Inseparable: Paris and Culture
In an interview with Le Monde, a Paris police officer referred to last week’s attacks as “something from Dante’s Hell”. The world has turned its eyes and ears towards Paris in the past week, and tried to come to terms with what happened - the human stories of horror, suffering and subsequently of solidarity and the displays of humanity as we process what happened in places of the ever-bustling night life in the city of lights.
Paris seems to have had a special place in peoples’ hearts and minds over the centuries. When Viennese composer Ernst Krenek arrived in Paris for the first time in 1924, he articulated that ‘My strongest impression of the city was that it emanated a seductive charm and an indescribable melancholy. The charm existed in reality and was furthermore generated by literary and personal promotion, and it was seductive because I always had the feeling that there was something indefinable in the atmosphere of the city that I would never be able to grasp. That alone made me melancholic.’
Indeed its reputation had spread far and wide, originating from its role as the centre of high culture from the days of the staunch supporter of the arts Louis XIV who founded the Paris Opéra, to the outpouring of knowledge during the Enlightenment (in French, thesiècle des Lumières) and onwards through the many trends that formed art throughout the centuries such as theBelle Époque, through to 20th century innovation and to its continuation as a cultural hub. Paris is synonymous with refinement and sophistication, fine arts and intellectualism, and no terrorist attack can take that away from Paris.
Le Bataclan in days gone byBataclan
Pre-dating theBelle Époqueby less than a decade, the Bataclan Theatre was designed in 1865 by the architect Charles Duval, the same year as Manet’s famedOlympiawas the talk of the salons. Orientalism was beginning to pique peoples’ interest, including artists such as Fromentin and Gérome – a nod to Claude Debussy’s love of Javanese Gamelan gong-like sonorities. The Bataclan was built in the Asian-inspired style, with the image of a pagoda in mind and inside was full of so-called “Chinese” decoration in wood, stone, brick and ceramic. Moving with the technological trends of the 1920s, the building became a cinema, although three decades later, the hall was renovated and it lost some of its pagoda style charm. It was in 1969 that the hall returned to its true calling as a concert venue and with it brought world-wide fame, as a major venue for pop, rock and café theatre events. The name “Bataclan”, also formerly “Ba-ta-clan”, which is loosely akin to “and all that jazz” was named after one ofJacques Offenbach’s (1819-1880) operettas. The unprecedented attack on humanity, on music, on the togetherness of listening experiences, will be forever remembered as the most significant in the whole of the theatre’s history.
La Belle Époque
France’s mottoLiberté, Egalité, Fraternitéhad origins back in the French Revolution, but it was at the forming of the French Third Republic in 1870 that it was made official as the national motto. Coinciding with the end of the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), and ending around the time of World War I, theBelle Époquewas named in retrospect, as with so many other ‘isms’. This period was characterised by optimism, economic prosperity, peace and advancement in science, technology and culture. It is in culture that the Parisian flair flourished.
Where does our nostalgia for theBelle Époquecome from? Is it because of the peace associated with it, that was pined for and frequently penned during times of war? Is it due to the cultural milestones in which universally fascinating areas were explored? It is difficult to ascertain what it is exactly, which echoes Ernst Krenek’s vague, subtle simultaneous feelings of tantalising charm and melancholy.
The Dance Class (La Classe de Danse),
1873–1876, oil on canvas, by Edgar DegasOpera & Ballet
Opera continued to flourish in the late 19th century, after the likes of Berlioz paved the way for opera further into the Romantic period and beyond. French opera harked back to the Baroque era, during the reign of Louis XIV who founded the Paris Opéra in 1669, then known as the Academie d’Opéra. It was soon renamed as Académie royale de Musique which came under the direction of the fêted Italian-born composer and musician Jean Baptiste Lully(1632-1687).It eventually became referred to simply as the Opéra. The first productions at the Paris Opéra were Lully’sLes fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus (November 1672) and his first tragedie lyrique calledCadmus et Hermione(April 1673). Classical ballet as we know it today came about within the Opéra in Paris, thanks to Louis XIV, an avid proponent of Baroque dance, the ancestor of ballet. The Opéra’s new building, the Palais Garnier was under construction around the same time as the Bataclan theatre and eventually opened in 1875, followed by the Opéra Bastille more than a century later.
Cafés & Cabarets
For the less wealthy, entertainment took place in cafés, bistros and music halls. The café Le Chat Noir was a breeding ground for new movements, which composersErik Satie (1866-1925) andClaude Debussy (1862-1918) both frequented, as well as many painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, and writers, such as the poet Paul Verlaine. Located in the Bohemian district of Montmartre, it was run by Rodolph Salis from 1881 to 1897. This was thought to have been the world’s first modern cabaret. Many imitators exist today that try to emulate the bohemian aura that Le Chat Noir emanated. This 'bobo' (bohemian bourgeoise) feeling lives on in the 11th arondissiment today, something that many young people of the 21st century can relate to, which has made the 13 November 2015 events all the more real and frightening.
Théophile Steinlen's 1896 poster advertising a tour to other
cities ("coming soon") of the Le Chat Noir's troupe of cabaret entertainers
Satie and Le Chat Noir
Erik Satie escaped his restrictive home life aged 21 and became acquainted with the boisterous bohemian Paris life, moving into a room in rue Condorcet (the street was named after one of the Enlightenment thinkers). His place of residence was close to the Le Chat Noir cabaret, where he became a regular, introducing himself as “Erik Satie – gymnopédiste”. By 1890, the year in which he moved to Montmartre, he was the conductor of the Chat Noir orchestra that accompanied Henri Riviere’s shadow theatre spectacles.
In the 1890s, Paris encountered a renewed intellectual interest in the Roman Catholic Church. While some intellectuals became averse to religion, others became strongly involved in religious sects. Erik Satie developed interests in mystical, esoteric religion and became associated with Joséphin Péladan, official composer of the Mystic Order of the Rose+Cross. Péladan organised six avant-garde 'Salons Rose+Croix' that included many of the prominent symbolist painters, writers and composers of the period. Satie always searched for a perfect compositional system. In his Rose+Croix years (1891-95) he was endlessly experimenting, which resulted in theFanfares of the Rose+Cross and his even more well-known Ogives, which are slow and modal. While they are simple, however the thinking behind them is way ahead of its time.
During his own lifetime, Satie influenced Debussy,Raveland the composers of Les Six and after his death he continued to have a hugely important influence, particularly in the 1960s by the likes ofJohn Cage, who held concerts of his works, declaring his influence fundamental to the development of contemporary music. His piece Uspud is one of the earliest works involving absurd theatre, and its text was the first ever text to be published in fully lowercase – something that seems so everyday and almost mundane nowadays, what with all the hipsters, but back then was considered unspeakably rebellious.
Picasso and the Musical Stage
Erik Satie’s ballet, Parade, was a collaboration he made with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso which premiered in May 1917, which caused bedlam after being poorly received by the critics. That exact same year,Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Pablo Picasso met in Italy and worked together onPulcinella, a ballet inspired by the Neapolitan Commedia dell’Arte character, also known as Punch. Picasso designed the original costumes and sets. From then on, Picasso and Stravinsky kept up an artistic dialogue, fashioning miniature works of art for each other as expressions of their friendship. This artistic exchange between the pair saw them attempting to capture something of each other’s medium in their own work. In April, 1917, Stravinsky used a hotel telegram to create a “Sketch of Music for the Clarinet” for Picasso, in which he acknowledged Cubism by creating a confluence of lines over this short five-bar piece. In return, Picasso made several sketches of the composer during their long friendship.
Stravinsky was a mainstay of the Parisian musical scene ever since his long term collaboration with his fellow countryman the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The aforementionedPulcinellacame after such renowned works asThe Firebird(1910) andPetrouschka(1911) and the work that caused a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées the Rite of Spring(1913).
Stravinsky by Picasso
Claude Debussy too, was a renowned catalyst of the late 19th and early 20th century composer whose harmonic innovations had a profound effect on generations of musicians and composers in Paris and elsewhere and even still resonates today. He was a great innovator with strikingly original new aesthetics that emerged over the course of his career. He created new genres and a new personal style with regard to tone colour and timbre. The 1880s were a time of financial struggle for Debussy but nevertheless he frequented the literary cafés of Paris where he met composers, artists, writers and philosophers. In 1890 he met the poet Mallarmé and set his poem to music inPrelude L’aprés-midi d’un faune, his first instrumental masterpiece, which was a colossal success, performed 40 times in Germany between 1903 and 1914. Along with Cézanne and Mallarmé, Debussy became known as one of the three greats in French modernism.
Impressionism, Modernism and Beyond
Impressionism almost immediately brings to mind Paris in the early 20th century and the paintings of Monet, Renoir and Cézanne. After Debussy’s works were published and circulated, the term ‘debussysme’ came into vogue and much like other 'isms' it was used both as a compliment and in a derogatory way. Much to Debussy’s annoyance, it was in 1887 that he had first been called an ‘Impressionist’, by members of the Institute de France, referring to his Printemps and which caught on even more strongly after La Mer. In 1908, Debussy wrote to his publisher ‘I’m attempting “something different’’, realities in some sense – what imbeciles call impressionism, just about the least appropriate term possible’.
Due to his love of poetry, his songs were fluid and full of the vocal inflections of the French language and much more tonally adventurous than his instrumental music. He was also influenced by the French symbolist movement with its esoteric perception and its rejection of naturalism and realism. After the 1900 world exhibition, in which he was exposed to Javanese gamelan, Debussy explores new possibilities of gamelan-related elements in his piano works.
Debussy famously declared that music is neither major nor minor. From there, I can move on to discuss later musical trends, and composers who came after, from 'Les six' to Nadia Boulanger and her direct effect on the next generation of European and American composers, to the spectralists like Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, but we could be here all evening.
Monet's Waterlilies, synonymous with impressionism
I could go on and on with examples of the charming, alluring essence of Paris in centuries past and the unwaning popularity of the masterpieces of these years. Some of the most important developments in Western culture came from the fruitful breeding ground of Paris. The Baroque era, when the roots of opera and ballet took off; the Enlightenment, when philosophy, reason and politics were questioned by the likes of Diderot, Voltaire and Descartes; the 19th and early 20th century when the fine arts, literature and music found new forms. The modernist era, a time when changes in compositional techniques and style were becoming more and more dramatic, when tonality was being used in new ways and the emergence of new innovations was escalating, inevitably saw new opportunities for instruments, genres and tonal systems. Each era saw advancements which would not have even been dreamed of in the previous movement. In short, Paris and cultural life are inseparable.
Header image: Public domain
Listen Debussy and Satie on primephonic!