Fictional Letter on the Société Nationale de Musique in early 1920s (1920)

This is a fictional private letter written by French pianist Marguerite Long to her friend in early 1920s. Her friend is revisiting Paris after two decades and would love to enjoy a concert of Société Nationale de Musique.

My Dearest Friend,

I hope this letter finds you well. I was so thrilled and excited to know that you will be visiting Paris later this summer. After so many years — almost two decades my friend, we will finally reunite in this charming city where both of us spent a substantial part of our youth. Paris has changed much, but it also hasn’t changed much. I assure you that you will enjoy the city after seeing how it has evolved, no less than how you used to appreciate and praise it years ago.

You expressed your interest in attending and re-experiencing Parisian cultural activities and events in your last letter, especially events of French modern music. I would dare to give you some suggestions and personal opinion, from a local Parisian and musician’s standpoint. I am so glad that you still recall the time we spent on concerts of Société Nationale de Musique (SN) and post-concert debates with our peers on French modern music. While I would love to sit in a SN concert again with you and relive our old memories, I would like to remind you that SN nowadays is no longer as significant on the Parisian musical scene as it was twenty years ago.

In the old days when we were students in Paris, SN was always under the spotlight of Parisian music society. It was small but elite. Both membership and concert attendance numbers rarely exceeded more than two hundred, yet its performances had never stopped receiving musical critics and public attention [1]. These professional and public attentions are drawn to SN not only because of its musical claim of promoting French modern music but also because of its political orientation. Viewed by some critics as a response and product of Franco-Prussian War and rising French Nationalism, SN is by nature political from the beginning of its establishment in late nineteenth century [2]. I know that you would agree with me on these statements, as such political influence and indication were exactly what drew us and other young students alike to SN’s musical events.

I remember our discussion and debates on the political goals and affiliation of some important SN figures. Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, a classical nationalist, always called for maintaining our “Frenchness” in modern composition and insisted on performing French-composer-only repertoire in SN. D’Indy and his supporters, while taking a more liberal stand than Saint-Saëns to embrace modern music from non-French composers, might find some level of agreement with right political groups like Action Française [3]. However, after the war, this consistency and alignment of political and aesthetic goals stopped being appealing to the members, and some members might not even find the alignment true and necessary [4]. Musicians who disagree with the political bias of SN’s important figures and founders, might have thus lost interest in SN and turned to other organizations [5]. Under the leadership of Fauré and his more diverse board of directors, SN is gradually depoliticized. SN’s political affiliation, one important aspect of SN’s significance in Paris, starts to become less attractive and only historical.

As you probably may have heard of, during the war time, musicians in charge were trying to fuse SN and Société Musicale Indépendante (SMI) together into one music society, placing the latter underneath the shell of the former. The attempted union eventually never happened, as Maurice Ravel, the founder of SMI opposed to the plan, fearing that the nationalistic influence of SN would be too extreme and exclusive for SMI and its independent and progressive characteristics [6]. However, SN and SMI, a pair of healthy competitors, had eventually become more and more identical. Both societies did not resume their performance season until 1917 and were heavily influenced by the war [7]. SN, as I mentioned above, evolved to be less political aggressive [8]. SMI, on the other hand, was restrained by the war to acquire new works from abroad. Eventually, the two music societies end up performing and premiering similar classical and newly-composed French music [9].

Let me tell you more about my personal experience. The most recent SN concerts I have been to, which took place in May last year, are one fully dedicated to Debussy’s performed work and another which distributed evenly between composition from some less-known composers and composition from the French big names, namely Debussy, d’Indy and Fauré [10]. In recent years, I have also play often at concerts of both societies [11]. The performance dynamics of the two societies are not very different. Most of my performances are premieres of solo piano and chamber music works by same group of modern French composers. In March this year, for example, I premiered Gustave Samazeuilh’s Le chant de la Mer. The rest of the concert included Fauré’s Second Violin Sonata and Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles. Works of the masters, of course. As you could imagine, such works  are also frequently performed by SMI and other music societies.

Moreover, since its inauguration, SN has been mirrored by newer groups to form new music societies [12]. Therefore, SN is not the one and only music society of its type active in Paris. The cake is still big, but the share gets smaller, as SN faces competition with the other groups including SMI on public attention, music reviews, performer resources, and quality of the premiere works and other concert repertoire. All these factors reduce SN’s uniqueness and significance in the Parisian music society.

A more practical problem is SN’s concert schedule. As I mentioned, during war years, there were barely any concerts. SN started to recover by the end of 1917 and held only five concerts in 1918. Last year it went back with full strength, holding nine concerts, as how it used to do. All these concerts were scheduled to perform before July and only on Saturdays [13]. My dear friend, as you plan to come in late summer and only stay for a short period of time, I am afraid that you wouldn’t make it to a regular SN concert.

My dearest friend, you must understand that as a pianist who performs often for Société Nationale de Musique and enjoys close friendship and partnership with its musician members, I do not hold anything against the society. All of the words above serves simply as a gentle and personal reminder of SN’s change and lost of significance. However, if you would prefer revisiting SN, let us find out the schedule and plan on going. If you would rather attend other activities, I could come up with a list of options that give a taste of “Frenchness”, if that is what you miss and seek for. Once again, I could not be happier knowing that you are coming and would love to spend my days accompanying you during your stay. Please do write back to me. Until we see each other again in Paris, my friend, be well and take good care of yourself!

Yours, Marguerite

May 05, 1920 [14]

Author: Xuan He


[1] Michael Strasser, Ars Gallica: The Société Nationale De Musique and Its Role in French Musical Life, 1871-1891 (UMI Dissertation, 1998), 145.

[2] Michael Strasser, The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries: The Musical Politics of L’Invasion Germanique in the 1870s (19th-Century Music 24, no. 3, 2001), 225-226.

[3] Charles B. Paul, Rameau, D’indy, And French Nationalism (Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly 58, no. 1, 1972), 46-56.

[4] Jane F. Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 33.

[5] Strasser, The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries, 248.

[6] Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940, 67.

[7] Société Nationale De Musique, CONCERTS SNM DE 1909 À 1919, accessed October 20, 2015.

[8] Original words from Ravel: “Societies, even national, do not escape from the laws of evolution”. See Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 61.

[9] Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940, 34.

[10] Société Nationale De Musique, CONCERTS SNM DE 1909 À 1919.

[11] Cecilia Dunoyer, Marguerite Long: A Life in French music, 1874-1966 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 84.

[12] Strasser, The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries, 248.

[13] Société Nationale De Musique, CONCERTS SNM DE 1909 À 1919.

[14] This date is chosen randomly with no particular reasons.



Full Bibliography

“CONCERTS SNM DE 1909 À 1919.” Société Nationale De Musique – CONCERTS SNM DE 1909 À 1919. Accessed October 20, 2015.

Baedeker, Karl. Paris Und Umgebung: Handbuch Für Reisende. 19 Auflage. Leipzig: K. Baedeker, 1923.

Dunoyer, Cecilia, Marguerite Long: A Life in French Music, 1874-1966. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Fulcher, Jane F. “Wartime Nationalism, Classicism, and Their Limits.” In The Composer as Intellectual Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Orenstein, Arbie. Ravel: Man and Musician. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975

Paul, Charles B. “Rameau, D’indy, And French Nationalism.” Musical Quarterly The Musical Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1972): 46-56.

Strasser, Michael. “The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries: The Musical Politics of L’Invasion Germanique in the 1870s.” 19th-Century Music 24, no. 3 (2001): 225-51.

Strasser, Michael Creasman. “Policies and Procedures: 1871-1881.” In Ars Gallica: The Société Nationale De Musique and Its Role in French Musical Life, 1871-1891. UMI Dissertation, 1998.