We’ll Always Have Paris

When we titled this year’s festival it was in a state of grace, a suspended moment of joy at the thought of the garden of delights we had planted for the summer. Then November happened: Paris, and everything it means, has meant, to so many and for so long, was hit once again by depravity and hate. Suddenly, somewhere in the mix of grief and horror, we were uncertain: was this really the tone we wanted to set, at this historical moment, and with a line from a (however timeless and elegant) Hollywood noir/romantic potboiler, set in North Africa and indelibly stamped with the recent colonial past? And why stop at Paris? Why not We’ll Always Have Beirut; …Istanbul; …Kabul; …Brussels; …and so on, and so on. Was our focus on the City of Light casting a shadow on these other great cities, each victimized in their turn, some far more frequently and with even more devastating consequences than could be said of the French capital? These were nagging, unanswerable questions, and in confronting them we almost lost our nerve.

Eventually, however, we came around. For reasons both idealistic and pragmatic (and, if one hews close to James, the best pragmatism is always idealistic) we decided to stay with it, decided, in fact, that not to keep the title would deprive us of an opportunity to explore an entire history of cultural give and take, in the context of which the November murders generated only the most flaccid and momentary resonance. Spending a little time with the title tells us much about why Paris is, for most of the world, a metonym for core human values, and for the evolution of human culture, an enduring image of the best and most beautiful of which human societies are capable. Par exemple

We’ll” always have Paris. Just who are “we”? Not for nothing are the two main characters in Casablanca themselves not French; they are a young, vibrant German woman and her jaded, dissolute American lover-with-a-heart-of-gold. They are caught up in the chaos and societal breakdown of French Morocco at the start of the war, facing down both the murderous evil of the Nazis and the corrupt cynicism of the French. There is no question in the film as to who the bad guys are, but nonetheless for its time it does an OK job of conveying the shifting moral sands of mid-century French culture: no one emerges with an entirely clean slate.

This squares with French colonial history, and is key to our understanding both of why France is so essential, and at the same time so problematic.  Viewed through the lens of contemporary morality (however shakily maintained at present) the French colonial enterprise was, like all of its European analogues, an extended crime of monstrous proportions. The extreme violence it perpetrated and prolonged was only brought home to the French population in general with the murder in Paris, in October of 1961, of anywhere from 40 to 300 peacefully protesting French citizens of Algerian descent. The massacre was kept as far from the public eye as possible, for as long as possible, but was finally officially acknowledged and commemorated in 2001 with a plaque on the St. Michel bridge, from which the protesters’ bodies had been thrown by police into the Seine 40 years earlier. This and other troubling aspects of France’s recent history, including its own extensive and well-documented complicity in the Holocaust through the targeted use of dénonciations, sending Jewish neighbors and colleagues to the camps in the settling of a wide variety of personal, political and cultural scores, had been soft-pedaled for decades, but has recently come out into the open. The French are actively confronting their own anti-semitic, anti-Arab and anti-immigrant traditions, even as they face the grotesque hydra that is 21st-century terrorism, and they are to be commended for doing so. In this they lag far behind the Germans, but it must be said that they have, until recently, lacked the kind of post-war incentive with which Germany was confronted starting in 1945 (one wonders when the United States will reckon fully with its own troubled history, but that’s another story, and another blog).

But there is another side to all of this…

Viewed through the lens of prevailing notions of cultural and ethnic superiority which were virtually unquestioned throughout 18th and 19th – century Europe, French colonialism looks not only inevitable, it emerges, in comparison with the histories of both the Netherlands and England, to name just two, seeming positively enlightened. The French were the first to abolish slavery, doing so in 1794; the British didn’t get there until 1834. Even allowing for Napoleon’s brief reinstatement of slavery in sugarcane-growing colonies in 1802, the French are far ahead of the English, and go on to recognize Haiti’s abolition of the obscene practice in 1804. France also welcomes a steady flow of immigrants from its colonies, providing them with access to French universities and a normalized, if marginal, status in French society. Visitors from the Americas and from across Europe throughout the 20th century comment repeatedly on the visible and apparently accepted, at times even joyful, mixing of races and ethnicities that was to be found in the French capital. This mélange helps give rise to two of the most significant French contributions to world culture in the 20th century: the transformation of music and art through the French fascination, obsession even, with African and African-American traditions; and the rise of cultural anthropology, linguistics and the cultural politics of the late sixties and beyond, largely spearheaded by the work of the great Claude Lévi-Strauss. Much of the work in both arenas, in the arts and in scholarship, was still marked by racist and paternalistic notions of the “noble savage”, and a trendy appropriation of all things “primitive”. Nonetheless a real, tangible change in the way that the European viewed the rest of the world did take place, with far-reaching results, including, for example, the widespread presence of black jazz musicians in France throughout the Jim Crow years, who found there not only a vibrant interest in and love of their music, but widespread acceptance as equals far surpassing anything they had experienced in the United States, even in New York.

So it’s no accident that Rick and Ilse find themselves in Casablanca at the start of the war, and that Ilse’s husband Victor works for the French resistance. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, no matter how embattled, scorned and at times flatly contradicted, were real presences that the French republic had struggled repeatedly, over a century-and-a-half, to manifest.

By the same token, it’s no accident that so many American composers found themselves, literally and figuratively, in Paris in the years between the wars; a Parisian stint had been de rigeur for writers, painters, intellectuals and poseurs for much of the 19th century, but composers had been ineluctably drawn to Germany, for obvious reasons. All that changed just after the “Great War”, first with Charles Tomlinson Griffes who, though he too had studied in Germany, fell in love with French music and took Debussy as his principal creative model; after Griffes, and with the establishment first of the program for American students at Fontainebleu, and then of Nadia Boulanger’s teaching studio in Paris, the tide of American musicians in Paris seemed to double year by year. Copland is only the most famous in a line of seminal artists to have worked with Boulanger extending from Nathaniel Dett through Elliott Carter and Irving Fine to Phillip Glass. There is little to connect these names other than that they belong to Americans and that they studied with Mademoiselle, as she was affectionately known. Her method was brilliantly conceived to nurture what was best and most unique in each individual student; hers was not a compositional “school” but rather a tradition of open-ended stylistic discovery. And so, with Debussy having liberated French musical thinking from the pedantry of the Paris conservatory, in the process opening virtually every door through which 20th century music would eventually pass (even, notwithstanding the generally-agreed-upon notion of a Franco-German modernist divide, the one leading out into 12-tone music), and with Boulanger quickening that sense of liberation in successive generations of students from across Europe and the Americas, France became, like no time in its history since the middle ages, truly the musical center of the West.

After the war the focus shifted yet again, but the French retained their pride of place in the new music that emerged from the ashes of the old. Thanks to Wolfgang Steinecke and Pierre Boulez and their determinedly internationalist post-war cultural project, the warring parties, France, Germany and Italy, came together in the German city of Darmstadt to attempt the creation of a new, wholly non-nationalistic and culturally abstracted music, one that could not be pinned on any one country or set of cultural values and assumptions, a music without a tribe. If along the way they birthed a new tribe, defined not by ethnicity or religion but by compositional dogma; if the politics seem to us today to be naively radical; and if much of the music produced was grey, uniform and patently unlikable; we must also recognize that in spite of these limitations the Darmstadt years produced the last great flowering of genius in 20th-century Western composition aside from the masterworks composed by Steve Reich in the 1970’s. And all of the most significant composers to come out of Darmstadt, including Boulez, Berio, Henze, Kagel, Ligeti, and Stockhausen, left the ideology of the tribe far behind in the fashioning of their own unique and powerful aesthetics. What started as a fervent attempt to declare a musical year zero after the dual horrors of the war and the Holocaust eventually fanned out to transform our entire conception of what music is and of what it is capable, well beyond the stylistic borders of the Darmstadt school itself. For example, two of the other giants of post-war classical music, Witold Lutoslawski and Henri Dutilleux, successfully revivified their own essentially neo-classical approaches thanks to the possibilities revealed at Darmstadt, in spite of the fact that neither had really been a true believer (Lutoslawski was in residence only in the summer of 1960, while Dutilleux never set foot in the place); even the Beatles benefited from the work of the Darmstadt crowd, tracing their own innovations (with George Martin) in songs such as Strawberry Fields and Revolution 9 to the pioneering electronic works composed by Stockhausen at Darmstadt and in the studios of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Köln. Pierre Boulez repaid this cross-genre compliment in the 1980’s with his recordings of the concert works of Frank Zappa, himself an avid fan of European modernism. The real work of artists always crosses whatever arbitrary and petty boundaries are set up to keep it in check, a fact which can and should serve as a corrective to any ossified stereotypes we may hold with regard to postwar European concert music.

It was in the glow of this luminous history, made even more vivid for us through our own time living and working in France, that we programmed this year’s festival. Working from the present to the distant past, we traced what Debussy described as “that unquenchable flame to which the present will always owe something of its radiance” back to the music of the great lutenist and composer Denis Gaultier, then forward again, through Louis & François Couperin, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Caplet, Ravel, Dutilleux, and Dusapin, the flame then broadening to include Zad Moultaka, Anna Weesner, and Schönberg. Like Henry James, James Whistler and Aaron Copland before us (not to mention Rick and Ilse), we have been moved by the primacy of beauty in the French conception of life, and by the stubborn French insistence on the experience of beauty as birthright. The French have not yet succeeded in extending that birthright to the residents of St. Denis and Hautepierre, two of the most isolated and impoverished of the French suburbs feared to be possible nexuses of discontent and violence, but the grim reality these marginalized communities reveal is now at the center of the French national conversation. How and how soon that reality is addressed will depend much on the turning of the national mood, much as similar (and as yet, thankfully less volatile) issues here hinge upon our own upcoming election; the forces of hate that bedevil modern France come from within as much as from without. If the French hold true to their evolving commitment to liberté, égalité, fraternité then the future need not be one defined by fear, but rather by the sharing – through music, art, literature, movies, philosophy, discussion, argument, food, and love – of the beauty and complexity of existence.

These are the values we still find in the city we love so much, just as we do in the work of our friends and colleagues for this summer’s festival.  We’ll Always Have Paris becomes another way of saying We’ll Always Have Love, and for us a huge portion of that love resides in WCM.



July 16 at 7:30pm
Couperin, Pavane; Ravel, Pavane, Weesner, & Improvisations