Crisis and Transformation: French Opera, Politics and the Press, 1897–1903
James Ross, Christ Church, Oxford
Submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Trinity Term 1998
1897 to 1903 was a time of crisis and transformation in French opera. It witnessed first performances of new operas composed in the 1890s which sought to redefine the medium in response to the influence of Wagner, a problem exceptionally acute in France. Five works in particular played important roles in this process: Zola's and Bruneau's Messidor (1897), d'Indy's Fervaal (1897/98), Charpentier's Louise (1900), Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and Chausson's Le Roi Arthus (1903). Messidor employed contemporary realism alongside mythology and a Wagnerian system of musical motifs; this was extended in Louise; Fervaal absorbed and re-stated Wagner in a French context; Arthus inverted the story and ideas behind Tristan; Pelléas emerged as the profoundest revaluation of Wagner's methods: critics searching for an opera that reasserted and symbolised French cultural identity said it was prophetic: 'une musique dramatique nouvelle après Wagner et non pas d'après Wagner'. Louise is treated in this thesis in relationship to Messidor. This is partly because, unlike Louise, Messidor remains under-examined, but more importantly, it prefigured debates about realism associated with Charpentier.
The press expressed its anxieties in constant arguments on the future of French opera, their dominant themes being Wagner and national identity in art. In this context, the reception and subsequent reputations of these operas at their first performances in Paris or Brussels are assessed. The ensuing debates often – but not always – have wider cultural and political implications. Reviews, however, were seldom affected by political opinions.
This study questions accepted ideas about fin de siècle French opera and a generation of almost-forgotten works, which, in the depth and sensibility of their responses to Wagner, amounted to nothing less than a re-examination of the nature of the art-form. It examines the process by which the early months and years of an opera's reception determined its future, and shows how acclamation for Pelléas as France's cultural liberation from Wagnerism was as much a product of timing and the polemical needs of critics as of genius. It seeks to illuminate the history of criticism, the critics, and their outlets. In consequence a detailed picture of musical life emerges which shows a society – or at least an educated elite – in which questions of national perception and identity were central to art and culture.
Doctoral Supervisor: Professor Roger Parker, assisted by Richard Langham Smith.