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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

Perhaps more vividly than any other composition of the period, Fauré’s exquisite Requiem, op. 48, painstakingly composed and revised over a span of twenty-three years (1877–1900), illustrates the characteristics that French musicians then wished to cultivate and propagate as “essentially French” as opposed to what was accordingly to be classified as “essentially German,” or stereotypically Italian, or even what was once considered French. A greatly truncated setting of the Requiem Mass, the work does not even contain a Dies Irae, the section that inspired a theatrically thrilling hellfire-and-damnation response from Berlioz in 1837 and again from Verdi in 1874. Instead, as the critic Èmile Vuillermoz (at one time a composition pupil of Fauré’s) remarked, Fauré’s Requiem is “a look toward heaven and not toward hell.”32 This attitude is pointedly confirmed at the end of the Requiem by the final section, a setting of the antiphon In paradisum deducant te Angeli (“May the Angels lead you into Paradise”), which is not even part of the Requiem Mass as such, but is sung on the way to the gravesite before burial on those occasions when burial immediately follows the service. This comforting representation of angelic harping is also a representation of a state of heavenly bliss, in which nothing remains to be desired. Therefore, the musical representation of desire, from which Germanic “absolute music” (not to mention all of opera) had drawn its sustenance, is virtually suppressed.

The dominant harmony is sounded only twice, and briefly, both times preceded by the iii6, which considerably attenuates its force by seeming to turn the chord seventh (G) into a mere neighbor to an F♯ from which it proceeds and to which it returns. Other dominant sevenths are usually kept in check by “common-tone” progressions (as in Ex. 2-20a, where the fifth and seventh over B are transformed innocuously into the third and fifth over D instead of resolving functionally). And, having thus alternated with a harmony “down” a minor third, the tonic D is made to alternate a few measures later (Ex. 2-20b) with the complementary flat mediant harmony (F major), “up” the same minor third, lending D the sort of equilibrium at the center that we have already noted in Debussy, and which imparts the “imperturbable calm” that the American composer Aaron Copland (the pupil of a Fauré pupil, Nadia Boulanger), cited as characteristic both of Fauré’s music and of the “French temperament.”33 (But of course that description, and even the effect, was getting to be a cliché; compare Gillmor on Satie above.)

“Essentially” (and Intolerantly) French

ex. 2-20a Gabriel Fauré, Requiem, In paradisum, mm. 17–20

“Essentially” (and Intolerantly) French

ex. 2-20b Gabriel Fauré, Requiem, In paradisum, mm. 25–29

Indeed, Fauré was mythologized even before his death, at the venerable age of seventy-nine, as the Frenchest of the French. Vuillermoz, in an appreciation published in 1922, recalling the Société Nationale de Musique (of which the twenty-six-year-old Fauré, as a protégé of Saint-Saëns, had been a founding member), declared that

In the midst of the Wagnerian epidemic, when Saint-Saëns, Franck, Massenet, d’Indy, Chabrier and [Henri] Duparc [1848–1933, a composer of mélodies] did not actually succumb, but were all affected by the contagion, he remained refractory toward the virulent romantic microbe, and preserved all his intellectual independence and all his racial sanity. During the epoch when the pupils of César Franck, notwithstanding their demonstrative nationalism, were naively Teutonizing our art, Gabriel Fauré, without professions of faith, without dogmas and without a catechism of industry, was the veritable guardian of our national traditions.34

Of course, those “national traditions” (to say nothing of that “racial sanity”) were an ad hoc construction—a verbally constructed “discourse,” as today’s culture critics say, rather than a tangible reality—and as such could always be revised at a moment’s notice. Take for example Ariane et Barbe-bleue (“Ariadne and Bluebeard”; 1907), the single completed opera by Paul Dukas (1865–1935), the fastidious composer of only a dozen published works, who is celebrated for a single one: L’apprenti sorcier or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1897), a symphonic scherzo based on a ballad by Goethe (famously “choreographed” by the Walt Disney studios in the animated film Fantasia of 1939). Like Pelléas et Mélisande, Dukas’s opera was also based directly (without any intervening libretto) on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, in this case a decidedly “decadent” retelling of a famous folk legend originally committed to literature by the fabulist Charles Perrault in his Tales of Olden Times (1697), the original “Mother Goose,” considered a national classic by the French.

In Perrault’s telling, Bluebeard’s seventh wife, Fatima, gives in to curiosity and opens a locked door behind which she discovers the dead bodies of her predecessors. (She is rescued from a like fate by the timely arrival of her brothers.) In Maeterlinck’s version, the discarded wives—one of them named Mélisande (so that’s where she must have been coming from when Golaud discovered her in Debussy’s opera!)—are not dead. Indeed, they seem to take pleasure, or at least find security, in their secluded condition. They come to Bluebeard’s aid when he is attacked, and finally refuse the freedom offered them in the name of sisterhood by the opener of the door, the tellingly renamed Ariadne (after the Greek mythological heroine who with her famous thread led Theseus out of the darkness of the labyrinth into the light).

Dukas’s brilliantly colored score makes much, both in its orchestration and in its tonal relations, of the play’s many-sided contrasts of darkness and light. The opera’s chief leitmotif is a French (or, more specifically, a Breton) folk song that associates the former wives with “the daughters of Orlamonde,” night-bound creatures in search of daylight (Ex. 2-21). But in the play and the opera daylight is rejected—implicitly undoing one of the “master narratives” defining the Teutonic tradition in music from Haydn and Beethoven all the way to Mahler. It would be hard to get more “French” than that.

“Essentially” (and Intolerantly) French

ex. 2-21 “Artificially” harmonized folk tune from Paul Dukas, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue

Dukas, a conservatory classmate and friend of the slightly older Debussy, paid the latter tribute in Ariane—not so much by appropriating whole-tone effects that (while very noticeable) were by then nobody’s property in particular, but by actually quoting snatches from Debussy’s opera whenever the action concerned Mélisande, the character their operas have in common. Debussy was at first flattered and gratified by the homage, as a cordial letter to Dukas attests. But he was sorely baffled when a review by Louis Laloy, a very influential critic of the time, sought to polarize the two operas by contrasting their audiences and their critical followings: the “invertebrate descendants of ‘debussyism’” congregating around Pelléas et Mélisande (which “must therefore contain unsuspected defects”), vs. the “Ariane party” consisting of “those who know how to value the essential qualities of the French spirit and of French art.”35 This invidious comparison must have been motivated at least in part by Dukas’s use of a folk song, a simple, ingenuous (and “modally” diatonic) national artifact to stand out against the artificialities of his personal style, and by the presence in his opera of a “positive heroine” in the person of the light-bearing Ariadne, the would-be liberator. She bore comparison, of course, with Joan of Arc, or with Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the people,” cherished symbols all. Debussy himself drew the political connection (though without naming Dukas’s opera) in a patriotic tirade he published in 1915, while World War I was raging. “Since Rameau,” he lamented, way back in the early eighteenth century,

we have had no purely French tradition. His death severed the thread, Ariadne’s thread, that guided us through the labyrinth of the past. Since then, we have failed to cultivate our garden, but on the other hand we have given a warm welcome to any foreign salesman who cared to come our way. We listened to their patter and bought their worthless wares, and when they laughed at our ways we became ashamed of them. We begged forgiveness of the muses of good taste for having been so light and clear, and we intoned a hymn in praise of heaviness. We adopted ways of writing that were quite contrary to our own nature, and excesses of language far from compatible with our own ways of thinking. We tolerated overblown orchestras, tortuous forms, cheap luxury and clashing colors, and we were about to give the seal of approval to even more suspect naturalizations when the sound of gunfire put a sudden stop to it all.36

The last sentence is chilling, with its reference to “even more suspect naturalizations.” Many commentators have interpreted the phrase as a reference to the Jewishness of Schoenberg (or of Mahler, whom the French loved to jeer as Malheur, “misery”), regarded as incompatible with Frenchness. But why, then, the pointed insistence on the loss of Ariadne’s assistance, in view of her recent installation at the center of an opera that had been touted in the press (and to Debussy’s cost) as a monument to the “essential qualities of the French spirit and of French art”? Was the apparent irony the result of envy or spite … or what?

As Anya Suschitzky, a historian of French opera, has pointed out, there were more dangerous, contemporary, and politically volatile resonances within Dukas’s opera than those we have noted up to now.37 In addition to Joan of Arc or Marianne, Maeterlinck’s and Dukas’s light-bearing Ariadne bore an unmistakable resemblance, as well, to a traditional allegory of “Truth”—a naked woman rising from out of a well and bearing a mirror to catch the sunlight—that had become particularly familiar in fin-de-siècle France owing to its frequent use in press cartoons commenting on the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the most divisive political scandal in the nation’s history. (Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the highest-ranked Jewish officer in the French army, had been convicted on trumped-up charges of treason and exiled; his subsequent exoneration was stridently opposed by self-proclaimed “anti-Semites”—so called for the first time.) And in light of that association, a comment Debussy had made three years earlier in a letter to his publisher takes on a familiar and ugly ring: “You’re right, Ariane et Barbe-bleue is a masterpiece,” Debussy wrote, “but it’s not a masterpiece of French music.”38 What could this be but a reference to the fact that, like Schoenberg, like Mahler, and like the unjustly defamed and disgraced Captain Dreyfus, the author of Ariane et Barbe-bleue was a Jew?

Debussy’s remark is all the more troubling in view of his previous resistance to chauvinism, so unusual and refreshing amid the raging nationalistic currents that carried Europe from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War to the onset of World War I (and also considering the fact that Emma Bardac, his second wife and the mother of his only child, was of Jewish ancestry). Listing his hates in a letter of 1895, he included (alongside the expected “crowds and universal suffrage”) something he called les phrases tricolores—”tricolor phrases.”39 The reference, of course, was to the French flag, and the expression could best be translated, perhaps, as “flag-waving.”

But by 1912, even Debussy had been swept up in the inexorable current, giving vent like so many others to a rigorous, arbitrarily privileged notion of what made for authentic French music, inevitably implying a similarly rigid and arbitrary, intransigent notion of what made for an authentic Frenchman. Such notions served the cause of national solidarity by negation and exclusion, producing social division rather than cohesion. Must this always be the price of valuing national identity? Must the notion of nation always be racialized?


(32) Émile Vuillermoz, Gabriel Fauré, trans. Kenneth Schapin (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1969), p. 75.

(33) Aaron Copland, “Fauré Festival at Harvard” (1945); in Copland on Music (New York: Norton, 1963), p. 126.

(34) Vuillermoz, “Gabriel Faure”, Revue musicale III, no. 11 (1922): 14.

(35) Le Temps, 24 March 1908; quoted in Debussy, Letters, eds. François Lesure and Roger Nichols, trans. Roger Nichols (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) p. 190.

(36) Debussy on Music, pp. 322–23.

(37) See A. Suschitzky, “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue: Dukas, the Light and the Well,” Cambridge Opera Journal IX (1997): 133–61.

(38) Debussy to Vittorio Gui, 25 February 1912; Debussy, Letters, ed. Lesure, p. 256.

(39) Debussy to Henri Lerolle, 17 August 1895; Letters, p. 80.

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. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002007.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002007.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002007.xml