The Musical Legacy of Wartime France

The Musical Legacy of Wartime France

by Leslie A. Sprout


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275300
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/03/2013
Series: California Studies in 20th-Century Music Series , #16
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Leslie A. Sprout is Associate Professor of Music at Drew University.

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The Musical Legacy of Wartime France

By Leslie A. Sprout


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95527-1


Poulenc's Wartime Secrets

Poulenc's choruses ... have the absence of color of the days we lived through, and the immaterial light of hope. ANDRÉ SCHAEFFNER, "Francis Poulenc, musicien français"


After France declared war on Germany on 1 September 1939, Francis Poulenc, at forty a veteran of the First World War, had a much easier time as a soldier in the French army than most of his fellow composers. Instead of being forced to sit idle in a field during months of tense anticipation, Poulenc was sent on a goodwill tour by the Administration of Fine Arts with baritone Pierre Bernac to give concerts in January and February 1940 in Portugal, Italy, and Switzerland. When the Germans finally invaded in May 1940, there followed mass surrenders of French soldiers, including Olivier Messiaen, who were subsequently sent to German camps as prisoners of war; thousands of others in central France fought, with André Jolivet, to defend the country against the advancing German troops; some, most notably Jehan Alain, Maurice Jaubert, and Jean Vuillermoz, did not survive the battles. Poulenc's antiaircraft unit, which was called up on 2 June to the relatively safe city of Bordeaux, retreated around one hundred miles east to a small village outside of Cahors. When the two countries signed an armistice on 22 June, Poulenc found himself south of the demarcation line that divided the country into a northern zone occupied by German troops—including Paris and the country's strategic Atlantic coastlines—and a southern zone nominally in the control of the French government. By mid-July he was demobilized after having served six weeks in uniform.

Poulenc took full advantage of the peace and quiet of his idyllic surroundings. He was enchanted with the countryside and inspired by the people he met; in letters to friends he nicknamed the elderly farmers who were his hosts "Philémon and Baucis," and he described their barn, where he slept with other soldiers, as "very La Fontaine." "I have faith in the future, in our 'team,' and, what is more, I feel full of music," he wrote to Bernac on 10 July. "I have come up with a thousand melodies and the overall color of my ballet. Even the absence of a piano has been good for me." Poulenc had given some thought to a ballet based on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine as early as 1937, but it was the defeat of France that gave him the impetus and the opportunity to write the piece. By the time he was able to cross into the occupied zone in early September, he had picked out six fables and sketched most of the score.

In choosing to live in the occupied zone, Poulenc had to navigate among the competing demands placed upon prominent civilians there: by the German occupying forces, which sought to promote German music at the expense of French compositions and to encourage collaboration; by the Vichy regime, which balanced the need to defend French culture against German propaganda with not only the necessity of collaboration, but also political pressures to redefine the nation's cultural heritage along new ideological lines; and by the networks of resistance that gradually formed to combat German propaganda while eyeing Vichy's efforts with suspicion. Narrating the trajectory of Poulenc's wartime activities provides us, then, with more than just the story of one celebrated composer's ability not only to survive but to thrive in the adverse circumstances of wartime France. It also gives us the opportunity to explore how the primary agents of those adverse circumstances—German occupiers, Vichy officials, and Resistance agitators—envisioned the role of music, especially new French compositions for the opera and ballet, in their projects and aspirations in wartime France.

For the first two years of the German occupation, Poulenc's activities were typical of most prominent French composers who had escaped capture by the German army. He composed and performed music, organized premieres of his new compositions, and published opinion pieces in the French press. As a composer, Poulenc worked on his largest project, the ballet Les Animaux modèles, from June 1940 to June 1942; by September 1942 he had also written one set of mélodies (Banalités, on the poetry of Apollinaire) and one of chansons (Chansons villageoises, on the stylized, folk-inspired poetry of Maurice Fombeure). Poulenc also agreed to write incidental music for two plays (Léocadia, by Jean Anouilh, and La fille du jardinier, by Charles Exbrayat) and one film (La Duchesse de Langeais, based on a story by Balzac). As a pianist Poulenc's frequent wartime recitals with Bernac consisted almost exclusively of French mélodies, by his predecessors (Chausson, Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Ravel) as well as his contemporaries, several of whose works he and Bernac premiered. He recorded mélodies by Chausson and Fauré with Bernac in December 1940, with a second wartime recording project of Debussy's vocal music with soprano Lucienne Tragin in 1943. Poulenc also played his own music, performing his Concert champêtre with Charles Münch and the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in February 1941 and with Gaston Poulet and the Concerts Gabriel Pierné in January 1942. As a music critic, Poulenc published three articles in early 1941 on composers who had profoundly influenced French music in the first half of the twentieth century: Stravinsky—he pleaded for more frequent performances of the composer "who honored us by applying for French citizenship"—Ravel, and Chabrier. And in May 1942 he praised Debussy for having given young French composers a model of "how to write music that is purely ours, whether it stems from Couperin, Berlioz, or Bizet." In March 1941 Poulenc teamed up with Roger Désormière to unearth Chabrier's earliest forays into the world of operetta (Fisch-Ton-Kan and Vaucochard et Fils 1er), paired with Rameau's Les Paladins, Stravinsky's Pulcinella, and Poulenc's own Aubade.

Poulenc's greatest wartime public success, the premiere of Les Animaux modèles at the Opéra on 8 August 1942, was a turning point. It was an event that implicated all the competing forces in occupied France. For the Vichy regime, although the ballet was not a state commission, it was exactly the kind of new French work that Vichy's new director of the Administration of Fine Arts, Louis Hautecoeur, was seeking to produce with Vichy's expanded commissions program. It reflected nostalgia for the ancien régime in its setting and themes, and the playful seductiveness of its music was bound to appeal to a wide audience. As far as the German occupying forces were concerned, Poulenc's ballet was premiered in the shadows of the Opéra's production, one month earlier, of Werner Egk's Joan de Zarissa, a ballet imposed on the French theater as an example of German superiority in contemporary music. For the Resistance, Les Animaux modèles showed Poulenc, who had joined the Resistance group the Front national des musiciens (FNM) sometime in 1942, using his public persona as a quintessentially French musician as cover for a subtly subversive act. He inserted into the ballet's score several references to Alsace et Lorraine, a song written in 1871 to protest Germany's annexation of French territory following the Franco-Prussian War.

As a result, Poulenc's ballet meant many things to many people. The work's overt references to the time of Louis XIV coexisted with secret references to wounded French pride, while its emphasis on French identity typecast it as less substantial than an analogous German production. In the premiere, Serge Lifar, a notorious collaborator who choreographed the work and danced a leading role, appeared before an audience in which German military personnel were given the best seats, while in the pit, the orchestra was conducted by Désormière, one of the founding members of the FNM. In his program notes to accompany the premiere—printed in French and German to accommodate the occupying forces in the audience—Poulenc wrote, "There is no need to summarize fables that everyone knows," a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the fables, and perhaps also Alsace et Lorraine, were intimately known to the French, but not the German, members of the audience. The work's title had come from Paul Éluard, who was one of the best-known poets of the French Resistance and who had gone into hiding shortly before the ballet's premiere.

In many respects Poulenc's was a typical wartime story. All composers who remained in occupied France had to contend with the same pressures. Several of them achieved public success, thanks in part to the increased funding for contemporary French music provided by Vichy after 1940. More than a few composed secret settings of clandestinely published poetry for postwar performance, as Poulenc did with his 1943 cantata for a cappella double choir, Figure humaine, culminating in his setting of Éluard's famous clandestine poem, "Liberté." Where Poulenc's story is unique is that he not only managed to achieve remarkable wartime success with his reputation intact, but he also dared to express during the war, onstage and in public, his profound dismay about the fate of his country, and he wrote a Resistance piece in secret that found eager and receptive audiences after the war.

In this chapter I explore the musical secrets in Les Animaux modèles in the context of the competing agendas of German and French officials for the repertory of the Opéra, epitomized in the juxtaposition of Poulenc's ballet with Egk's. I then discuss Poulenc's subsequent musical secrets: his Violin Sonata, with its overt homage to Federico García Lorca; the Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, settings of clandestinely published poetry by a known member of the Resistance that were nevertheless performed and published in occupied Paris; and the wartime genesis and postwar reception of Figure humaine. Finally, I examine how Poulenc was received after the war as a celebrated national figure through his ability during the war to balance his life as a respected public figure with his composition and performance of musical secrets.


In signing an armistice with Germany in June 1940, France faced severe conditions: occupation of the northern three-fifths of the country by German troops, with the costs paid for by France, and the demobilization of the French military, with over one and a half million French soldiers to be held in Germany until a peace treaty was signed. In early July 1940 the French parliament met in the resort town of Vichy, just south of the demarcation line between occupied and unoccupied zones, to plan the best way of negotiating a lasting peace. Pierre Laval, a prominent former prime minister in right-wing governments in the 1930s, argued that the country's institutions needed to be completely reformed in order to gain leverage in peace negotiations with Germany. A sweeping majority of ministers and parliamentarians agreed with him, voting the next day to dissolve the parliament, suspend the Republican constitution, and give full powers to the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain. Pétain, military savior of France during the Great War, the "hero of Verdun," was now to become the spiritual savior of a nation too weak to defend itself with arms; he appointed Laval, a forceful advocate for collaboration with Germany, his prime minister.

Few mourned the passing of the Third Republic. On the contrary, people from across the political spectrum embraced the new government's sweeping vision of reform, under the heading of National Revolution. It was apparent within political circles, however, long before the public became aware of it that the National Revolution was not just about renewal: it was also about revenge. The new regime's scapegoats were the old enemies of the political right: communists, Freemasons, Jews, and foreigners. The French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, or PCF) had already been dissolved when war was declared in September 1939. By October 1940 Pétain issued decrees that outlawed "secret societies," forced schoolteachers to take a loyalty oath to the new regime, revoked the citizenship of recently naturalized French citizens, and severely restricted the professions that French Jews could practice.

Faced with military defeat and economic disarray, the Vichy regime saw the cultural prestige of the country as the salvation of France. "France was not defeated on the battlefield of the arts," wrote Hautecoeur, a university professor and museum curator who was appointed director of the Administration of Fine Arts on 21 July 1940. "Our architecture, our painting, our sculpture, [and] our music continue to inspire admiration." The minister of national education was a politically sensitive post, held by no fewer than six men between 1940 and 1944. By contrast, Hautecoeur—traditional in his artistic tastes, faithful to Pétain in his social and political views, and nationalist in his defense of French culture—was able to maintain stability in the Administration of Fine Arts until he was replaced in March 1944. The administration under Hautecoeur balanced its interests in defending French culture against German propaganda with the pragmatic realities facing a collaborationist regime. He used the Nazi Reich Music Chamber as a model, increasing funding for the composition, performance, publication, and recording of new French music. The combined result was a dramatic increase in public visibility for contemporary composers in wartime France.

Government interest in the arts was nothing new in France. Vichy nevertheless differed from its predecessors in the attention it gave to music among all the arts. The allocation for music in the budget of the Administration of Fine Arts increased sharply during the four years of occupation even as the administration's total budget decreased. As a result, funding for music accounted for more than a third of the total arts budget by 1944. Contemporary music was poised to benefit most of all, for what better way could there be to demonstrate the vitality of the nation than in its newest artistic productions? Alongside the increased levels of funding allotted to music, the Administration of Fine Arts proposed that higher sums be given to commissions of new works in both music and the visual arts. Vichy's Administration of Fine Arts provided music commissions with their highest level of funding ever in 1941 and maintained it for the duration of the war. Between September 1940 and August 1944 the administration issued sixty-five commissions to sixty-one French composers and paid them a total of 702,000 francs. Although this sum still constituted only a small fraction of the total devoted to generating new works of art, new music had finally found a permanent home in the government budget.

Hautecoeur had discovered great potential in the music commissions program founded by Georges Huisman, his Popular Front predecessor, in 1938 as a form of unemployment compensation during tough economic times. Where Huisman's original conception began and ended with the idea of supporting composers in practicing their craft, Hautecoeur was concerned with the eventual performance of the new works. In the context of the German occupation of France, it was not sufficient just to stimulate the production of new French music. It was crucial that this new production be demonstrated to a wide audience: to the French themselves, to maintain a sense of pride; to the German soldiers who now formed a large percentage of Parisian audiences; and to the outside world, which was nervously watching France as a case study of life in a Europe ruled by Nazi Germany. Hautecoeur saw German interest in attending cultural events in Paris as a unique opportunity to increase the prestige of French culture in Germany. "These men, who came persuaded of our artistic decadence, discovered a modern school of composers, as well as singers, performers, and set designers that proved to them the vitality of our country," he would write after the war.


Excerpted from The Musical Legacy of Wartime France by Leslie A. Sprout. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Poulenc’s Wartime Secrets

2. Honegger’s Postwar Rehabilitation

3. Ignoring Jolivet’s Testimony, Embracing Messiaen’s Memories

4. The Timeliness of Duruflé’s Requiem

5. From the Postwar to the Cold War: Protesting Stravinsky in Postwar France




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