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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

Just as Claude Monet was the principal model for the fictional artist Elstir in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, so Gabriel Fauré seems to have been the principal model for Vinteuil, the composer character in the same panoramic novel. The late-blooming Fauré, a pupil of Saint-Saëns both in composition and in organ, was never even slightly involved in countercultural or bohemian activities—from 1896 he was professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, from 1905 to 1920 its director—but his many settings of “decadent” and Symbolist poetry helped establish a genre of subtly understated art song that the French call mélodie. (The actual use of the word seems to originate with Berlioz, who in 1830 published nine settings from the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore under the title “Neuf mélodies,” and reused the term a dozen years later in a group of six songs to texts by the Romantic poet Théophile Gautier composed in 1840–41, later orchestrated in 1856 as a cycle entitled Les nuits d’été or “Summer Nights.”)

Proust himself was especially fond of Fauré’s Le parfum impérissable (“The imperishable scent;” 1897), a mélodie to words by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818–94), a member of the so–called Parnassians, a group of Parisian poets that took its name from Parnassus, the mountain abode of the Muses in Greek mythology. Their journal, Le Parnasse contemporain, was a forum for fastidious “estheticist” or art-for-art’s-sake propaganda. In its sensualism, their work prefigured the “decadence” of the next generation. Le parfum impérissable, which first appeared in Leconte de Lisle’s collection Poésies barbares, sums up many of the themes we have already associated with decadence and symbolism: esotericism (here evoked by an exotic locale), refinement (here evoked by the main image, a substance of supreme rarity), and above all the treatment of a sensory impression as the gateway to a spiritual revelation. (Proust’s gigantic novel, as its readers never forget, is cast in similar terms, as a flood of emotionally fraught recollection released by the taste of a madeleine, a lemon-flavored pastry.) The poet compares the breaking of a vessel containing a priceless perfume, which then indelibly marks the desert with its scent, to the breaking of a rejected suitor’s heart.


fig. 2-6 Gabriel Fauré with his wife, Marie, playing a reconstructed Babylonian harp (March 1883).


ex. 2-19 Gabriel Fauré, Le parfum impérissable, Op. 76. no. 1, mm. 1–17

Fauré’s tiny song (Ex. 2-19), which transmits the poem to the listener like an urgent, intimate communication to a confidant, manages with harmony to evoke both the permanence of the scent/feeling and the emotional transports to which it gives rise. The deceptively regular returns to the placidly chugging E-major chords of the opening suggest the constant point of reference—one that seems destined to continue forever even after we have “tuned out”—and the modulatory departures, increasingly radical (though never dramatic or “rhetorical”), suggest the emotional leaps. Although the cadences in mm. 9 and 17 (and a final one in m. 31) might seem conventional enough, they are always introduced by five-note (that is, almost complete) whole-tone scales in the voice part that pull the harmony back, gently but with mind-boggling speed, from a distant C minor to the predestined key of constancy. It was no doubt that swiftness of modulation, combined with its understated delivery, that induced what Proust, in a fan letter to the composer, called “a dangerous intoxication.”31

One of the junior Parnassians, Paul Verlaine (1844–96), was Fauré’s near-exact contemporary and friend. He went on to become one of the most celebrated of the Symbolists, perhaps as much because of his extraordinary life as for his art. In the title of an essay on several of his contemporaries Verlaine originated the catchphrase poètes maudits (“accursed poets”), and lived the role to the hilt. He deserted his wife, and with her the whole bourgeois lifestyle, in order to pursue a homoerotic relationship with his young protégé Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91), then aged sixteen, with whom he led a vagabond existence in Belgium and England. Two years later Verlaine shot and wounded his lover in a drunken fit of jealousy and was imprisoned for two years. Finally he re-embraced the Catholic faith and lived in deliberate poverty, dying prematurely of consumption. (It was during this last, down-and-out phase of his career that he was befriended by the straitlaced Fauré.)

In contrast to the outward turbulence of his life, Verlaine’s poetry was famous for its elegance and euphony—in short, its “musicality.” His famous treatise in verse, “Art poétique” (1874), begins with a line that became a slogan: De la musique avant toute chose, “Music above all!” Composers naturally agreed. Verlaine’s verses quickly became, and have remained, the most-set poetry in the French language. Fauré wrote thirteen of his mélodies to poems by Verlaine, nine of them collected his first song cycle, La Bonne Chanson (“The good song,” op. 61, 1892–94), which takes its name from the title of the 1870 collection in which the poems were originally published. It remains Fauré’s best-known work.

Verlaine’s poetry often evoked the same pseudoarchaism that, as we know, provided French composers with a source of stylistic rejuvenation. The poems in La Bonne Chanson, a wedding offering to his bride, were (despite the private and personal sentiments they expressed) of this artificial, highly crafted type. Verlaine even toyed with the idea of calling the set Vieilles Bonnes Chansons, “good old songs.” The name would certainly have fit Une sainte en son auréole, the poem with which Fauré chose to begin his cycle. It is a sort of mock-troubadour song (or canso) modeled on seven-hundred-year-old prototypes replete with the imagery of the distant lady (“a saint within her halo, the mistress of the castle in her tower”), direct comparisons with “the noble ladies of yore,” and a final reference to her unuttered “Carolingian code name.” Fauré’s cycle was dedicated to “Madame Sigismond Bardac,” alias Emma, his illicit (because married) mistress, who later became the second wife of Claude Debussy. It was a situation redolent of fins amours or “courtly love,” the idealized knightly worship of a married lady from afar that had provided medieval love songs with their subject matter. Thus the cycle had an intense private meaning for the composer as well; and, like the poet, he too sublimated it in a somewhat affectedly recherché, pseudomedieval style that gave his music the same sort of “brand-old” freshness at which Verlaine had aimed. It was a theme to which Fauré continually returned. As late as 1918, he reused the second line of the opening song from La Bonne Chanson (“Une châtelaine en sa tour,” “The mistress of the castle in her tower”) as the title of a little Fantaisie for harp, the “troubadour” (or, to be fastidiously correct, the Northern French “trouvère”) instrument par excellence.

The piano part in Une sainte opens with a thrice-repeated descending pentatonic (“anhemitonic”) scale redolent in some contexts of folklore, but here of “good old songs” like troubadour lyrics—or even Gregorian chant, just then undergoing a process of zealous stylistic restoration and revival at the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, some hundred miles southwest of Paris. French composers were intensely—and somewhat nationalistically—interested in this project, since they regarded the Frankish chant as the earliest French music. (Almost needless to say, they were wrong: the chant was Roman, not French; but as Ernest Renan, the great French historian, famously put it right around this time, “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”)

Further (and by now familiar) traces of neomedievalism in Fauré’s song can be found in vocal cadences that ostentatiously avoid the leading tone, substituting for it a “flat seventh.” At the final cadence the voice part descends stepwise to the “final,” like most Gregorian chants, while the piano’s deceptive cadence in m. 79 surrounds that final with appoggiaturas cunningly drawn from the harmonically neutral whole-tone scale, proceeding from there to a sort of “Lydian” cadence with a raised fourth degree (D natural) that resolves to the fifth of the tonic triad, thus replacing the normal leading-tone progression to the root. The few authentic cadences that survive the winnowing process barely register.


(31) Gabriel Fauré: A Life in Letters, trans. and ed. J. Barrie Jones (London: B. T. Batsford, 1989), p. 84.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002006.xml