Neoclassicism in France

France has always been a hotbed for highly influential composers that turn the tides of Western music’s evolution, and perhaps this is most evident in the Neoclassical era. We’ve already looked at several early-20th century reactions against heavy-handed German Romanticism. In France, this reaction was the beginning of an artistic movement, led in large part not only by composers from elsewhere who lived in France (like Stravinsky and Prokofiev), but also from native French composers. Avant-Garde, this interwar era of French art and music, embraced not just the simplicity we’ve already seen in other Neoclassical entries, but also an element of eccentricity, frivolity and surrealism. Art and life were intertwined in strange, fanciful ways; composers began pushing the boundaries of multi-medium performance, multi-genre composition and more.

We will look today at some major players in the Avant Garde movement, which evolved from two major personalities (Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau) and gained momentum as a small group of younger composers took the aesthetic and made it their own with great success. Erik Satie was an eccentric composer and writer, seen as the catalyst for the Avant Garde movement in music. Jean Cocteau, an artist, writer and critic, also had a major influence on his fellow artists and musicians by providing popular texts that would be set to music as well as art to inspire the writing of music. Finally, we’ll look at two composers who built their careers with inspiration from Satie: Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.

Erik Satie: Blazing a Trail

Despite his intelligence and scholarly inclinations, Erik Satie (1866-1925) was known as eccentric, unpredictable, personality. This combination of intellectual ferver and offbeat creativity combined to make a strange but compelling influence in French art and music. Satie didn’t want to be called a musician, but a “phonometrician” (a measurer of sound), and this says more about him than most descriptions could! Satie was deeply involved in the composer circles in Paris, exercising his infectious curiosity and visionary creativity. Satie and Debussy were good friends, but even Debussy’s compositional style proved too chromatic and dense for Satie’s taste. Satie attempted, much like the twelve-tone serialist composers in Austria, to boil down music to its essentials only. Here is a very famous work of Satie, his collections of Gymnopedies.

In addition to severely simplifying music such as in these Gymnopedies, Satie also experimented with multi medium art in his operas. His ballet Parade had an all-star cast in its production: choreographed by Paris’ premier choreographer, scenario by Jean Cocteau, stage and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and contributions by Stravinsky as well. In addition to this A-list production cast, Satie used typewriters, sirens, tape, airplane propellers and other nonsensical objects as part of the soundscape and for the ballet. Critics used the word “surrealism” for the first time in their reviews of Parade.

A short clip from Parade.

This was now the trend for music in Paris, and other composers took the outlandish legacy of Satie in several directions.

Darius Milhaud

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) had great respect for the Avant Garde of Satie, and Milhaud’s works have a distinct eccentricity to them, but Milhaud’s life took him all over the world and this influenced his work in equal measure. Milhaud spent some of his early adulthood working for a poet and dramatist who also happened to be the French ambassador to Brazil. Milhaud spent significant time in Brazil, hearing music there as he worked. Milhaud loved the folk music tradition he discovered in Brazil, and this profoundly influenced Milhaud’s compositional output for the rest of his life.

Below is a balled, “Le Boef sur le Toit” (the Ox on the Roof) that depicts several Brazilian melodies at once. Its title is that of an old Brazilian tango, and it is one of nearly 30 Brazilian melodies quoted in this work. Despite the tonal, simple tunes, the ballet still feels like the product of an Avant Garde composer. The orchestra often plays several tunes simultaneously, a concept called polytonality, and dissonant harmonies exist throughout. The balance of popular melodies with strange harmonic and textural choices make for a truly interesting composition.

Milhaud also lived and worked in the United States, and there he heard Jazz. This influenced him as strongly as Brazilian music did, and Milhaud wrote many compositions under the direct influence of Jazz instruments and Jazz harmony. This work, La Création du Monde, showcases Milhaud’s fascination of Jazz instruments such as the saxophone (then a new instrument) and drum set, as well as the versatility of the trumpet which can be at home in both “Classical” and jazz contexts. The instrumentation is a true mash-up of Jazz, Classical and even Brazilian, all at once. Polytonality (many melodies, in different keys, at once) will play a significant role. This piece challenges the listener to keep an open mind about what combinations of sound are “allowed” and what possibilities lie in combinations we may never have thought to use.

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) lived a very different life than Milhaud, and did much less traveling. Poulenc lived in France for his entire life, serving in both World Wars, living firsthand through Nazi occupation and reacting against it with his music. Poulenc identified strongly with the eccentricity of Satie and genuinely enjoyed writing lighthearted music. His pious upbringing also added an element of seriousness to his work which is often overlooked.

Here is an example of Poulenc’s work for piano, his principal instrument. Poulenc was a world-famous pianist and toured often as a performer. You can tell from the virtuosity of his piano compositions that Poulenc was a great performer as well.

Contemporaries of his criticized his music for having no sense of progress, that it was a regression to courtly jollity. How could such frothy, jolly music arise after the likes of the twelve-tone system, after Stravinsky’s dissonant harmonies, and while Europe was falling apart in War?

Perhaps these critics didn’t hear some of Poulenc’s other works, more serious in tone and using large ensembles as opposed to the single piano so popular in salons and “light music” venues. A concerto for Organ and Timpani in itself is quite inventive in my eyes, and Poulenc’s Organ and Timpani concerto is certainly not a lighthearted work.

Poulenc also wrote many sacred works for choir, especially in the aftermath of several personal tragedies in Poulenc’s life that coincided with the dire circumstances of Nazi occupation in France. Here is a work written after the sudden death of Poulenc’s friend. It sounds completely different from the solo piano works above, as well as the organ concerto,and I enjoy this immense variety in Poulenc’s work.

Milhaud and Poulenc are two of the most prolific major composers of the 20th century, perhaps even in the history of Western music, so it will be difficult to narrow down additional suggestions for listening. Milhaud wrote several string quartets, and Poulenc’s piano repertoire is extensive. I would begin with chamber music by both of them and see where you are taken by the variety you’ll encounter. Jazz, Latin music, Mass voluntaries, salon music, polytonality, even some serialism makes its way into works by both these inventive and curious composers. An exploration of their work will help open a listener’s mind to new possibilities of sound combinations in music, without the (potential) academic tediousness of serialism.

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