- Déodat de Séverac: Musical Identity in Fin-de-Siècle France
Déodat de Séverac (1872–1921) has suffered the fate of many other fine second-tier composers who generated a certain amount of excitement during their life-like [End Page 290] times, but quickly faded from public consciousness after their deaths. His music was praised by such luminaries of fin-de-siècle French music as Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Vincent d’Indy, but it is seldom performed or studied today. This is altogether unfortunate, for Séverac’s works draw together several of the elements that helped make this period in French musical and cultural history so fascinating. He was highly influenced by Debussy’s style, yet never lost his enthusiasm for the music of rural southern France, the land of his birth. In his later years, he was increasingly drawn to the music of the Catalan region that straddles the border of France and Spain, and his enthusiasm for its unique culture was shared by musicians and artists such as Isaac Albéniz, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. And like so many French composers of the time, Séverac’s career can be seen through the lens of French national politics and his work as an artistic manifestation of his political ideals.
Séverac thus provides a wonderful illustration of the diverse influences on French musicians of this period, and there could be no better focus for a study of the musical consequences of one of the central philosophical and political debates of Third Republic France: how the nation should address, in both political and cultural terms, its long-standing and conflicting impulses toward centralization and regionalism.
Robert F. Waters has taken up the task of addressing these interesting and related topics. Through an examination of Séverac’s writings, letters, and music as well as the literature pertaining to the concept of regionalism in late-nineteenth-century France, he offers an introduction to the composer’s life and music and, at the same time, a study of the role played by regionalist ideas in fin-de-siècle French music.
The book, illustrated by many music examples (and one photograph), is organized into several distinct sections. After a brief introduction, there is a short biographical sketch and an extended chapter dealing with the most important figures and ideas involved in the conflict over regionalism. This is followed by a survey of Séverac’s works through 1909, divided into chapters devoted to organ music, song, piano music, etc. The third and final section is devoted to Séverac’s relationship with Catalan music. There is a discussion of Catalan politics and music followed by a chapter devoted to Séverac’s music after 1909, much of which incorporated elements of Catalan music.
In theory, this organizational scheme might seem logical, but the execution of the various sections lessens their effectiveness. The biographical sketch is rather short and somewhat disjointed. After a chronological recounting of the composer’s early years, it breaks into a series of subject-based sections devoted to his involvement with various Parisian musical societies, his thoughts on Richard Wagner, and his relationships with Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The chronological thread is then picked up again with Séverac’s departure from Paris and his move to Céret, in French Catalonia.
The same compartmentalized approach is taken in the much more extensive examination of the question of regionalism. Waters devotes large sections of this chapter to the ideas of various figures involved in the debate, including Jean Charles-Brun, Charles Maurras, Maurice Barrès, and Frédéric Mistral. He weaves in discussion of Séverac’s relationship with each of these figures and refers often to the composer’s 1907 graduation thesis from the Schola Cantorum, which apparently criticized the narrow focus of the Paris Conservatoire. One is not exactly sure of this, however, for although the thesis...