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Reviewed by:
  • Jean Cras, Polymath of Music and Letters
  • Helen Julia Minors
Jean Cras, Polymath of Music and Letters. By Paul-André Bempéchat. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. [xxviii, 569 p. ISBN 9780754606833. $99.95.] Music examples, illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.

Paul-André Bempéchat reassesses Jean Cras (1879–1932) within a changing political cultural context. As a naval officer, inventor, scientist, philosopher, composer, and deeply religious man, Cras's creative output is varied. An exploration of his work is complex, not least because his responsibilities took him around the world, including during World War I. His inventions led to his developing "the first wireless communication system for the French Navy" (p. 42) and a navigational ruler-compass, La Regle-Rapporteur (pp. 527–28). Bempéchat aims to readdress the balance between Cras's various legacies: "France's Navy continues to laud one of its heroes and his great achievements; even musical. It is the musical community that, until now, has faltered and failed to acquiesce to the Ravelian stature he once enjoyed. This book is committed to its restoration" (p. xxi).

In order to give "a more complete image of Jean Cras" across his various careers and artistic interests, and to "humanize" him (p. xxii), especially in terms of his family relationships, Bempéchat makes use of letters in the form of diary extracts and reflections that Cras sent to family and friends, as well as diary extracts of his that appear to have been only for personal use—writings collectively referred to as Cras's Correspondance. Bempéchat's research is expansive. He explicates Cras's compositional method by means of the latter's frequent comments regarding his working processes on board ship, though significantly the kernel of his character is projected through his "fervent Catholicism" (p. 5). In chapter 1, "Back ground," Bempéchat discusses the history of Brittany, outlining religious practices and marine pastimes, situated within the France of the composer's time, which enforced usage of the French language as part of its cultural-political agenda. The separation of the French state from the Church was finalised in 1905, and Breton was removed from institutional working practices: "It is forbidden to spit on the floor or to speak Breton" (from a school notice of the 1920s; p. 11).

Cras was little affected by "Brittany's cultural anomalies and dichotomies" (p. 17) and the imposition of the French language, and the reason for this resides much in his frequent departures from his homeland and due to his understanding of many cultures through experience. Thus he could write to the parish priest to ask that his vessel be blessed on departure by the ringing of the bells in response to his ship's cannon [End Page 348] fire (p. 33). On his missions around the French colonies, Cras spent time learning exotic instruments and studying other musical systems. At Dakar, on his first mission during 1898–99, "Cras first encountered black Africans, whose music he began studying; indeed, compiling indigenous melodies into his notebooks became de rigueur and these would serve him well in the years to come" (p. 61). His faith guided him, but he rarely wrote religious music—unlike Franck, whose influence otherwise manifested itself throughout his career, as illustrated in chapter 8, "Franckian Engagement and Disengagement: The Early Works (1899–1910)" (pp. 211–67).

The book is divided into two parts, separating the historical-cultural context of Cras's career from the analysis of his musical style. Part 1, "The Life of Jean Cras," summarises Brittany's history and his upbringing, career, and social-religious affiliations. This is vital to interpreting his musical career, though he does not appear in detail until page 102. Readers already familiar with Cras will be able to form musical connections, others less so. Part 2, "The Works: Struggle and Evolution" is dedicated to his compositions, analysing the autobiographical nature of the works. Bempéchat deals with ethnographic considerations: with regard to both Breton folk song and instruments (pp. 201–02) as well as non-Western musics (p. 169), especially the instruments and harmonic structure of exotic musics (pp. 173–74). Bempéchat uses the Correspondance in both parts...


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