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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin

After the war, or rather after Parade, the line initiated by Jeux was continued by a new crop of very young French composers who venerated Satie, and who were eager to cast off the trappings of impressionist mystery (by then a cliché and an unwelcome French stereotype) and celebrate the artistically transfigured “everyday.” Diaghilev enthusiastically commissioned and produced their work, which was (partly thanks to his patronage) considered the last word in sophistication. Three one-act ballets that received their premieres in 1924 and 1925 typified the new genre, aptly christened “lifestyle modernism”7 by the ballet historian Lynn Garafola.

First came Les biches by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), presented on 6 January 1924, the eve of the composer’s twenty-fifth birthday. (He had received the commission at the age of twenty-two.) The title means, literally, “The Does” (i.e., female deer); in the French idiom of the time it was a term of endearment (“ma biche” or “ma bichette”) a man tendered to a young girl he wished to seduce. In English, Poulenc’s ballet is usually called “The House Party.” Even more plotless than Parade, it simply portrayed a soirée, hosted by a rich society matron, at which girls in summer dresses danced and flirted with young men in bathing suits (and occasionally with their hostess or, more daringly, with each other). Poulenc’s music, which included a few songs sung from the pit, was a pastiche of three styles: that of the eighteenth-century dance suite (e.g., Couperin), that of French “classical” (i.e., nineteenth-century) ballet, and that of the contemporary dance hall or ballroom. One characteristic number was a Rag mazurka (Ex. 10-2). The action suggests an erotic promiscuity comparable to the stylistic promiscuity of the music.

“Lifestyle Modernism”“Lifestyle Modernism”

ex. 10-2 Francis Poulenc, Les biches, opening bars of Rag mazurka

On 13 June 1924, Le train bleu (“The blue train”) by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) was unveiled. Composed to a scenario by Cocteau, the ballet depicts an afternoon at a fashionable vacation spot where an elegant train from the capital, “Le Bleu,” disgorges new bathers daily. More men in bathing suits do their exercises and practice their favorite sports. That is all. Les matelots (“The sailors”) by Poulenc’s exact contemporary Georges Auric (1899–1983), followed a year later. A simplified and perhaps purposely trivialized version of the story line immortalized in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, it concerns three mariners who visit the fiancée of one right before departing on what they say will be a long voyage. They soon return, however, and, donning false beards, test her fidelity by trying to seduce her. She refuses them, they remove their disguise, and the loving couple is joyfully reunited. The composer described the music euphemistically as a “fantasia on circus themes.” Some of his tunes were readily identified by the audience as songs sung in bars and brothels.

Lifestyle modernism was thus another reversion to a preromantic (hence antiromantic) view of art. Like Mozart’s (as described by the American musicologist Wye J. Allanbrook), the new French music offered its audiences a sonorous reflection of their own lives (what Allanbrook called “representations of their own humanity”). But the portrayal was deliberately shallow and not very humane. It pointedly avoided emotional depth and portrayed only the most superficial social activities and amusements; that is why Garafola’s seemingly anachronistic adoption of the recent term “lifestyle,” which refers implicitly to the routine and material aspects of life, is so appropriate. “Lifestyle,” moreover, implies a chosen way of life, which in turn implies comfort and leisure; and indeed, the subject matter of the postwar ballets identified the “reflected audience” explicitly with the moneyed classes who patronized Diaghilev’s enterprise. They catered to a revived and newly defined “aristocratic” taste, the somewhat anxiously cynical (or at least insouciant) taste of what was called “the roaring twenties.” It was the sensibility of disillusion.

Artists who valued seriousness of purpose were repelled. Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937), for example, the leading composer of newly independent Poland, remained faithful to another kind of modernism, the kind associated before the war with Russia, heavy with that special combination of spiritual elevation and oriental eroticism that evoked the “secret, mysterious places” and “impenetrable jungles” of the soul to which Diaghilev, who had once traded heavily in such items, referred sarcastically in this chapter’s epigraph. Szymanowski had offered a ballet to Diaghilev, who rebuffed him with a taunt that his work was a “stew of leftovers.” So it is not surprising, perhaps, that Szymanowski became one of the most carping critics of the new Parisian music, denouncing it as “vulgar tavern music”8 and “mundane trivialities” engineered by that “malicious old man” Satie, who was wreaking revenge on his betters.

Nor did Satie’s ballets, or those of his followers, reach the limits of “lifestyle modernism.” The malicious old man took the idea to its logical extreme when he conceived of musique d’ameublement or “furniture music,” described by Milhaud as “background music that would vary like the furniture of the rooms in which it was played,” hence, explicitly, “music that would not be listened to.”9 The first experiment, in which Satie and Milhaud dashed off some ritournelles (endlessly repeated tunes, some of them quoted from popular concert pieces and operas) to accompany the lobby conversation during the intermissions between the acts of a play by the surrealist poet and painter Max Jacob (1876–1944), was a failure. The audience, obedient to concert decorum, remained seated and paid attention to the music despite Satie’s exhortations to “Go on talking! Walk about! Don’t listen!”

Later, fulfilling commissions from wealthy friends with little snippets bearing titles like Tenture de cabinet préfectoral (“Wall hanging for the boss’s office”) or Tapisserie en fer forgé (“Wrought iron tapestry”) or Carrelage phonique (“Audible floor tiles”), Satie came closer to fulfilling his intention of actually furnishing a vestibule or salon with music, “adorning it for the ear,” as Milhaud put it, “the same way as a still life by Manet might adorn it for the eye.”10 This was art deposed from its pedestal with a vengeance, now assuming a humble utilitarian role of lifestyle-enhancement. One senses a wish to exact penance for the romantic pretensions art had exhibited before the war, and for whatever it might have contributed to the grandiose thinking that had provoked and justified the bloodbath.

That may have been Diaghilev’s wish as well; for, although he remained a passionate devotee of Wagner’s music to the end of his life, and kept his prewar repertory alive to subsidize his new productions, he never lost an opportunity to mock the work that had made his early reputation, thus (as Poulenc later observed) giving the young artists he now nurtured a lesson in self-renewal. Never before was a generation of artists so exhorted, as Poulenc recalled, “to disown their predecessors, their elders.”11 Whenever Diaghilev would catch Poulenc or Milhaud or Auric at a performance of a prewar ballet, even Petrushka, he would taunt them: “You’re going to hear that old music? Mais quel ennui!” (What a bore!). Triviality was the only escape, frivolity the only salvation.

Penance of another, perhaps related kind is suggested by Vexations (Ex. 10-3), a 13-beat, bizarrely notated piece (or fragment) Satie jotted down one day, perhaps as early as 1893, together with its separate bass line, a version with the harmonizing tritones inverted, and a casual note, “play 840 times,” all followed by a remark to the effect that if one wants to follow the composer’s instructions, one ought to prepare for the ordeal with meditation exercises. Since the time of this little item’s posthumous discovery by Robert Caby, one of Satie’s disciples, and especially since the famous 1963 concert at which the American composer John Cage (1912–92), leading a team of pianists, gave it a complete performance lasting eighteen hours and forty minutes (now enshrined in the Guiness Book of World Records), it has been a cause célèbre and the object of sometimes acrimonious debate.

“Lifestyle Modernism”

ex. 10-3 Erik Satie, Vexations

Did it (as Cage thought) represent an actual exercise in spiritual transcendence (perhaps plausible in light of the composer’s brief involvement in the 1890s with the Rosicrucians, a society of mystics), or was it rather a spoof of such exercises, a disavowal of their connection with the aims of art, and a snare for those humorless enough to take it seriously? That would put the endless little piece in harmony with the antiromantic tenor of lifestyle modernism; and it is hard not to suspect spoofing both in the outlandish note-spelling (B♭♭ “descending” to A♯!) and in the meticulously notated inversions of every tritone, the one interval (aside from the octave) that cannot be acoustically inverted.

Satie’s penchant for dadaist cartooning reached its peak in the ballet Relâche (1924), his last work, created in collaboration with two early surrealists, the writer Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961) and the painter Francis Picabia (1878–1953). The title is a word (related etymologically to the English “release” or “relax”) that was used in French theatrical bills and schedules to denote a night when the theater is not in use (possible English equivalents: “No show,” “Theater dark,” “Closed”) so that unless one reads carefully, a notice of a performance of the work would look like a notice of no performance. Picabia thought that it would symbolize his conviction that all prewar artistic ideas were “out to lunch.” Satie claimed credit for the idea, saying that in that way he could have a work of his playing all summer long in every theater in Paris.

As to action, the beginning of the first act set the tone. A ballerina (called Woman in the program) enters, then stops in the middle of the stage, sits down, lights a cigarette and examines the scenery while the orchestra continues playing. Then she gets up and dances while the orchestra stops. The frontispiece to the published score contains a drawing by Picabia in which one gentleman is shown silencing another gentleman (naked except for a top hat and wristwatch) with a note that reads, “When will people get out of the habit of explaining everything?” Between the acts came a little film (shot by René Clair, later a famous director) called Entr’acte, that began with Picabia and Satie firing a cannon straight out at the audience and continued with all kinds of strange “automatic” images—boxing gloves fighting with each other, matches lighting themselves—and culminated in a roller coaster ride.

Satie’s music was largely a medley of street songs that brought to the audience’s mind a collage of offensive or obscene texts to accompany the crazy doings on stage. The connective tissue was supplied by a four-note ostinato that kept coming back, at times somewhat varied in pace and harmony, to furnish an appropriate musique d’ameublement (Ex. 10-4). The audience was duly scandalized. This time, however, the attempt to offend seemed labored, and the ballet did not live in infamy like Parade. The only part to survive the first performances was Clair’s Entr’acte, for which Satie had written perhaps the first authentic film score, with musical cues timed precisely to match the length of the shots they accompanied.

“Lifestyle Modernism”

ex. 10-4 Erik Satie, Relâche, two “Entrées”


(7) Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 98ff.

(8) Quoted in Stephen Downes, “The Polish Polemicist,” Times Literary Supplement, 15 October 1999, p. 23.

(9) Darius Milhaud, Notes without Music, trans. Donald Evans (New York: Alred A. Knopf, 1953), pp. 122–23.

(10) Ibid., p. 123.

(11) Francis Poulenc, My Friends and Myself (London: Dennis Dobson, 1978), p. 127.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010003.xml