We did a Bastille Day* special on the Gabfest all about French music this week, featuring Maestro Ludovic Morlot:

One thing we were trying to get at was “what makes French music French music“? While I’m skeptical of nationalist essentialism, especially in art, it’s a fun discussion question, so I want to further the discussion here:

One thing Ludo brings up is that French music is the music of “harmonic ambiguity.” He was talking about the extended 7th chords of Debussy in particular. But let’s get real — when you think of “harmonic ambiguity,” the first name that comes to mind is Richard Wagner. The Triiistaaan Chooord.

It’s a known known that Debussy was influenced by Wagner, then rejected his influence, then found mocking amusement in his influence. But the influence was there, and it’s unmistakable. But then of course, there’s a lot of other influences, famously, Javanese gamelan and Chopin’s pianistic imaginings, which are also non-French sources. (Though Ludo might contest the case of Chopin.)

But here’s the thing: to me, these extended 7th harmonies in Debussy have precisely nothing to do with harmonic ambiguity, i.e. with chords that could go any which way. In Debussy’s hands, they’re the opposite — pictures of coloristic stasis.

The example of Debussy is illustrative of how this nationalism thing can get tricky. Ludo talked a lot about Stravinsky being a “pseudo-French” composer and listed Rimsky as being the “French” influence on him. What? Paging Richard Taruskin!

But of course, he’s not altogether wrong, because the Russians were heavily influenced by the French. But they were also doing their own thing and that’s true of no one more than Rimsky-Korsakov who is responsible for all sorts of discoveries concerning octatonic harmony that Stravinsky would later go on to use. So what’s Russian and what’s French? It’s pretty hard to disentangle.

I suppose I’m left where I started, wondering if there is truly any through line that binds Rameau to Berlioz to Franck to Debussy to Boulez to Grisey.

Probably not, but I’ll finish by recommending another excellent book, a favorite discovery of mine in recent years, but with a warning that it is very hard to come by: Martin Cooper’s “French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré.”


*Yes, I am well aware that the French call it “le 14 juillet” or the “fête nationale” and not “Bastille Day” — it’s literally the only thing anyone ever says when you say “Bastille Day”!