Must we always have Paris?
The Wife and I finally made it over to the Smith College Museum of Art on Sunday to check out "Debussy's Paris," the exhibition timed to coincide with the great French composer's 150th anniversary. As one can see by looking at the paintings, posters, sketches, illustrations and other artworks on display, the exhibition might almost as easily been named "Jane Avril's Paris" or "Yvette Guilbert's Paris," since these popular performers were every bit as representative of turn-of-the-century Paris as our friend Claude-Achille.
Indeed, the takeaway from the exhibition, one stressed repeatedly in the description of its works, is that a new kind of popular culture emerged in Paris during the years of "Debussy's Paris," drawing the most prominent artists, writers, composers and other intellectuals into the cafes and cabarets to partake of its debauched but cultivated pleasures. And cultivated these pleasures were, drawing on vernaculars of the most common folk, spicing them with dangerous new ideas from overseas (especially African- and Latin-American), and melding them into high art with deliciously low undertones. What a pleasure to slap on the headphones and hear the aforementioned Yvette Guilbert sing her big hit "Le Fiacre" — such a silly, delightful ditty, such peerless artistry! Here were the ancestors of not just Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, but of Lotte Lenya, Mabel Mercer...and, I would say, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
Debussy, who occasionally played piano in the cafes of Montmartre, avidly soaked up the sounds of Paris's everyday and everynight life, the influence of which can be heard in such works as "Golliwog's Cakewalk" and "Minstrels". But Debussy's acceptance of popular culture's influence on high art was selective, as can be read in his criticism of composer Gustave Charpentier's focus, in the opera Louise, on the lives of — hold on to your beret —the middle class! Then, as now, one established a reputation as a true artiste by how strongly one identified with the lower classes, while contemptuously épatant la bourgeoisie (whom one will then demand to fund one's work as a penance for their miserable, inauthentic lives).
Indeed, something started in Paris just over a hundred years ago that has both plagued and energized classical music ever since: its fraught, contentious, catalyzing, mutually-mistrusting, mutually-beneficial relationship with popular music. By which, by the way, I don't mean authentic folk music, if "authentic" and "folk" can really go together anymore outside college towns and bohemian urban enclaves. Rather, I'm referring to the more commercial side of things. These two, classical and popular, have been like a pair of professional wrestlers in perpetual near-embrace, like Dante's Francesca and Paolo, doomed forever to beat the crap out of each other in the ring — "Mindless (bash)!" "Elitist (smash)! "Dumbed-down (thud)!" "No fun (crash)!" — then get together for a beer afterwards. And in most measurable ways, it's classical that has gotten the worst of the battle. Recordings, movies, radio, television, the internet — classical has had to fight ever harder for market share within each increasingly massive medium of mass entertainment, while its musical hegemony has been steadily eroded by the ceaseless advance of popular music, from ragtime to rap, until its claim on the attention span of culture mavens has shrunk to an all-time low.
So, what's a great musical tradition like classical do in order to get back on its feet and keep swinging? First, I would say, its practitioners have to come to terms with the undeniable fact that the glory days are over, and that classical will never again enjoy a musical near-monopoly on cultural and intellectual respectability. Some have, of course, but not all. As to what then; I'll have a few thoughts in a forthcoming blog.