Back to index
Vlastos, George

The Conception of Greek Antiquity in Early 20th-Century French Music, 1900-1918

Ph.D. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, 2005
(georgevlastos@hotmail.com)

The subject of this dissertation is the conception of Greek antiquity in early 20th-century French music. It is well known that Greek themes are widely used in the so-called period of French neoclassicism (during the 1920s) by composers such as: Erik Satie (Socrate), Darius Milhaud (L'Orestie, Les Malheurs d’Orphée, etc.), Arthur Honegger (Antigone, Amphion) and Igor Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex, Apollo Musagetes, etc.). Therefore, most scholars consider the above era as the starting point of the return to Greek mythology in the history of 20th-century French music. However, this fact overshadows the importance of the period 1900-1918 with regard to the presence of Greek antiquity in music composition of that time. Hence, the basic aim of the dissertation is to dispute the simplistic view according to which the period in question presents no interest on this subject and to show off the multiple aspects of this phenomenon through the works of major composers.

The "conception" as a notion concerns the reading and the comprehension of elements of Greek antiquity taken from its mythological tradition and its literature, as well as the codification of those elements in music composition. It is essential to note that this kind of approach must take into consideration the various facets of this complex phenomenon. Therefore, firstly there is an overall examination of the historical facts and the sociological factors that played an important role during the second half of the 19th century in the cultivation of Hellenism in French society. In this context, the movement of philhellenism, as well as the progress of archeology and the situation of ancient Greek studies during this period are taken into consideration. The ideology of positivism and the genesis of nationalism are also examined in order to evaluate their role in the development of a particular "concept" of ancient Greece.

After this historical overview, the various concepts of Greek antiquity formed within the intelligentsia and the principal artistic movements of that era are considered. The academic point of view is one of the main factors that played an important role in this field by projecting an image of Greek antiquity according to the official taste. In this context, the ideological and aesthetic notion of classicism was understood as a synonym for academism and consequently for conservatism. This factor had a major influence not only in some artistic movements, but also in the various aspects of cultural life in 19th-century France. However, during the second half of this century, literature and particularly poetry started to cultivate a new image of Greek antiquity, trying to contest in various ways the academic principles. In this context, the notion of paganism as well as the Dionysian aspect of ancient Greece played an essential role in this procedure. Hence, the literary movements of Parnassism, Symbolism, as well as the aesthetic trend of the revival of the fêtes galantes and the general decadent style of the esprit fin-de-siècle, are examined in order to detect and to show off the main characteristics of their conception of Greek antiquity.

Via this approach it is possible to trace the historical evolution of the various concepts of Greek antiquity and to find a similar progression in the field of music. This can be seen from the way that ancient Greek music was then understood through the serious debates between scholars. The matter of using elements from ancient Greek music theory, such as modality, in contemporary composition was already a part of the music tradition in France. But the issue of modality was a complex one: it was considered both as an aesthetic principle of exoticism and as a serious alternative proposition to late romantic chromaticism. Here also, the academic point of view, with the case of Saint-Saëns as an eminent example, promoted a superficial approach to this question by using Greek modes within the frame of Western tonality as the most popular means for archaism. On the other hand, the profound assimilation of modality was the basis for composers such as Debussy, Fauré and Kœchlin to propose new forms of musical language and, through this, to liberate Greek antiquity from classicist and academic prejudice.

The next chapters examine the different conceptions of Greek antiquity as they have been reflected in French music of the late 19th century until 1918. Academic, as well as more progressive approaches have been noticed in various cases. In this context, works by Camille Saint-Saëns, Camille Erlanger, Alfred Bruneau and Paul Vidal show the different aspects of the official conception of Greek antiquity. Similarly, songs by Fauré and Hahn are examined on the basis of their relation to the Parnassian aesthetics through the poems of Leconte de Lisle. Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel plays also a particular role in this field, as the spirit of the fêtes galantes and the revival of the French 18th century are present in a singular way. The symbolist and the fin-de-siècle view of Greek antiquity can be seen in the songs of Claude Debussy and Charles Kœchlin, where poetry of Pierre Louÿs and Albert Samain is set to music.

Finally, the case of Gabriel Fauré is examined in particular, not only because of his two major works on this subject (Prométhée and Pénélope), but also because he has been considered by his contemporary scholars as the perfect "Greek" composer. By investigating this particular characteristic, one may reach useful results concerning the nature of the conception of Greek antiquity in French music and in French thought in general.