I am writing this letter from my parsonage right outside the convalescence house just to the west of Paris. There is a small gaggle of holy men here from many different faiths. We feel overwhelmed by the need of these wounded veterans for physical and spiritual balm. The ravages of the Great War are much more subtle than the bombs that created them. I seem to be the only Lutheran in this wonderful country, and as such I believe I am experiencing something similar to what Ruth felt as she entered a new life. I am a stranger in a strange land.
Last Sunday, I asked the organist of our small parish, who happens to be my closest friend, to play organ works by Bach and Mendelssohn for the prelude and postlude. After the service, I heard some of the doctors complaining about how the music was too German. At first I was taken aback. The pieces I chose have given me much solace throughout my life, so I was completely surprised by their objections. However, I soon realized that the music had been salt in an old wound. These composers, who sought to create beauty, were from the same country as the people who created the brokenness of which these learned men have seen so much. It was clear that a different music was needed.
This was the genesis of my research. I knew I needed to find a music that these people could be proud of; a music that they would see as being untainted by the sins of Germany. Once a week, the doctors go into Paris to find some relief from the stresses of the convalescent home. They drive into the beautiful city and go to their favorite cafés, and try to remember what life was like before the war. On one such occasion I went with them, for I was weary of the seemingly impossible task of healing wounds which are not seen. At our café a small group of musicians on the patio, playing what I can only describe as sweetly melancholy music that seemed to mix with the sounds of the rue and the bustle of life. When we had acquired our coffee, I began to ask them about what they wanted out of music.
After a few minutes of talking, to our great surprise, a composer came and sat with us. His name is Georges Auric. I cannot adequately describe to you the nature of this man. He was modest, but sharp witted, sincere and sarcastic, meek and powerful. It was as if he knew exactly what these bereaved doctors needed to hear. M. Auric was humble in a way that I have rarely seen. He described to us how music needs to be simple, down-to-earth, and not complicated by lofty themes. He decried the music of Debussy as being heavy with the seductions of sublimity.
Unfortunately, M. Auric had to oversee a rehearsal, so our conversation with him was short. However, he invited us to a concert that was being performed next week, in which one of his newest pieces was being premiered. We were all so intrigued by this youngster’s wisdom that we immediately agreed to attend.
The day of the concert seemed to come in a flash. The doctors set aside their vestments and instead opted for suits of the most vogue cut they could afford. We arrived quite early. The concert hall was magnificent, although it was quite oddly nestled between a church on one side and a rather seedy looking bar on the other. We could only afford nosebleed seats, for the venue most often catered to the very rich and popular. Men and women driven by chauffeurs exited their cars to display the latest fashions and the most popular attitudes. Frivolity and lightheartedness filled the air. The scene was a far cry from the convalescent home. I must admit that I felt rather angry with these French elite. Didn’t they know what had just happened? Didn’t they remember the tragedy their countrymen had suffered for their freedom?
The concert itself was strange and intriguing, to say the least. One of the songs was a ballet, which was danced by the strangest dancers I have ever seen. It had the feel of a parade, but the look of boxy martians dancing about their desolate planet. The intermission itself was the most odd. After a few minutes of chatter from the crowd, the lights remained up but music began to play. The crowd quieted down, and to our surprise, a frantic looking man commanded us to stop listening and keep talking! There are perhaps some things about France that I will never understand.
The best song we heard was by Auric himself. The piece was called Adieu, New York! It was supposed to be a foxtrot, but it was unlike any foxtrot I have ever heard. I would have been impossible to dance to. That being said, it seemed like the perfect musical expression of what a foxtrot should be. M. Auric’s music had taken a completely normal, frivolous dance, and created it into the perfect form of itself, setting it on an aesthetically Platonian pedestal. This fantastic little piece mixes normal rhythmic figures of a foxtrot with newly imagined harmonies, that are at the same time beautiful and slightly cacophonous. The music was clean, brief, and rejected what musical conventions I was familiar with: styles such as those of Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky. It avoided all the excesses of the late romantic era, and the gauzy textures of impressionism, and instead created a sound that was at the same time filled with everyday life, while simultaneously idolizing it in a beautiful way.
After the concert the doctors and I descended to the ground floor to share our opinions. The doctors were ecstatic. This music seemed more genuine and inviting to them than they knew how to describe. The entire room buzzed with excitement. It seemed that the concert had been a huge success. From out of the main doors of the auditorium came a disheveled looking man, who by the way he was clutching a bundle of music I guessed was a composer. Suddenly, M. Auric burst out of the door and caught the arm of the first man. The disheveled composer declared, “Sécheresses will never be performed again, it’s a dud. I’m going to destroy it.” M. Auric cracked a peculiar smile and replied: “You can destroy your Poemes de Ronsard, or Les Soirees de Nazelle and no harm done, but whatever you do, not this piece.” It was then that M. Auric saw us and hurried over. He inquired as to my opinion of the concert, for my trepidations about the event must have been written on my face. “It must be rather thrilling,” I stated sarcastically, “to give concerts for the wealthy ignorant. It is clear that this music is beyond me.” A sad look cast its shadow on his youthful countenance. “Isn’t there an even vaster public,” he said sadly, “who also have a right to share in the exultant joys of our concerts? Alas! I know too well how fanciful these desires of ours can be and how the harsh reality too often condemns us to give up on what we most ardently wish to do. Still, it is necessary to let them know that there is a welcoming, generous art that demands only to lavish for those who know and want to listen to its soothing splendors.” The sadness in the tone of his voice proved these words were true. To a degree, it seemed that Auric despised the fact the most of his audience was composed of the very rich. He wanted his music to be for the entire public, for his music was based on the sounds and realities of their life. There was no doubt that M. Auric was in the avant garde, but all his musical genius did not make him want to limit the audience that could love his music, and be loved by it.
This was the answer I had been looking for. It is in the desire to make music acceptable to the people that one begins to understand what that music should be. In my blindness I had programmed music that had excluded my parishioners from being healed by it. I had intended to give them courage by bombarding them with music that reminded them of the people who had actually bombed them.
In the weeks to come, Auric’s success was written in many newspapers and popular tableaus. One paper declared him to be very intelligent, with an air of buffoonery. Another deemed his music remarkable and pleasant. It is M. Auric’s desire to make music for the French populace that seems to give his music a new spirit. It is this desire that demands that his music find its inspiration in quotidian Parisian life. It is exactly this new spirit that gives his music purity of design, plain expression, and a clear line. It does not need to be grand, terribly loud, or overly serious, for it is acceptable as an artistic expression of the melancholic nostalgia which percolates underneath the noise and bustle of the City of Lights.
Like the geographical places in which this music is played, such as the cafe in which the music mixes with the sounds of French life, this music is a French synthesis of a French experience.
These Ideas about music opened up a new way for me to think about my ministry. I do not want to be the strange Norwegian- American Lutheran who preaches a foreign gospel about a foreign god. I want their Gospel to be my Gospel. I want their pains to be my pains. I want their music to be my music.
I hope this letter finds you well, my dear. I miss you more than I have imagination to describe. I’m sure it seems like a long way off, but I’ll be home with you for Christmas. That thought brings more happiness to me than you can imagine.
With all my affection, and very truly yours,