France Music – Berlioz and the Modern School

By | January 15, 2022

From Berlioz, as from Wagner in Germany, the whole modern French musical movement derives. This great artist, still not sufficiently appreciated, broke the conventions of classicism by opening all the ways in which his successors set out. In 1829, with the Symphonie fantastique, he inaugurates new processes of development (especially the system of the conductor motif), creates the symphonic poem and renews the art of orchestration. He claims the rights of symphonic music in France when it seemed there was no place other than the theater. C. Saint-Saens and E. Lalo, initiators of the rebirth that occurs after 1870, are to a large extent his disciples and spiritual heirs.

Franck played a large part in this renewal of French music, especially for chamber music and organ music: while Lalo and Saint-Saens were above all brilliant harmonists, he maintained the tradition of contrapuntal writing. His disciples, V. d’Indy, E. Chausson, A. Magnard, G.-M. Witkowsky, J. Guy Ropartz, continued in the path he traced, saving polyphonic traditions and thus facilitating the resumption of counterpoint practices we are witnessing today.

Lalo with his orchestral and harmonic researches (especially in Namouna), and E. Chabrier with his exquisite sense of harmony, and with his subtle combinations of timbres, paved the way for Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas.

According to, the opera house is now reopening to the French. Succeeding Gounod, who appears as a leader, G. Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Massenet create works such as CarmenSamson et DalilaManon and Werther, which exerted great influence throughout Europe. Gustave Charpentier (Louise, 1900), Alfred Bruneau, Georges Hüe, Gabriel Pierné, Raoul Laparra, Henri Rabaud, Gabriel Dupont, Samuel Rousseau, Henry Février, etc. In light music, Léo Delibes and Emmanuel Chabrier stood out, and operetta, with J. Offenbach, France Hervé, A.-Ch. Lecocq, Claude Terrasse, André Messager, continued the brilliant tradition, still illustrated today by the scores of Reynaldo Hahn and M. Yvain. However, the great operas that renewed the conception of opera in France were not by opera specialists, but by composers who dedicated themselves to it incidentally: C. Debussy (Pelleas et Mélisande, 1902), P. Dukas (Ariane et Barbe – Bleue), M. Ravel (L’heure espagnoleL’Enfant et les sortilèges), A. Roussel, A. Honegger (JudithAntigone), D. Milhaud, etc.

Around 1890, many French artists made themselves completely free from the Wagnerian influence, instinctively going back to the abandoned tradition of the masters of the century. XVII and XVIII. Chopin’s anti-Germanic influence also contributed to this. Gabriel Fauré, in his lyrics and his piano pieces, of refined writing, obtains special coloring effects with a singular technique of modulation; Eric Satie in the piano pieces finds a little groping aggregations of notes that will soon become commonplace; finally Debussy writes his admirable melodies on Verlaine’s poems, his quartet, the Prélude à l’Après – midi d’un Faune, and renews the genre of vocal lyric, the technique of the quartet, the form of the symphonic poem and the art of orchestration. He imposes a conception of music as new as his technical procedures and renews the language of music. He rejects the laborious classical development, seeking a more immediate lyrical expression. With a few notes, with a few chords he expresses the subtlest feelings, the most fleeting impressions; and shunning the outward manifestations of force, he is able to discreetly express the most intense feelings. With him the ranges and modes of antiquity and the East re-enter music.

Meanwhile also M. Ravel, a revolutionary who relied on the past to innovate, like his teacher G. Fauré also created new means of expression. The so-called “impressionist” school, however, reduced Debussy’s marvelous intuitions into formulas while drawing every possible bias from the compositions of Fauré and Ravel; and he sacrificed too much to nuance, he was too pleased with hues and grace. Igor Stravinsky came to free the French musicians from the magic circle, who still ignored the experience of A. Schönberg and Bela Bartók, showing them the possibility of new effects obtained with polytonality, with the use of a singular polyphony opposite to vertical style of the Impressionists, but far from the horizontal style of the Franckian school, finally with the adoption of a metric dynamism that radically transformed the conception of rhythm then dominant. Stravinsky, honored the brutal expression of force.

It should be noted that the Impressionist school did not represent all French music. P. Dukas built his robust work on the sidelines, France Schmitt built colossal architectures, while V. d’Indy built powerful lyric dramas. M. Ravel himself in the Valses nobles et sentimentales used a harmonic style that announced Stravinsky, and Debussy reacted to the disciples seeking but more naked, less congested music.

After the World War we see A. Honegger and D. Milhaud, reacting against impressionism by making use of a vigorous polyphony; the first applies atonality without rigor, the second polytonality, reducing the procedures of Bela Bartók and Stravinsky to a system. A new romanticism is manifested in their works and they are not afraid to build oratories of colossal proportions.

Other young people, including France Poulenc and G. Auric, with less ambitions, tend to like (following the directions of the old Eric Satie) attracted by popular music and jazz.

Meanwhile Maurice Ravel, by taking over the new means offered by polytonality and the new counterpoint, keeps himself at the head of the French school, while A. Roussel acquires unexpected importance with vigorous and original works in which he shows the double aspect of his ingenuity, made of energy and of grace.

If we now consider the vast historical framework of French music as a whole, we can easily observe how different and sometimes apparently opposing elements contribute to it, born especially from two great trends: one aimed at simplicity and the strength of the popular soul. (Jannequin, Lulli, Méhul, Auber, Berlioz, Bizet, Charpentier, Honegger, Milhaud), the other to the most refined taste and sensitivity (Costeley, Couperin, Rameau, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel). And, to understand the spirit of the French musical tradition, both these historical currents must be taken into account.

France Music - Berlioz and the Modern School