Music and Ultra-Modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939 by Barbara L. Kelly (review)
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Music and Ultra-Modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939. by Barbara L. Kelly. (Music in Society and Culture.) Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. xii + 258 pp., ill.

Several trends in today’s stream of musicological inquiries converge in Barbara L. Kelly’s carefully nuanced exploration of musical activities in interwar France. In recent times musicologists have been expanding their discipline to incorporate the history of critics and musicologists into the history of music. Criticism and the influence of early critics forms the crux of Kelly’s study, which demands that we examine more closely the value and richness of French music between the two world wars. Her attention to these facets of musical life allows her to decipher the shifting politics and factions between composers and critics in order to claim common ground among apparent aesthetic, ideological, and generational differences. Kelly shows how early reception histories of Debussy and Ravel were influenced by the biases and defences of individual critics, the iconoclasm of younger composers, and nationalist agendas. She shows that the work done by musicologists in the 1920s, who were pioneers in an emerging field, was integral in shaping these reception histories and, indeed, composers’ understandings of one other. The critic and the composer lived side by side, consciously codependent. Highlighting the historical importance of criticism, Kelly manages to create continuities where once we assumed rupture. She successfully dismantles the notion that the Great War irrevocably changed the way in which the French valued music. Instead, she establishes connections between pre-war and post-war aesthetics by compiling a series of case studies. Rather than comprehensively commit to a single method of historical or musical inquiry, Kelly creates a dynamic picture of French musical culture by sampling different methodologies. In one chapter she chronicles the heated arguments between editors and musicians on how to commemorate a composer’s death; in another she delves into close musical analysis of the composer’s late sonatas. Drawing clear connections among these heterogeneous approaches, with so many subjects and topics in orbit, is the challenge. While the book covers a range of generational groupings, influential figures, collaborators, critics, and composers, Ravel is the epicentre. Kelly’s process of re-evaluation seems to be deployed in the service of rescuing Ravel, whose legacy and later musical activities suffered from the polarizing efforts of Les Six, who wanted to distance themselves from their immediate past. By [End Page 438] drawing musical connections between Ravel’s post-war brand of neoclassicism and the stripped down, melodic approaches of his young antagonists, Kelly helps restore Ravel’s relevance during the interwar era, framing him not only as a national figure but also as an innovator whose finger was delicately placed on the pulse of the time. This book is a dazzling synthesis of materials, topics, and approaches to music historiography. It sheds new light on a period when alliances between critics and composers were paramount, when the perception of musical aims and aesthetics were considered vital to culture, and when the initiatives of musical historians actively shaped the way people thought about music and themselves. Kelly’s careful curating of 1920s criticism and music leaves the reader feeling hopeful about the ability of musicologists to have an impact on the contemporary understanding of art, and of life.

Anna Wittstruck
Stanford University
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