "National-classical music : French", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 02-11-2020, consulted 30-07-2021.