In our day when serious new music has often found its audience only among specially prepared little groups of avant-garde enthusiasts, it is worthwhile to be reminded how different things were a century ago. In 19th-Century Italy strong nationalist passions were aroused by the very name of Verdi (its letters standing in cipher for Victor Emmanuel re d'Italia-- Victor Emmanuel king of Italy), and Wagner imagined audiences for his operas modeled on the presence of whole urban populations in the Greek theater. (Even though people complained then as now that his works were overlong and boring, the passion he inspired did recall his ancient ideals.)
Nowhere was music's powerful everyday presence more marked than in Paris, where the new opera house occupied as important a place in social and cultural life as it did in the city's geography, where modernist ballet drew all the arts into partnership around a musical center, and where Symbolist poets and painters during the fin de siecle took music as the exemplary art.
Elaine Brody, a professor of music at New York University, has undertaken to bring this period in French musical history to life in her new book. She ranges over a richly varied scene, moving from the legacy to Berlioz to the influence of Wagner, the fascination for exotic and oriental themes, the place of music in the series of Great Expositions that were so characteristic of the "century of progress," and the proliferation of new musical locales. There are separate treatments of Spaniards, Russians and Americans in Paris and program notes for outstanding composers and works of the era. Readers will find much fascinating detail, presented in a clear and often lively style.
What they will not find is a clear thread of argument, relating the parts to each other. The chapters are independent units (with more repetition between some of them than a reader of the whole will appreciate), and one looks in vain for a line of development that allows us to see French musical life as history, as a comprehensible movement from one state of affairs to another. This book is for those who look to past cultures for simple, colorful fragments, rather than for more complex but more meaningful patterns. The kaleidoscope of the title is a container for brightly hued bits of glass; missing is the mirror that might give to the shards of past lives and actions a memorable shape, enhancing each piece by reflecting it in its relations with all the others. It is certainly amusing to learn that Judith Gautier's guests "recited Wagnerian verse in front of a bust of the composer" and that her butler called the company to dinner "by playing the 'Ride of the Valkyries' on his cornet." But the intellectual leaders of French Wagnerianism were figures like Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme, people happy enough to engage in cultural pretense on occasion, but not the sort to nourish enthusiasms for German musicians without reasons much better developed and more interesting than we learn about here. We ought to say in Brody's defense that, of all the arts, music is the one that has been least successfully integrated into the larger history of society and culture, and perhaps the one that will remain the most resistant to such integration. But she makes very little beginning, giving no attention to such possible starting points as the changing structure of concert program (How much new music, how much old? Whole works or excerpts?), the evolving relations between composers and performers (When did the latter lose the right to insert elements to show off their virtuosity?), or the nature and size of audiences.
Her ability to discuss the artistic and cultural movements to which music was related--Symbolism, Impressionism, Dada--seems rather limited. When the Symbolist poets declared that the other arts "aspired to the condition" of music, they meant that painting and poetry envied music's integrated, enclosed universe, where the harmonies produced by purely artistic and imaginary elements were not disturbed by uninvited references to the harsh and disordered world outside. This notion, and not--as she believes--"personal relations" was what most strongly drew visual artists to take musical experience as a model in the fin de siecle. In this book we learn very little about what such an aspiration meant for poetry, or about how it reflected back on music when composers set the poetry that embodied it, most notably Debussy's orchestral poem inspired by Mallarme's "Afternoon of a Faun." The problem is not that, as a musicologist, Brody has disqualified herself from dealing with other cultural forms. Her book contains not a single musical quotation to illuminate the music itself, and its presentation of musical works in the last chapter can only be a set of disconnected program notes because it provides no contexts developed enough to yield a larger framework of meaning for them.
Readers will be grateful to Brody for the wealth of enticing detail, the many amusing stories, the tidbits of juicy gossip, the occasional vivid portrait (for instance, her opening sketch of the life of Berlioz). But her initial desire "to tell the story of this fascinating period in French cultural history" remains unfulfilled: alas, she has no story to tell.