A Letter to Maurice Ravel concerning the Societe Musicale Independante

A letter to Monsieur Maurice Ravel Ÿ- Paris, France -Ÿ 21 September 1927

Monsieur Ravel,

Although we have never met, I write on behalf of my mentor Arnold Schoenberg to express his thanks for all your efforts to facilitate his upcoming appearance in Paris. Without your advocacy of his work to the Société Musicale Indépendante, the French nationalist sentiment so prevalent in your city would have forever shunned him; it is doubtful that Schoenberg’s works would have been heard in France for quite some time.[1] Many thanks are in order to you for exercising your authority as the society’s vice president and principal founder.[2]

I confess immediately, however, that I also write on my own behalf: I wish to inquire whether you are able and willing to campaign for Austrians once more. Like Schoenberg, I too desire most ardently to align myself with the Société Musicale Indépendante, and I write in humility to request the honor of a premiere with your society. I have dreamt of partaking in a musical program under SMI leadership ever since I attended two SMI concerts in December 1915 during my first trip to Paris.[3] To perform with the SMI would provide a platform for me to present new and different material to receptive Parisian audiences at a time when automatic Austrian rejection is the canon of so many French musical authorities. It could not be plainer to me that the Société Musicale Indépendante is the best, indeed the only, way for me to bring my music successfully to Paris.

Thanks to your vision, the Société Musicale Indépendante exists to combat musical censorship, permitting voices and styles to be heard that would otherwise be stifled by Vincent d’Indy’s exclusive and demanding aesthetic requirements. It is only because the SMI exists that I even began to contemplate a premiere in Paris, let alone a journey; I do not think I could bear to venture to France if only the Société Nationale were there to greet me. D’Indy’s SN – for it is effectively d’Indy’s society, per his imperialist rule – continues to profess its support for the performance and diffusion of all serious musical works, encouraging and exposing all musical enterprises in any form. This claim is blatantly false, for d’Indy’s criteria for ‘serious musical works’ is so rigid that the society’s performances of new works become as tedious as a university examination.[4] D’Indy wishes to hear nothing but the most pure, refined neoclassical French aesthetic. If the SN were Paris’s sole musical institution, I have no doubt that many Parisians would hardly know any other music existed at all.

The SMI makes Paris globally connected, rather than localized and isolated.[5] By contrast, although the SMI has produced only a fifth of the concert volume as the SN, it has welcomed numerous experimental, foreign, or otherwise avant-garde works.[6],[7] In our post-war reality, when French pride permeates every aspect of Paris, such a venue for foreign music is a rare treasure. It provides an otherwise nonexistent opportunity, a door through which Germans, Austrians, Americans, and other international composers might be permitted into the wonders of Parisian life.

I am aware that these opportunities do not exist without great controversy, and I thank you for your tireless efforts to cultivate new international music.[8] I must confess I am glad that you and d’Indy could never agree on how to unify French music.[9] Perhaps Alfred Cortot’s fusion of the SN and the SMI would indeed have created some type of unified national “mission” for French composition – but it would certainly have annihilated the SMI’s freedom to perform unique international works.[10] Thank goodness your colleague Koechlin put up as much of a fight as he did against this movement.[11] Exclusive, extremist nationalism should not be the future of composition in any nation, least of all in a nation of which the whole world seems to want to be part. I rejoice, too, that you refused to align the SMI with the Ligue pour la Défense de la Musique Française. I recall when Schoenberg anguished over this situation, for he would have been directly affected had you chosen to sign it. I greatly admired your outrage and your admonishment to Cortot that

“it would be dangerous for composers systematically to ignore the productions of their foreign colleagues and thus to form a sort of national coterie: our musical art, so right in the present epoch, would quickly degrade and enclose itself in clichés….”[12]

Your rejection of the Schola Cantorum’s obstinacy at every opportunity has come to define the SMI as a courageous society, unafraid to take risks and unafraid to engage in cross-national exchanges. The SMI establishes a precedent for embracing unique qualities of international music, and I wish to count myself among the Austrians whose music you explore. To become associated with this history of dogmatic denunciation would be both an honor and a signal to the world that Austria and France alike are ready to move past petty wartime prejudices.

The SMI now enjoys a long-standing reputation of welcoming outsiders. I recall hearing how the society welcomed Russians as they fled their Revolution a decade ago, promoting many talented Russian musicians and composers.[13] Talents the likes of Mussorgsky and Obouhov have since shaped current Parisian tastes, yet this music might never have been heard in France if not for the generosity of the SMI. Today, that same generosity is employed to showcase popular foreign nationalities beyond the mere generalized stereotypes. American music, for instance, is presented in its full scope, reaching beyond popular jazz artists to fresh-faced American modernists. Largely responsible for this full inclusionary development is the great Madame Nadia Boulanger, who serves on the SMI directors’ board.[14] (I hear that Boulanger even hosts your board meetings at her own home – what a delight those evenings must be![15]) While reception of young American composers, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, has many times been less than warm in Paris, the SMI patrons always receive these students with great excitement – and it is due to the SMI’s firm foundation that Boulanger is able to continually bring these composers across the ocean.[16] These warm receptions of international composers fuel my hope that I, too, might be welcomed into the realm of Parisian musical culture.

Such an international embrace of new works signifies the SMI’s high standards for compositional excellence, where a composer’s worth is based not on nationality but on style, aesthetic, and quality. This truth grants composers the rewarding knowledge that should their works be selected by the SMI, it is because their craft is deemed valuable, not because their piece fulfills a national stereotype. I know that Boulanger has proposed to your society the idea of a “dialectical relationship” of composition, one in which a collective of many individualities share a common nationality and reflect a nation’s diversified character more accurately than a unified group with a single aesthetic.[17] I must stay that I believe this same notion applies to the SMI in its entirety. Any composer who works alongside the SMI becomes a member of a global musical collaboration, united by the ethics of promoting inherent quality. National boundaries are set aside as works from different nations and styles are assessed on a single program, exploring the novel and the international without traditional parameters. Surely, such as international dialectical standard is imperative for progress in an age where war-fueled prejudices are still easy to maintain. I yearn to be a part of this relationship, not only for my own career but also for the fortitude of my country. Austrian musicians can no longer afford to fall victim to post-war animosities. Schoenberg is paving the way for a new Austrian music; with my own unique ideas, I wish to do the same.

Please understand how very willing I would be to travel to Paris for the premiere of my piece; if my work is chosen, I know your audiences would much prefer me to present rather than to be home in Austria.[18] I do not intend to give the impression that I think highly enough of my own work to imagine that I am aptly fit for an SMI program, nor that I have already earned the right to align myself with the SMI. Rather, I yearn for the opportunity to earn such a privilege. I would be honored to affiliate with the unprecedented philosophies of the SMI and to extend the dialectical relationship to a new generation of Austrian composers. With the SMI to empower us, perhaps we can help to change the way the world communicates.

Mit freundlichen Gruß[19],

Anton Webern

Vienna, Austria


[1] See Jane Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France 1914 – 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 138.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See “Music in Paris,” The Musical Times, December 1, 1913, accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/907737.

[4] See Roger Nichols, The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917 – 1929 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 47.

[5] See Robert Orledge, “Review: L’avant garde musicale a Paris de 1871 a 1939,” Music and Letters Vol. 79, No. 3 (1998), 439.

[6] See F.B., “’Jeptha’ at Cambridge,” The Musical Times, March 1934, accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/918720.

[7] Ibid., 440.

[8] Birmingham Conservatoire Professor Deborah Mawer asserts that Ravel’s commitment to cultivating his personal awareness of new international music trends was one of the defining aspects of his career. See Deborah Mawer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ravel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 24.

[9] See Roger Nichols, The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917 – 1929 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 47-48.

[10] See Jane Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France 1914 – 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 33.

[11] Robert Orledge, “Review: L’avant garde musicale a Paris de 1871 a 1939,” 439.

[12] Jane Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual, 67.

[13] Roger Nichols, The Harlequin Years, 262.

[14] See Jeanice Brooks, The Musical Works of Nadia Boulanger: Performing Past and Future Between the Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 28.

[15] Ibid.,. 29.

[16] Ibid., 32.

[17] See Roger Sessions, “An American Evening Abroad,” Modern Music 4, November/December 1926, 36.

[18] Roger Nichols, The Harlequin Years, 261.

[19] “Mit freundlichen Gruß” is a German phrase that translates to “Sincerely” in English.