Romanticism in French Music

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“Louis XVI et Gluck vont faire de nouveaux Français”
Voltaire 1774

Thus he expressed his intuition that France was entering a new age, one in which tastes and habits would no longer be the same. The term “Romanticism”, however, was not adopted until much later, to refer to French music of the period between 1780 and 1830.

Although Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1760), Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian (1765) and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774) had heralded a new, “pre-Romantic” sensibility, it was not until the generation of Berlioz, brandishing as its manifesto the Symphonie fantastique (1830), that “Romanticism” truly made its presence felt in French music. And yet early nineteenth-century writings – those of the Empire and the Restoration – show quite clearly that the term was used unreservedly at that time to define the style of the “late Classical” composers, i.e. the Germanic contemporaries of Beethoven. Stendhal used the term for Haydn. Hoffmann used it for Mozart. And Berlioz described Gluck as “le premier des romantiques”. Close observation reveals that the essential features of the nineteenth century were already present during the short reign of Louis XVI (1774- 1792), when countless experiments in every artistic field, some of them visionary, paved the way for the future.

Did Classicism as applied to Mozart really exist in France?In music, all the great works of the “Romantic generation” took their example from pieces composed long before the Revolution. Operatic composers turned their backs on the fantastic elements and the passions that had been so prevalent in Baroque and immersed themselves in the “sentiment” that was typical of Romanticism. Regarded as the founding works of a new aesthetic, operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Salieri’s Les Danaïdes (1784) and Sacchini’s OEdipe à Colone (1786) remained in the repertoire of the Paris Opéra for a long time. Simultaneously there was renewed interest in orchestral works in Paris and the first ambitious symphonies appeared, leading from Gossec to Méhul and on to Reber and David. The virtuosity of the concertos of Saint-George, Kreutzer, Davaux and others was soon “transcended” by Jadin, Hérold, Liszt and Alkan, while the intimate genres – romances, sonatas, trios, quartets – flourished in the salons and brought fame to composers such as Onslow and Panseron. All those aspects relate that period of genesis to the future much more than to the past.

1830 marked a stage that was not only symbolical. At the time of the July Monarchy, Romanticism – hitherto kept on a tight rein – gave birth to its most brilliant achievements.We have only to mention Hernani (Victor Hugo), La Mort de Sardanapale (Delacroix), Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer), Giselle (Adam) and the Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz) to have a good idea of the masterpieces that were produced in the arts that year, and those are just a few of them.Paris was very open to new ideas, and it became the model for Europe. Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, Rossini and Meyerbeer rubbed shoulders there with Berlioz, Halévy, Auber and others. Such emulation was unique in musical history and it opened up new prospects for Romanticism. French grand opéra became a melting pot of styles, a combination of Italianate melodies, Germanic harmonies, and declamation, machinery and ballets à la française. Meanwhile its blood brother, opera-comique, moved in a similar direction, with composers such as Boieldieu cultivating the demi-caractère, and others including Offenbach favouring out-and-out comedy. At the same time, supported by the developments in instrument-making of Érard, Sax and others, instrumental music became much more expressive, giving rise to new practices such as the solo recital. Its expressiveness and vividness were sometimes such that it was capable of surpassing even stage music in its conveyance of moods and feelings. New genres, such as the famous “symphonic poem”, were to arise from that theatrical approach to instrumental music.
In 1905 Debussy’s La Mer belatedly crowned half a century of research in that direction. An important milestone had been reached, and henceforth music was a “serious” art form: no longer simply an idle entertainment or something just to be heard, it demanded to be listened to. By the beginning of the 1860s the term “Romanticism” had found its way into musical vocabulary. With Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Bizet, a whole generation of composers strengthened, polished and refined style, language and expression. Faust, Samson & Dalila, Manon, and Carmen – whose Mediterranean clarity dispelled “all the fog of the Wagnerian ideal” (Nietzsche) – are monuments of French taste. At the same time, the composer’s status evolved: women were at last able to stake their claim in what had been exclusively a man’s world, and the works of Louise Farrenc, Cécile Chaminade, Augusta Holmès and Pauline Viardot received public performance and were published widely.

But the events of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 sowed confusion in people’s minds and disturbed the art of music. Mistreated by the symbolism of Debussy or the Wagnerism of Vincent d’Indy, post- Romanticism continued for a while to enjoy the support of the concert societies, the Conservatoire and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, before they contracted in vehement affirmation of a “national style”, paradoxically strongly influenced by Wagner and his fellow countrymen. And with the approach of the twentieth century it gradually ran out of steam before giving way to modernity, in which the twofold values of emotion and surprise, which had been so bitterly fought for a century earlier, imposed different languages. A page was turned, just when Europe, torn apart, was plunged into the First World War.

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