- Music and Ultra-Modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939 by Barbara L. Kelly
Successfully walking a tightrope between cultural-historical musicology and reception history, Music and Ultra-Modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939 tackles a wide range of issues, all of which assert a sense of purpose (to further the development of a French musical style), whether national, political, religious, or academic, felt by composers and critics alike during the period in question. Although musicologists have often sought out the frictions and significant differences between artists, identifying their original and significant [End Page 509] contributions, Kelly’s volume searches for “consensus” in a variety of forms, whether aesthetic, critical, stylistic, harmonic, structural or contextual. She probes reception history in the period, in line with her other work on Maurice Ravel and the cultural practice of music in France. As she noted previously: “The apparent political unity that emerged before the Great War also appears to have created some consensus among musicians” (Barbara Kelly, French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870–1939 [Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2008], 9). Music and Ultra-Modernism in France is a significant contribution to the field as it acknowledges the history of the musicological discipline within France before World War II, as well as detailing the debate not only between critics, but also between composers, and between critics and composers, as well as among those identifying themselves as musicologists (the informed critics).
The title of this book is intriguing, and the subheading is an accurate reflection of the book’s content. The reference to ultra-modernism, though, is perhaps not the clearest way to illustrate the main focus of the book, which does not aim to define this term, but rather refers to its use in contemporaneous criticism (see pp. 4–7) before probing the issues where consensus can be found. Kelly responds to Edmondstoune Duncan’s book, Ultra-Modernism in Music: A Treatise on the Latter-Day Revolution in Musical Art (London: Winthrop Rogers, 1915), by exploring “a whole generation of composers who contributed some elements of the ‘visionary’” (p. 5) to advancing musical ideas and techniques, and to Jacques Maritain’s Anti-modernisme (Paris: Librairie de l’art catholique, 1920; 3d ed., Rouart, 1935). The interwar period had a “perception of a lack of great figures” (p. 6) beyond Claude Debussy, but this volume asserts who those figures are by drawing out the leading and changing trends in French interwar music, particularly asserting the force of Ravel’s musical leadership (chapters 2 and 3), that of Charles Koechlin and Olivier Messiaen (chapter 3), and that of Francis Poulenc and Georges Auric (chapter 6). As Kelly notes, the aim of this book “is to identify and trace the evolution of sonority as a distinctive French modernist strand, seeing it as a central, enduring and consistent preoccupation in French musical traditions from Debussy’s generation onwards, which was subjected to transformation in the 1920s and 1930s” (pp. 8–9).
There are copious citations from critical reviews as well as of letters from numerous archival deposits. As Glenn Watkins identified in his book Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists, “critics and composers alike” had begun to explore similar musical ideas “in tandem” with the cultural trends of the day (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994, [p. 146]). Kelly takes up this baton. Notably, the archival research presents correspondence previously not explored, particularly as regards Léon Vallas. Kelly raises significant questions regarding the way that thematic consensus on various composers is shared—and in some respects, developed and promoted—in the press as a result of “composer-critic partnerships” (chapter 3). We are made aware of select key critics (including Ernest Ansermet, Paul Landormy, Henry Prunières, Vallas, and Émile Vuillermoz), their collaborations and relationships with specific composers, and their roles in constructing a history...