Katharine Ellis writes on a research odyssey through France

There’s a French Revolutionary image of 1789 that sticks in my mind: the hexagonal outline of mainland France cross-hatched with a green and pink chequerboard to indicate a new administrative order where geometry would cut across languages, communities, and existing geographical regions. Paris has a square to itself, patterned in red. The French Départements invented soon afterwards offered more concessions to topography, but in the name of national unity their names still erased mention of old regional power bases and their borders were designed to fragment former ducal territories.

In my new book French Musical Life, I try to show how musicians in the French provinces responded—after the initial shock—to the cultural implications of such centralist ‘levelling’ coming from a powerful capital city whose government treated provinces as akin to colonies providing it with useful raw materials. By this principle anything first class—whether people or artworks—belonged to the nation and required Parisian curation. Only the second-rate stayed in, or returned to, the sticks. A second image is relevant here: a 1907 caricature of Gabriel Fauré, director of the Paris Conservatoire, hothousing his young musicians. The best evaporate into the ether of stardom while the rest go cold and drip into a pot marked ‘waste for the provinces’.

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

The book turned into a project in two parts: one thinking about institutions and the ways they operated locally, regionally and in relation to Paris; and a second focusing on musical markers of difference, mostly rooted in folk music, that struggled to gain official acceptance during a century of art-music history stretching from the 1830s to the Second World War. It has long been a given of musicological life for dix-neuviémistes that studying Paris will enable us to know ‘what the French did’: I disagree.

What emerges from an archival odyssey of some sixteen years (highly pleasurable, it must be said) is a series of musical negotiations of civic pride and identity that produces complex forms of cultural play with the capital. Music education is an immediately sensitive area: should it be for the masses or for the talented individual? Some of the ensuing power struggles last for decades. And because performances of music are ephemeral, constant re-engagement proves necessary if local heroes are to be celebrated in the long term: putting up statues or renaming streets is relatively easy; keeping their operas on the stage of the local theatre is a different matter. Ambitious municipal councils such as Rouen or Lyon want to mount world premières; but will theatre managers at the national hubs in Paris be willing to accept second-hand goods? For most of the nineteenth century, financial and legal barriers mean the commonest answer is a resounding no. However, when it come to productions, regions can occasionally break the mould in spectacular fashion: Carmen and bullfighting, anyone? At the Roman arena in Nîmes it became traditional.

With the study of attitudes to folk music came a parallel study of musical regionalism—a trend that in other European nations and proto-nations merged with ‘nationalism’ but which in France was divisive. Various régimes supported folksong collecting and/or exhibition from the 1850s onwards, but always kept things on a short leash. The best example, perhaps, was the French folk music competition at the ‘centenary’ Exposition Universelle of 1889, where everything was instrumental (a good way to neutralise regional languages and prevent anti-Republican singalongs) and where the competitions were organised by instrument-type (a good way to prioritise technology and technique over regional musical variation).

The book’s themes of centralism vs. local governance and cultural unity vs. difference culminate amid the extreme political swings of the 1930s from far-left (the Front Populaire) to far-right (the Vichy régime). The main narrative stops at this point, but the implications continue. In fact, these stories of how to make an emotionally intense and unruly art form play the appropriate political tune seem even more pertinent now than they did when I began this research, in what seems like a different world, in 2005.

Professor Katharine Ellis is 1684 Professor of Music and a specialist on musical France of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her book, French Musical Life: Local Dynamics in the Century to World War II was recently published by Oxford University Press as part of the series AMS Studies in Music.

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