Review | The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929 by Roger Nichols

There have been so many not-quite-academic books on 1920s France, its music and dance in particular, that my first reaction to Roger Nichols’ The Harlequin Years was an involuntary groan. This was not altogether warranted. While little is genuinely new, the book’s distinctive organization and breezy style make for enjoyable reading and the odd surprise. In particular, Nichols replaces the customary focus on the avant-garde—Le Boeuf sur le Toit is mentioned in passing only once—with a broad survey of musical culture: its institutions, practices and personalities. At least, this is what the book does best. The most useful chapters are the central ones, on “Orchestras, conductors, chamber ensembles,” “The Opéra,” “The Opéra-Comique and other musical theatres,”and “The Establishment.” These pull together some invaluable information that, if not actually buried, is not widely known.

If such a book sounds more worthy than entertaining, the occasional suspicion that you are reading a list couched in prose is offset by Nichols’ eye for the striking detail. Few would have suspected, for example, that house lights remained on during performances at the Opéra in the 20s (exceptions made only for Wagner); still less that subscribers would abuse their backstage privileges by crowding onto the stage—to watch or, perhaps more important, be watched (61–3). At least director Jacques Rouché succeeded in removing the boxes, complete with their hidden boudoirs to escape boring performances, that used to hang from above the singers. Less of a surprise is that it was “regarded as unseemly for the fair sex to blow things in public” (wind instruments) (56) but how the 500 double bass teachers in Paris in the mid–20s found work is a mystery (176), as is the necessity of 7593 keys to the Opéra (66). The book has copious illustrations, but sadly we must rely on our imaginations to see Saint-Saëns dressed as an Egyptian dancing girl (177), or d’Indy’s expression as Conservatoire brass players deliver a fanfare “from inches behind [his] back” (183)

Paris Opera House

One of the effects of other writers’ focus on modernist iconoclasts has been to suggest a loosening of institutional structures and expectations during this period. Nichols will have none of it. He details the frameworks and personnel of the various bodies, and composers’ interactions with them. For example, he shows how important it remained, in the early twentieth century, whether a work was crafted for the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, or another, lesser theatre. Just a few quibbles: the section on salons (and therefore patrons) is surely inadequate given the importance of private money in these years; regarding the press, Nichols’ suggestion that Le Courrier musicalLe Ménestrel, and La Revue musicale“seem remarkably free of the sound of grinding axes” (203) will raise the eyebrows of anyone who has spent time browsing journals that are often unashamedly partisan and sometimes frankly bigoted. Perhaps inevitably, Nichols has little new to offer in his chapter on “Ballet”; but he is out of line with his earlier chapters in dispensing quickly with the fairly conventional repertoire at the Opéra to focus on the modern works of the Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois, about which there surely can’t be too much more to say.

The frame around these chapters on institutional cultures is less appealing to me. The first chapter, “The legacy of peace and war,” tells an old story about France’s struggles with Wagner and Wagnerism (or “Wagnermania” as Nichols prefers) and to some extent with Debussy and Stravinsky; it deals as well with reaction to the war, locating the beginning of a new sensibility, predictably enough, in Parade of 1917. And the last two chapters,“Composers old and new” and “Paris, the past and elsewhere,”are a hodgepodge of thoughts that didn’t fit in elsewhere. In some cases, they were needed earlier: despite frequent references, not until page 264 are we told who Les Six were and how they got their name. This is symptomatic of a book that is not quite sure of its audience; too detailed for the general reader, too fickle for a textbook, it lacks the rigor of a scholarly text. 

Indecision marks it in other ways, too. Nichols sometimes appears to have concluded that the history of music (or at least, of musical culture) has little to do with composers and still less to do with their works, a position with which I have some sympathy. But this radical perspective is continually undermined by a return to modernist composers—Nichols is not afraid to identify “geniuses” and “masterpieces”—as if periodically reminded that this is the story he expected to tell. I wish he had been bolder and dispensed with the remnants of an historical narrative to compile a compendium in the manner of Nigel Simeone’s Paris: A Musical Gazetteer (and it is as a companion piece to that volume, accessed via the index or for browsing, that Nichols’s book may prove most useful). This approach would perhaps have better suited a thick description of a relatively brief historical moment. 

Not that Nichols’ thoughts on composers (including Fauré, Roussel and d’Indy, usually forgotten in the 20s) lack interest: they are far from dry encyclopedia entries and some are little gems. While many will be grateful to be spared the “sledgehammer of analysis” (228), his readings of the music are sufficiently persuasive and enjoyable to make you wish for more. A section on Satie is one of my favorite moments of the book:

In the first of the Avant-dernières pensées (Penultimate Thoughts) of 1915, entitled ‘Idylle’, we find a tempo indication, Modéré, je vous prie (Moderato, please); an indication of performing style under the bass line, La basse liée, n’est-ce pas? (The bass legato, surely?); and beneath the right–hand tune a text beginning ‘Que vois-je? Le Ruisseau est tout mouillé’ (‘What do I see? The Stream is all wet’). Both tempo and performing indications are couched in the language of the piano teacher. … [But] surely idylls are by nature spontaneous and effortless? … ‘Que vois–-?’ is pure, nineteenth-century hackwork. … Finally, the banality of ‘Le Ruisseau est tout mouillé’ is explained … by the water fixation of Debussy and his followers. We may then note that the piece is dedicated to Debussy; and that in that same year of 1915 Debussy was writing his Études for piano … [and] turning back to the eighteenth century with his Cello Sonata. Within the first fifteen seconds or so, the thoughtful pianist is brought to consider the relationships between practicing and the final, poetic result, between banal words and unbanal tune, between Satie and Debussy, and between styles generally known as Impressionism and Neoclassicism. (217)

It is in the very French genre of the miniature, full of piquant details and local color, that Nichols excels, and in which The Harlequin Years assumes its most original voice.

Several attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of d’Indy—whose veneration for Wagner extended to similar social and political beliefs—reveal Nichols’ apparent desire to remove musical culture from any active engagement with the historical context. In other words, Nichols may have extended the boundaries from music to musical culture, but he ventures no further: wider social and political forces remain more or less a closed book. Sure enough, past positions on the Dreyfus affair are occasionally invoked, as are what we might broadly term “identity issues.” But what was really at stake for historical actors in this period is never seriously considered, still less its impact on artistic production and reception. The effect is to leave musical culture adrift in the historical sea. (Nichols’ single reference to Adorno—his “equating of non-modernist elements in music with original sin” [152]—helps little.) Perhaps this is why the book doesn’t so much conclude as fade out with a paragraph or two on various binary opposites supposed to encapsulate the period (male/female, brain/heart, decency/scandal, etc.) which at first suggest a primer on Derrida. Again, there are useful thoughts here, as well as bits that should not have survived an editor. Worst of all is old/new, which I can easily quote in full, “Again, little more remains to be said on this score. One quotation, again from André Coeuroy, perhaps sums it all up: ‘the banjo and black arms are replacing the harp and white arms’” (268). Sums what up exactly?

The book’s long gestation (beginning with a BBC radio series of the mid–80s) may be reflected in its spotty attention to recent—and not so recent—literature. On Stravinsky, for example, Nichols prefers Eric Walter White and Roman Vlad to Richard Taruskin (although he has read some Stephen Walsh). It is bizarre to read another account of the facts and fictions of Pulcinella’s neo-classicism (140–43) that does not engage with Taruskin’s argument that the arrangement was merely “the first paying job Diaghilev had been able to offer him in five years [and] nothing to do with [Stravinsky’s] own inclinations at the time” (Taruskin 1501). And Nichols’ assertion, based primarily on Stravinsky’s rejection for a seat at the Institut in 1935, that he “stands as a signal exception to the rule of Parisian tolerance that marked the Twenties” is out of line even with Nichols’ own, relatively nuanced, interpretation of the period (263). It is puzzling too that he has next to no engagement with the recent literature on nineteenth-century French music, such as Anselm Gerhard’s The Urbanization of Opera and James Johnson’s Listening in Paris, in which both institutional and reception history have played a major role. (The Select Bibliography seems to be less a list of the best research than an inventory of Nichols’ library.) The book also begins with a useful map of the city and a chronology, although the latter is not fully in line with the text that follows. I was looking forward to discovering, for example, why the postwar premiere of Tristan und Isolde, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on April 3 1921, was given in Italian (13); but the book itself places this premiere at the Opéra-Comique on May 26 1925 (76)(auf Deutsch?). Somewhere along the way, 20s France, yet again, slips away.

Andy Fry
University of California, San Diego


Books and Articles 

Gerhard, Anselm. The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Mary Whitall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Simeone, Nigel. Paris: A Musical Gazetteer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Taruskin, Richard. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra. 2 volumes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Vlad, Roman. Stravinsky. Trans. Frederick and Ann Fuller. London: Oxford UP, 1971.

Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Stravinsky. 2nd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

White, Eric Walter. Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. 

Sound Recordings

Satie, Erik. “Idylle” from “Avant-dernières Pensées.” Perf. Anne Queffélec. Eric Satie. Virgin Classics 90754-2, 1988.