Paris in the 1920s has always seemed to be an exciting and rich time period to me, and I was thrilled with the chance to devote an entire semester to the study of its music. Throughout our research and discussion of the compositions, composers, impresarios, and public reactions during this time, what struck me most significantly was the struggle for identity. This is not exactly nationalism, i.e., the collective will and culture of a community to possess a political comradeship, although the French composers’ efforts to create a definitive “French” sound during the 20s played an important role in most of our analysis. I found the quest for a sole identity not simply on the national platform, but also within a deeply personal level as well.
My first paper was an in-depth look at Ida Rubinstein’s aesthetic of neoclassical beauty and the ideal androgynous body. A Russian Jewish woman, she performed in Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien as a male Christian saint; her thin, voluptuous body representing the effeminate Saint both attracted and repelled audiences. In her attempt to realize the ideal neoclassical body with ambiguous features, she unwittingly becomes an object of desire for Parisian audiences excited by her transgressive sexuality.
In the second paper, I explored the vibrant cabaret of Le Boeuf Sur le Toit, a famous haunt of numerous artists, writers, musicians, and dancers during the 1920s. This nightclub offered a repose from the tumultuous post-war climate of France. Here, it was possible to forget your own trials and tribulations, at least for a few hours of dancing, jazz, and absolutely ridiculous banter with some of the greatest creative geniuses of the time. Identity – social class, race, gender – did not matter; everyone simply wanted an escape from reality.
The third paper examined Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, the collaborative work of five composers of Les Six and the writer, Jean Cocteau. This surrealist ballet presents an absurd narrative of a wedding scene on the first level of the Eiffel Tower. Cocteau mocks the serious, distorts the familiar, and succeeds in creating a wonderful collage of images which invokes childhood and naïveté. Perhaps this is his reflection of the helplessness of the French struggle for collective identity; during times of difficulty and uncertainty, it is natural to feel child-like and bewildered with the world.
My fourth paper will examine the neoclassical elements of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète; in this work, Stravinsky offers his idea of the perfect unison of music and dance into a concise idea of beauty. This ballet presents a synthesis of Ancient Greek mythology and French baroque themes, but there are dark undercurrents of contemporary tragedy interspersed throughout the music. Stravinsky went through many musical stages in his development as a composer, and this is perhaps the height of his identity as a truly ‘neoclassical’ composer.
French music during the 1920s expressed the longing for a unifying element of “French-ness” in the post-war era. The ways in which composers portrayed this need for an identity through racial, sexual, and political tensions reveals a great deal about their own self-identity crises.