The music world owes a debt of gratitude to two rival organizations that were at the center of the Parisian arts scene during France’s “Golden Age” of music.
Well into the latter part of the nineteenth century, the symphonic tradition continued to be regarded as the near-exclusive domain of the Austro-German school of music. There had been attempts to broaden its geographic scope (Berlioz in France comes to mind), but late into the 1800s Central Europe continued to be considered the center of the instrumental realm — even as Italy meant “opera” and France laid claim to ballet along with opera.
In France, we do see evidence of certain composers attempting to establish a “pure music” tradition, as illustrated by the early symphonies of composers like Gounod and Bizet. Even so, these and others were to find their greatest success in their stage works, while composers such as Meyerbeer, Auber, Delibes and Massenet were the beneficiaries of substantial artistic (and monetary) success due to devoting the bulk of their attentions to creating music for the stage.
Still another group of French composers devoted themselves to “pure” music with a seriousness that was more pronounced. Yet those composers didn’t totally eschew operatic works, either; even César Franck composed operas.
Société nationale de musique (1871-1939)
The Franco-Prussian War contributed mightily to the perceived need to cultivate a specifically French instrumental tradition. France’s defeat was as much a psychological blow as it was a military one, and one consequence of this “wounded pride” was the founding of the Société nationale de musique. It was an organization established with the express purpose of promoting French music and giving rising French composers a vehicle to present their works in public.
The Société nationale came into being in February 1871 during the brief lull between the end of the siege of Paris and the rise and fall of the Paris Commune, riding a wave of French national (and anti-German) sentiment. (Before the war with Prussia, Beethoven and other Austro-German repertoire had dominated orchestral concerts in Paris, but unsurprisingly that state of affairs had become intolerable for many concert-goers.)
Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine (a professor of voice at the Paris Conservatoire) led the formation of the new society, joined by other founding members Gabriel Fauré, César Franck, Jules Massenet, Henri Duparc, Théodore Dubois, Ernest Guiraud and Paul Taffanel.
Fellow founding member Alexis de Castillon drafted the nationalist principles of the Society, which stated in part:
“The proposed purpose of the Society is to aid the production and popularization of all serious works, whether published or not, by French composers. To encourage and bring to light, as far as lies within its power, all musical attempts, whatever their form, on condition that they give evidence of lofty artistic aspirations on the part of their author.
Fraternally … the members will unite their efforts, each in his own sphere of action, to the study and performance of the works which they shall be called upon to select and interpret.”
Significantly, another clause in the Society’s constitution stipulated:
“No one can be part of the Society as an active member unless he is French.”
The first concert of the Societé nationale, held in November 1871, drew on repertoire from the founding members, including chamber music and vocal pieces by Dubois, de Castillon, Franck, Saint-Saëns and Fauré. (Programs in the early years leaned heavily towards chamber music, with restricted finances precluding all but just a handful of orchestral concerts.)
But within 15 years of the Société nationale’s founding, dissension in the ranks had began to build. A faction of the Society determined that its French nationalistic character had become too limiting. Led by Vincent d’Indy, who had been appointed a joint secretary of the Society in 1885, this faction enlisted the support of Franck to open the Society to non-French music and musicians. By 1886 the first music by a non-French composer had been presented (a composition by Edvard Grieg), and in 1890 d’Indy himself had become president of the organization.
The opening of the Societé musicale to non-French musicians, coupled with its increasingly close connections to the musically conservative Schola Cantorum (where Franck and d’Indy taught), led to the organization losing some of its luster among the younger generation of composers then coming of age in Paris.
And this is where the story takes its next major turn.
Enter Les Apaches (1902-1915)
To be a young composer, painter or writer in Paris at the turn of the last century meant being among a group of avant-garde artists for which the future promised seemingly limitless possibilities. To these fresh-faced creative artists, nothing could stand in their way — except the hidebound conservatives who held sway in the city’s established arts and academic institutions.
One can imagine the sense of breathless excitement that swirled around these “bright young things” as they talked of the future — even as they cast aspersions on the stuffy establishmentarians in the academy and in society. Florent Schmitt found himself at the center of this intoxicating brew.
It seemed only natural that such an artistically electric atmosphere would eventually turn into something of a movement, and the catalyst was the 1902 premiere of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande — a stage work that essentially threw out the old operatic playbook. Shortly after the premiere of Debussy’s opera, the most precocious of these non-conformist artists would establish a loose confederation that they dubbed the Société des Apaches.
Why that name? Reportedly, this term (an early twentieth century term describing European street gangs of rowdy young men as “hooligans”) had been used as a slur against the group as they departed noisily from the premiere performance of Debussy’s opera. Finding the sobriquet amusing, the young creatives also saw the term as affirming their art being directly at odds with conservative, establishmentarian tastes.
Among the founding members of Les Apaches were the following young creatives:
- Édouard Bénédictus (painter)
- Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (author and critic)
- Marcel Chadeigne (opera coach)
- Maurice Delage (composer)
- Manuel de Falla (composer)
- Léon-Paul Fargue (poet)
- Lucien Garban (editor)
- Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (conductor)
- Tristan Kingsor (poet and painter)
- Paul Ladmirault (composer)
- Georges Mouveau (set designer)
- Léon Pivet (lithographer)
- Maurice Ravel (composer)
- Albert Roussel (composer)
- Florent Schmitt (composer)
- Paul Sordes (painter and set designer)
- Ricardo Viñes (pianist)
- Émile Vuillermoz (music critic)
From 1903 onward, the group would meet following concerts each Saturday evening at members’ homes. Such meetings were lively affairs, often lasting long into the night (to the consternation of neighbors, necessitating the eventual move to rented quarters of Maurice Delage in an industrial section of the city). Invariably, discussion among Apache members centered on the arts, contemporary issues of the day, plus performing music and reading poetry along with imbibing copious quantities of alcohol, strong coffee and smoking products.
Symbolism, Russian composers, Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande, Javanese music, Stéphane Mallarmé, Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Cézanne — these were among the varied topics of fascination at Apache get-togethers. As recounted in the personal journals of Ricardo Viñes, Apache members also played and read their own creative work to each other “in the friendlest atmosphere that could be imagined — exciting, fraternal, not expensive, not nasty, not political — and one where you could get a pat on the back at any time.”
In a similar vein, Léon-Paul Fargue wrote of Apache get-togethers, “It seemed that everything was still to be done — to be invented — and everyone knew that, and that spirit was in the air.”
Moreover, new members were welcomed to the loosely organized group — most notably Igor Stravinsky upon his arrival in the French capital in 1909.
Outside of their meetings, Apache members would support each other in various ways. Ricardo Viñes premiered piano works by the composers, the music critics would encourage new music through their articles of advocacy in the press, and poets would collaborate with their musician counterparts in setting their words to music.
Because of the close-knit nature of the Les Apaches, many of the members became intimate friends. As an example of such relationships, in their book A French Song Companion, co-authors Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes report that Ravel used the French familiar form tu with only three friends outside his close family — and all three of them were members of Les Apaches (Fargue, Schmitt and Stravinsky).
Not surprisingly, regular meetings of Les Apaches would become a casualty of World War I as members found themselves scattered (some at the war front), and the group eventually dissolved. However, Les Apaches’ existence had been consequential well-beyond merely the meetings and the shared friendships of its members; the group was also a significant catalyst in the creation of an alternative music society that would be set up as a rival to the Societé nationale, as our story continues …
Société musicale indépendante (1910-1935)
Les Apaches may have been merely a loose confederation of like-minded artistic souls, but the group happened to form the foundation of a new music society that rose up in competition with the Societé nationale de musique. When the Société musicale indépendante (SMI) was formed in 1910, it was as a direct challenge to the Societé nationale, which had slowly lost favor for its perceived conservatism and “frankly Franckian” bias. Several of Ravel’s works had been poorly received at Societé nationale concerts, while compositions by Koechlin, Delage and Vaughan Williams had been refused performance out of hand.
The SMI’s express aim was to support contemporary musical creation, freeing it from restrictions linked to “establishment” forms, genres and styles.
Florent Schmitt was one of the four founding members of the SMI, which proceeded to name Schmitt’s respected teacher and mentor Gabriel Fauré as the new organization’s president. The SMI’s executive committee would come to consist of a veritable “who’s who” of the leading young composers and music scholars of the time, including:
- Louis Aubert
- Béla Bartók
- Nadia Boulanger
- André Caplet
- Jules Écorcheville
- Manuel de Falla
- Arthur Honegger
- Jean Huré
- Jacques Ibert
- Charles Koechlin
- Maurice Ravel
- Jean Roger-Ducasse
- Albert Roussel
- Florent Schmitt
- Arnold Schoenberg
- Igor Stravinsky
- Émile Vuillermoz
The inaugural orchestral concert of the SMI was held on June 9, 1910 in Paris. Among the works presented on that first program was Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII. Also featured in the concert was the Symphony No. 1 by the Polish-born composer Eugeniusz Morawski.
Looking at the programming practices of the two rivals, during the period 1910 to 1930 I think it is fair to conclude that the SMI’s activities eclipsed those of the Societé nationale — if not in quantity, then in terms of the importance of the musical offerings presented to the Parisian public.
Although a sense of French nationalism had clearly reasserted itself in the wake of the First World War, the SMI did not confine itself to promoting the music of French composers exclusively; instead, its outlook was global — and focused on the “modern.”
Among the numerous international composers whose music was given exposure in France thanks to the efforts of the SMI were the Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. The significance of the SMI’s advocacy on behalf of the avant-garde in music was underscored in a letter that Webern wrote to Ravel in 1927 which stated, in part:
“Thanks to your vision, the Societé musicale indépendante exists to combat musical censorship, permitting voices and styles to be heard that would otherwise be stifled by Vincent d’Indy’s exclusive and demanding aesthetic requirements … d’Indy’s criteria for ‘serious musical works’ is so rigid that the performances of new works becomes as tedious as a university examination …
The SMI makes Paris globally connected, rather than localized and isolated. Although the SMI has produced only a fifth of the concert volume of the Société nationale, it has welcomed numerous experimental, foreign or otherwise avant-garde works. In our postwar reality, when French pride permeates every aspect of Paris, such a venue for foreign music is a rare treasure …
I am aware that these opportunities do not exist without great controversy, and I thank you for your tireless efforts to cultivate new international music … Such an international embrace of new works signifies the SMI’s high standards for compositional excellence — where a composer’s worth is based not on nationality but on style, aesthetics, and quality.”
Over its consequential 25-year existence, the SMI would organize more than 170 concerts consisting of some 435 pieces of music — many of them premiere performances.
Final Years and Legacy
Over the years, the two rival music societies were characterized by both divergence and convergence. Recognizing that the higher aims of both groups shared significant similarities, efforts were even made to bring the two rival music societies together. An attempt at a merger, proposed in the mid-1920s, ultimately failed due to unbridgeable differences in vision between the younger SMI members and the “old guard.”
But the Societé nationale itself was changing as well. By 1930, Vincent d’Indy’s influence had waned considerably (he would die in 1931), and in the event the Societé nationale began presenting more daring new works by composers such as Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Bohuslav Martinů, Déodat de Severac and Olivier Messiaen.
With such convergence in programming happening, the need for two distinct organizations began to seem less necessary, and perhaps because of this the SMI began to experience financial difficulties from 1930 onwards.
Despite stalwart efforts by Nadia Boulanger and others to keep the organization going, by 1935, the SMI was forced to cease its operations and the Societé nationale once again became the flagship proponent of new music in France — and it would continue in that role until the onset of World War II.
As the final surprise in “coming full circle,” it’s interesting to discover that Florent Schmitt — who had been at the center of establishing the “counter-cultural” Apaches and SMI groups — ended up serving as the last president of the Société nationale (1937-39). Ultimately, the clamorous “outsiders” had become the consummate “insiders.”
The dissolution of the Société nationale — ending not with a bang but with a whimper as declarations of war were being proclaimed all across Europe — seems at first blush a rather dispiriting end to the story. But the French essayist Romain Rolland penned a memorable epitaph that helps remind us of the consequential role that the organization played in the musical life of France over nearly seven decades, and particularly during its early years:
“It is with respect that we must speak of the Société Nationale, which was truly the cradle and sanctuary of French art. Everything that was great in French music, from 1870 to 1900, came through it. Without the Societé Nationale, most of the works that are the honor of our music not only would not have been performed, but perhaps never even created.”
One Last Effort: Association de musique contemporaine (1940-1941)
With the dissolution of the Société nationale de musique in 1939, an attempt was made to establish a successor organization, but it would be destined to fail as the “phony war” of 1939 in the Western theatre would suddenly turn into a conflict that was all-too deadly and real.
Beginning in January 1940, four board members from the old Société nationale came together to organize a successor organization that was named the Association de musique contemporaine (AMC). The four founding members of this new organization were the composers Florent Schmitt, Alexandre Tansman, Emmanuel Bondeville and Henri Martelli.
Six organizational meetings of the organizing committee were held between January and April 1940, the minutes for which were recorded by Henri Martelli in his capacity as secretary of the AMC. Those handwritten minutes, along with the original manuscript signed by Schmitt and Martelli documenting the governing board of the Association plus the authorization for Tansman, as the organization’s treasurer, to open an AMC bank account, are housed today at the Henri Martelli Archive in Stuttgart, Germany.
The AMC committee members embraced a full range of stylistic tendencies and included conductors as well as composers. Florent Schmitt was named honorary president, and other members included Tony Aubin, Georges Auric, Henry Barraud, Louis Beydts, Emmanuel Bondeville, Eugène Bozza, Pierre Capdevielle, Georges Dandelot, Marcel Delannoy, Claude Delvincourt, Maurice Duruflé, Louis Fourestier, Jean Françaix, Marius-François Gaillard, Andre Jolivet, Jeanne Leleu, Raymond Loucheur, Jean Marietti, Henri Martelli, Charles Munch, Francis Poulenc, Jean Rivier, Henri Sauguet, Alexandre Tansman and Alexandre Tcherepnin.
The manifesto of the AMC, which appeared in L’Information musicale in November 1940, included the following description of the organization’s mission and activities:
This association … has resumed its activities with an enlarged scope; it appeals to the most eminent and representative composers of the young Parisian school, without any clique-like attitudes. Within its committee as well as its programs, the AMC has tried to bring together musicians of every school and every tendency, and those who belong to the principal chamber music societies of Paris whose activities have been interrupted by the war. These include the [Société] Nationale, Triton, the SMI, the SIMC [Société internationale de musique contemporaine], the concerts of Revue musicale, Jeune France, Serenade, etc.
Despite the drumbeat of war becoming inexorably louder, the AMC managed to mount one concert before the Nazi invasion of France commenced on May 10, 1940; three weeks earlier on April 17, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra had presented the first AMC-sponsored concert of music by five contemporary composers, consisting of the following repertoire:
- Marcel Delannoy: Figures sonores
- Claude Delvincourt: Monde de rosée
- Tibor Harsányi: Histoire du petit tailleur for seven instruments and percussion
- Manuel Rosenthal: Chansons du Monsieur Bleu
- Alexandre Tcherepnin: Suite géorgienne
The Nazi invasion of the country resulted in the swift fall of Paris by June 14 and the official surrender of French armed forces days later. With the fall of France and the grim years of occupation that were to follow, it’s easy to see in hindsight that the AMC was destined to fail. The AMC was able to put on a total of five concerts in 1940-41, presenting works by Jean Daniel-Lesur, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jaubert, Olivier Messiaen, Francis Poulenc, Jean Rivier and Henri Tomasi in addition to the composers listed above. The last AMC concert was presented in 1941.
By the time of French liberation in 1944, the world was forever changed, and the trajectory of French classical music would likewise change in ways that must have seemed incomprehensible to the “old lions” of the French school of composition.
Florent Schmitt and the few remaining compatriots from his generation (notably Louis Aubert and Jean Roger-Ducasse) would continue to produce new works into the 1950s, but these would be met with general indifference by a music world that no longer felt that their creative output mattered.
Like many a “Golden Age” in history, the glorious period of French music that had sprung from the flowering of talent in 1870 did not die suddenly and spectacularly, but instead quietly and almost imperceptibly. Fortunately, with the passage of time a new generation of music-lovers is becoming reacquainted with this remarkable musical legacy and the many riches it contains.