Wednesday 5 June 2019. 9-11AM, Room 116.
Chair: Jon-Tomas Godin (Brandon University)
On Auditors and Spectators: Tracing the “Pre-Cinematic” Sensibility in Nineteenth-Century French Critical Discourse
Catrini Flint de Médicis, Vanier College
Prior to the growth of cinema and radio, French music lovers were sometimes exposed to a “pre-cinematic” aesthetic experience. The “pre-cinematic” has been linked to melodrama (Waeber 2005), and marionette and shadow theatre (Plassard 2005, Schifano 2008, Hugues 1986)—genres that involve the separation of sound from the visual subject. But the “pre-cinematic” has also been associated with non-staged works by Debussy (Leydon 2001) and others. French audiences also encountered “invisible” music emanating from choir lofts, and the wings of the Opéra. These circumstances motivate an exploration into the critical discourse that coincided with the emergence of the “pre-cinematic” in music. In this paper, I begin this process by examining the use of two word sets, auditeur (audition) and spectateur (spectacle), during the nineteenth century.
In his study on the growth of silent listening, James Johnson (1995) made exclusive use of the word “spectators” to describe mainly operatic audiences. But press reports often refer to these audiences as “auditors.” Indeed, the word auditeur is used indiscriminately, to refer to concerts and opera audiences alike. I highlight the difference between this tendency and discursive practice in fiction, where musical audiences are rarely referred to as auditeurs. I conclude by identifying the period after 1870 as the moment when auditeur (audition) and spectateur (spectacle) acquire more specific meanings, and I link this to a growing intellectualization of music that is played out in an increase in lecture-recitals, and an emerging fascination for works in “pre-cinematic” genres such as shadow and puppet theatre.
In her 2017 book on Debussy’s legacy, Marianne Wheeldon describes the pivotal role that Le Martyre played in shaping his reception. For debussystes like Louis Laloy, the work “radiates a celestial clarity” and a “purity of style” that Wheeldon finds puzzling considering the stylistically eclectic score. She argues that the prominence of the work in debussyste accounts of his career is primarily motivated by their close involvement with the premiere of the work and not by musical considerations. Wheeldon is hardly alone in identifying the various musical styles in the score. In a lengthy and effusive review of the 1911 première, Robert de Montesquiou identified “l’appropriation” in Debussy’s score as “excellent and
perfect, at all points of this mystery, where Euterpe and St. Cecelia were made to sound in unison.”
Montesquiou’s image of pagan and Christian musical styles brought together in the service of mystery resonates strongly with fin-de-siècle symbolist practices. Artists (Moreau, Redon, Delville) and authors (Proust, Wilde, Mann, Huysmans) all found artistic inspiration in medieval saints and particularly in Sebastian, whose transformation from athletic Roman soldier to willowy young man was accomplished in the Renaissance. Central to Sebastian’s appeal was mystery; for the faithful, it was the miraculous survival of his first execution while for aesthetes like Gabrielle d’Annunzio, author of Le Martyre, it was an unacknowledged homoeroticism that has turned Sebastian into a gay icon.
Debussy’s stylistic borrowings relate directly to his desire to bring out both pagan and Christian mysticism in the work. In his early discussions on the project with d’Annunzio, Debussy worried about finding the right musical language to express the “endlessly renewed splendour” of d’Annunzio’s imagination without “penetrating the mystery [of the subject], armoured in vain pride.” The musical numbers, ranging from purely instrumental preludes through dances, melodrama and song, have clear connections to many of Debussy’s other works, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. This stylistic assemblage is quintessentially symbolist, evoking the mysterious connections between the different movements. My project traces this sense of mystery through motivic relationships and procedural similarities across a range of evoked styles, drawing parallels with visual representations of Sebastian from Debussy’s cultural milieu.
A dark undercurrent exists in Debussy’s La boîte a joujoux, one intent on discrediting the Ballets Russes and its meteoric ascent in Debussy’s Paris. Collaboration on the ballet involving Debussy and André Hellé took place in 1913-14, but the work was not staged during Debussy’s lifetime.
La boîte’s roster of stock-in-trade commedia dell’arte figures openly reference Petrushka (1911)—as others have noted. My hypothesis is that Debussy challenges the affective design of Petrushka in parallel locations in La boîte in order to reduce to the level of absurd any affiliation with high art ascribed to the Nijinsky-Diaghilev-Stravinsky axis. In this way, the inner world of La boîte is a riposte contra Petrushka, a point that is exposed on multiple levels ranging from moments when direct musical quotation is subversively treated through collage and other means, to forms of negation achieved by Debussy’s misalignment of characters and mise-en-scènes in the two ballets.
French critic and playwright André Obey was a key figure of the reflection in regard to the relationship between sport and music during the interwar years. His 1941 play 800 mètres, which stages a foot race, is a realization of Obey’s ideas on the interpenetration of sport and music. Obey’s detailed notes about how the incidental music for 800 mètres should sound and function are a “ghost” score that Arthur Honegger was asked to realize. This presentation will provide a study of Obey’s ideas on the interpenetration of sport and music. Through the study of archive materials (Honegger’s score is now lost), it will analyse how these ideas became concrete in 800 mètres. By comparing Obey’s and Honegger “ghost” score for this unique yet obscure sporting work with a 1964 radio recording of the play, will expose a compelling case study of conflicting musical settings of a play.