Turn-of-the-century Paris, a sizzling center of art - and music
Paris, The Musical Kaleidoscope, 1870-1925, by Elaine Brody. New York: Braziller. 360 pp. $19.95. Turn-of-the-century Paris was the cradle of modern art: Picasso and Braque, Juan Gris and Matisse, all flourished there with an energy that gave a particular feverishness to the cultural life of the French capital. In literature, the atmosphere was no less charged: Zola and Baudelaire, Mallarm'e, and Cocteau - and the visitors from abroad, Stein, Hemingway, Joyce, Beckett - changed the course of literary history.
There is no lack of studies documenting the intellectual history of Paris, fin de si`ecle, but these rarely focus in any depth on music. Now Elaine Brody, who was a professor at New York University and is a prolific scholar, has filled the curious gap with ``Paris, The Musical Kaleidoscope, 1870-1925.''
Kaleidoscope is perhaps the best way to describe the book itself: In each of 13 chapters, Brody shifts her focus and causes the intricate parts of Parisian musical life to fall into place anew.
We see the world of music from the perspective of Wagner, his ardent supporters, and his equally passionate detractors, and then again, from the point of view of the Russians (Stravinsky, most notably) or the Americans (Gershwin, Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker).
Most important, we see how music interacted with and affected the other arts: Salons and caf'es were a forum and meeting place for writers, artists, and musicians; ideas, passions, and concerns were shared, borrowed, and even stolen.
Val'ery, says Brody, ``claimed that all literary history written at the end of the 19th century which does not mention music is totally valueless: `Worse than incomplete; inexact, worse than inexact, unintelligible....''' The symbiosis of Mallarm'e and Debussy is just an example.
Experiments in music had their counterpart in literature and art. Apollinaire's rejection of punctuation in some of his poetry is echoed in Erik Satie's elimination of bar lines in his musical notation. Both artists and musicians took inspiration from the Oriental art and artifacts introduced in Paris at the end of the last century.
Brody's book is strong on anecdotal material. Proust's love of chamber music, it seems, caused him to awaken the violinist Gaston Poulet late one night and request a performance of a C'esar Franck quartet. ``When?'' Poulet asked. ``At once,'' Proust suggested. Poulet rounded up the other performers and, very late indeed, they set up their stands in Proust's salon. It was not the last time they would give such an informal concert.
We see Wagner fleeing from his wife, Minna, into the arms of one or another of his lovers. We see Josephine Baker seducing all of Paris in her pink flamingo feather, or her girdle of rhinestone-studded bananas. We see Yvette Guilbert perfect the chanson at the newly popular cabarets.
But the book's weakness - and this is a shortcoming of all surveys - comes in its perfunctory summation of trends and movements. We learn, then, that the interaction between music and literature ended with the 19th century, but it is not enough for Brody to tell us that ``the two arts, having benefitted from their association, exhibit a clearer and more overt awareness of the irreducible specificity of their means and preoccupations. Initially merged, they now separated.''
Why? Did writers stop attending the opera? Did they stop listening to concerts? What about 20th-century experiments in literature and music caused the break?
Similarly, Brody strains sometimes to connect music with the other arts. Noticing that musical instruments frequently appear in Cubist paintings, she guesses that artists such as Braque may have believed ``that paintings evolved much as musical compositions do.'' Brody could well have covered less material more intensely rather than presenting a summary of speculations as flimsy as these.
Where her focus is music alone - as in the chapter on masterpieces of French music - Brody is strongest and most persuasive. Here her book makes its most important contribution and supplements well studies such as Roger Shattuck's ``The Banquet Years'' (which covers only Erik Satie) or Eugen Weber's ``France fin de si`ecle'' (which hardly considers music at all). Brody's erudition is impressive; her enthusiasm, infectious.
Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.