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Faculty of Music


What was it about the music of Chopin that haunted French intellectuals so persistently in the wake of the Second World War? A surprising number of prominent writers penned books about the composer, including Vladimir Jankélévitch, André Gide and Stravinsky’s collaborator on The Poetic of Music (1942), Alexis Roland-Manuel. A cursory count of new French-language publications indicates that between the end of the Second World War and 1960 more new books on Chopin appeared than on Mozart–perhaps not so surprising, given that Chopin was considered to be French both affectively and genetically (the paternal line of the family purportedly had roots in the Lorraine). The centenary of Chopin’s death was observed with almost as much pomp in France as in Poland: events included a special resolution adopted in the Assemblée Nationale, a re-enactment of the funeral at the church of La Madeleine, and an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale. 1949 also saw two separate projects to commission new works in homage to Chopin, one organized by the Paris-based UNESCO and another spearheaded by the Polish emigré singer Doda Conrad.

The rash of publications and Chopinesque compositions yields a number of insights about what Chopin meant to French culture during the postwar moment. Writing in the early 1940s, Jankélévitch emphasized the nocturnal aspects of the music, which he heard as resonating with the subterfuge and constraint that marked the experience of occupation and resistance. Fifteen years later novelist Camille Bourniquel aimed to liberate Chopin from the myths of weakness and insubstantiality (perpetuated by George Sand, he claimed) and to recast the music as lean, rational, and pure, free of programmatic associations.

Even more interesting are the prominent references to Chopin in memoirs by Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lévi-Strauss, entwined in both cases with impressions of the New World and indigenous practices. In his 1963 memoir Les Mots Sartre recalled listening to his mother play the piano as a child of seven, feeling the rhythms pulse through his body like a “voodoo drum” and believing his soul subsumed into the Fantaisie-Impromptu. Lévi-Strauss writes in Tristes Tropiques (1955) of being plagued by the “hackneyed” melody of the Étude Op. 10, No.3 during his field work in Brazil twenty years earlier. Lévi-Strauss tries out various explanations for the incongruous persistence of this melody, including a quasi-phenomenological hearing in which the étude poses musical problems that it then solves as it unfolds in his mind. While a number of scholars have attempted to account for the importance of Chopin in these memoirs, none have connected the experiences of Sartre and Lévi-Strauss to the broader significance attached to Chopin around this time, in popular biographies, radio dramas,recorded media, journalism,and film. This paper will sketch that rich cultural background while also reading these anachronistic and ambivalent appreciations of Chopin within the terms of each writer’s thought and experience.  


Mary Ann Smart is Gladyce Arata Terrill Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and of Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Italy, 1815-1848.  She is editor of Siren Songs: Gender and Sexuality in Opera, author of the articles on Bellini and Donizetti in the Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music, and editor of the critical edition of Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien. With David Levin, she edits the “Opera Lab” book series at the University of Chicago Press. She is currently at work on a book about shifting attitudes and practices related to sound and music in France after World War II.  

Wednesday, 12 June, 2024 - 17:00