Before 1870, French music had already in the Opera and the Opéra-Comique (without counting the various endeavours of the Théâtre Lyrique) an outlet which was nearly enough for the needs of her dramatic productions. Even when musical taste was most decadent, the works of Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, and Massé, had always upheld the name of French opéra-comique. But what was almost entirely lacking was an outlet for symphonic music and chamber-music. ” Before 187o,” wrote M. Saint-Saëns in Harmonie et Mélodie, ” a French composer who was foolish enough to venture on to the ground of instrumental music had no other means of getting his works performed than by himself arranging a concert for them.” Such was Berlioz’s case ; for he had to gather together an orchestra and hire a room each time he wished to get a hearing for his great symphonies. The financial result was often disastrous : the performance of the Damnation de Faust in 1846 was, for example, a complete failure, and he had to give it up. The Conservatoire, which was formerly more hospitable, rather reluctantly performed a portion of L’Enfance du Christ ; but it gave young composers no encouragement.
The first man who attempted to make the symphony popular, M. Saint-Saëns tells us in his Portraits et Souvenirs, was Seghers, a dissentient member of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, who during several years (18481854) was conductor of the Société de Sainte-Cécile, which had its quarters in a room in the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. There he had performed Mendelssohn’s Symphonie Italienne, the overtures to Tannhauser and Manfred, Berlioz’s Fuite en Égypte, and Gounod’s and Bizet’s early works. But lack of money cut short his efforts.
Pasdeloup took up the work. After having been conductor for the Société des jeunes artistes du Conservatoire since 1851, in the Salle Herz, he founded, in 1861, at the Cirque d’Hiver, with the financial support of a rich moneylender, the first Concerts populaires de musique classique. Unhappily, says M. Saint-Saëns, Pasdeloup, even up to 187o, made an almost exclusive selection of German classical works. He raised an impenetrable barrier before the young French school, and the only French works he played were symphonies by Gounod and Gouvy, and the overtures of Les Francs-Juges and La Muette. It was impossible to set up a rival society against him ; and an exclusive monopoly in music was, therefore, held by him. According to M. Saint-Saëns he was a mediocre musician, and had, in spite of his passion for music, ” immense incapacity.” In Harmonie et Mélodie M. Saint-Saëns says : ” The few chamber-music societies that existed were also closed to all new-comers ; their- programmes only contained the names of undisputed celebrities, the writers of classic symphonies. In those times one had really to be devoid of all common sense to write music.”
A new generation was growing up, however,a generation that was serious and thoughtful, that was more attracted by pure music than by the theatre, that was filled with a burning desire to found a national art. To this generation M. Saint-Saëns and M. Vincent d’Indy belong. The war of 187o strengthened these ideas about music, and, while the war was still raging, there sprang from them the Société Nationale de Musique.
One must speak of this society with respect, for it was the cradle and sanctuary of French art.’. All that was great in French music from 187o to 1900 found a home there. Without it, the greater part of the works that are the honour of our music would never have been played ; perhaps they would not ever have been written. The Society possessed the rare merit of being able to anticipate public opinion by ten or eleven years, and in some ways it has formed the public mind and obliged it to honour those whom the Society had already recognised as great musicians.
The two founders of the Society were Romaine Bussine, professor of Singing at the Conservatoire, and M. Camille Saint-Saëns And, following their initiative, César Franck, Ernest Guiraud, Massenet, Garcin, Gabriel Fauré, Henri Duparc, Théodore Dubois, and Taffanel, joined forces with them, and at a meeting on 25 February, 1871, agreed to found a musical society that should give hearings to the works of living French composers exclusively. The first meetings were interrupted by the doings of the Commune ; but they began again in October, 1871. The Society’s early statutes were drawn up by Alexis de Castillon, a military officer and a talented composer, who, after having served in the war of 187o at the head of the mobiles of Eure-et-Loire, was one of the founders of French chamber-music, and died prematurely in 1873, aged thirty-five. It was these statutes, signed by Saint-Saëns, Castillon, and Garcin, that gave the Society its title of Société Nationale de Musique, and its device, “Ars gallica.” This is what the statutes say about the aims of the Society:
“The aim of the Society is to aid the production and the popularisation ‘of all serious musical works, whether published or unpublished, of French composers ; to encourage and bring to light, so far as is in its power, all musical endeavour, whatever form it may take, on condition that there is evidence of high, artistic aspiration on the part of the author. . . . It is in brotherly love, with complete forgetfulness of self, and with the firm intention of aiding one another as far as they can, that the members of the Society will co-operate, each in his own sphere of action, for the study and performance of the works which they shall be called upon to select and to interpret.”
The first Committee was made up as follows : President, Bussine ; Vice-President, Saint-Saëns ; Secretary, Alexis de Castillon ; Under-Secretary, Jules Garcin Treasurer, Lenepveu. The members of the Committee were : César Franck, Théodore Dubois, E. Guiraud, Fissot, Bourgault-Ducoudray, Fauré, and Lalo.
The first concert was given on 25 November, 1871, in the Salle Pleyel ; and it is worthy of note that the first work played was a trio of César Franck’s. Since then the Society has given three hundred and fifty performances of chamber-music or orchestral works. The best known French composers and virtuosi have taken part as executants, among others : César Franck, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Bizet, Vincent d’Indy, Fauré, Chabrier, Guiraud, Debussy, Lekeu, Lamoureux, Chevillard, Taffanel, Widor, Messager, Diémer, Sarasate, Risler, Cortot, Ysaye, etc. And among the compositions that have been played for the first time it is enough to mention the following :
César Franck : Nearly the whole of his works, including his Sonata, Trio, Quartette, Quintette, Symphonic Variations, Preludes and Fugues, Mass, Rédemption, Psyché, and a part of Les Béatitudes.
Saint-Saëns : Phaéton, Second Symphony, Sonatas,
Persian Melodies, the Rapsodie d’Auvergne, and a quartette.
Vincent d’Indy : The trilogy of Wallenstein, the Poême des Montagnes, the Symphonie sur un thème montagnard, and quartettes.
Chabrier : Part of Gwendoline.
Lalo : Fragments of the Roi d’ Ys, Rhapsodies and Symphonies.
Bruneau : Penthésilée, La Belle au Bois Dormant.
Chausson : Viviane, Hélène, La Tempête, a quartette and a symphony.
Debussy : La Damoiselle élue, the Prélude d l’après-midi d’un faune, a quartette, pieces for the pianoforte, and melodies.
Dukas : L’Apprenti Sorcier, and a sonata for the pianoforte.
Lekeu : Andromède.
Alberic Magnard : Symphonies and a quartette.
Ravel : Schéhérazade, Histoires Naturelles, etc.
Saint-Saëns was director with Bussine until 1886. But from 1881 the influence of Franck and his disciples became more and more felt ; and Saint-Saëns began to lose interest in the efforts of the new school. In 1886 there was a division of opinion about a proposition of Vincent d’Indy’s to introduce the works of classical masters and foreign composers into the programmes. This proposition was adopted ; but Saint-Saëns and Bussine sent in their resignations. Franck then became the true president, although he refused the title ; and after his death, in 189o, Vincent d’Indy took his place. Under these two directors a quite important place was given to old and classical music by composers such as Palestrina, Vittoria, Josquin, Bach, Händel, Rameau, Gluck, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. Foreign contemporary music only occupied a very limited place. Wagner’s name only appears once, in a transcription of the Venusberg for the pianoforte ; and Richard Strauss’s name figures only against his Quartette. Grieg had his hour of popularity there about 1887, as well as the RussiansMoussorgski, Borodine, Rimsky-Korsakow, Liadow, and Glazounowwhom M. Debussy has perhaps helped to make known to us. At the present moment the Society seems more exclusively French than ever ; and the influence of M. Vincent d’Indy and the school of Franck is predominant. That is only natural ; the Société Nationale most truly earned its title to glory by discerning César Franck’s genius ; for the Society was a little sanctuary where the great artist was honoured at a time when he was ignored or laughed at by the rest of the world. This character of a sanctuary was kept even after victory. In its general programme of 1903-1904, the Society re-minded us with pride that it had remained faithful to the promises made in 1871 ; and it added that if, in order to permit its members to keep abreast of the general progress of art, it had little by little allowed classical masterpieces and modern foreign works of interest on its programmes, it had, however, always kept its guest-chamber open, and shaped many a future reputation there.
Nothing is truer. The Société Nationale is indeed a guest-chamber, where for the past thirty years a guest-chamber art and guest-chamber opinions have been formed ; and from it some of the profoundest and most poetic French music has been derived, such as Franck’s and Debussy’s chamber-music. But its atmosphere is becoming daily more rarefied. That is a danger. it is to be feared that this art and thought may be absorbed by the decadent subtleties or pedantic scholasticism which is apt to accompany all coteriesin short, that its music will be salon-music rather than chamber-music. Even the Society itself seems to have felt this at times ; and at different periods has sought contact with the general public, and put itself into direct communication with it. ” It becomes more and more necessary,” wrote M. Saint-Saëns, ” that French composers should find something inter-mediate between an intimate hearing of their music and a performance of it before the general public something which would not be a speculative thing like a big concert, but which would be analogous to the artistic attraction of an exhibition of painting, and which would dare everything. It is a new aim for the Société Nationale.” But it does not seem that it has yet attained this goal, nor that it is near attaining it, despite some not quite happy attempts.
But at least the Société Nationale has gloriously achieved the task it set itself. In thirty years it has created in Paris a little centre of earnest composers of symphonies and chamber-music, and a cultured public that seems able to understand them.