Culture; Literature Music and Art of the Belle Epoque Period in France and Europe

Painting of a Paris musical soiree

Article written by Ed Zeidan

The Belle Epoque was a period in Paris from roughly 1880 to 1814. The term Belle Epoque was a description of that time, to express an age of care-free stability, progress, pleasure, elegance and artistry. Especially after the tragedy of WW1, this time (1880-1914) retrospectively became referred to nostalgically as the Belle Epoque; that is, the good old days before the war. This was a time when technology and innovation, of travel, communication, and a time of cultural, artistic richness made some impact on society in the late 19th Century. The Paris subway, the Metro was built, the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated.

Other parts of Europe and Russia also underwent a similar cultural period. In Russia this time was referred to as The Silver Age. In this case, the major driver was Poetry and Literature of the Symbolists and Futurists, and was dominated by Anna Akhmatova, Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, and Alexander Blok. Fyodor Sologub was a novelist of the Silver Age, with his novel, The Little Demon.

Between 1875 and 1914, remarkable technological changes and innovation took place: photography, the portable camera and the Lumiere Brothers developed early moving pictures in 1895. The period saw the growth of telegraphy and mechanized transport. In 1893 the earliest horse-less carriages were produced.

There were three Universal Expositions held in Paris the last in 1900, each showcasing newest innovations in art, industry and technology. This technology began to come into use world-wide. Among the educated classes in the second half of the 19th century, scientific knowledge became more widely appreciated and disseminated. Mid-century, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species provoked a widespread interest in ideas about the physical world and implications of science and nature. Amateur scientific societies were formed, and books on science, geology, and nature were published with great success.

Apart from technological advancement and inventions, there were developments in the field of scientific theory. Greater understanding of bacteriology and the causes of illness. The work and theories of Sigmund Freud and psychology was also gaining greater exposure.

It was a time when the telephone began to be in mass use. In 1888, Germans, for example made 155 million phone calls. It became possible to hear a concert in Philadelphia Hall, using headphones, with the musicians performing in a New York theatre. Sound and music recording in the shape of the Gramophone, also began to be in widespread use. There were also major developments in production of the motor car, the earliest aircraft and motion pictures.

The architecture, interior decoration and graphic design of the Belle Epoque was also of a distinct style, that of Art Nouveau. This was an extremely ornate style, combining materials and shapes that were heavily ornamental and drawn from motifs of nature and floral iconography. Interior house decoration was sculptured to imitate natural shapes and forms.

Belle Epoque was not an entirely tranquil period. There were demonstrations and political unrest from Anarchist terrorism, agitation by labour socialists and the earliest industrial Unions. In 1890, the first May Day celebrations took place.

At the same time, there was an expansion of department stores catering to consumers, this evolved the idea of high fashion, (Haute Couture) and developed the mass market for fashion, luxury goods, clothing and decorative design. There was increased interest in sport, the first modern Olympic events was held in 1896, and widespread popularity of cycling, with the first Tour de France held in 1903.

Music and the Belle Epoque

Electrification and street lighting (introduced in 1878) became more widespread during this period. Milan’s opera house La Scala used electric illumination by 1875. Larger music halls were constructed to cater to expanded audiences. Crystal Palace in the 1880s and the Royal Albert Hall in 1871. During the Belle Epoque, music performance in Paris commonly took place in Salons, and there the music sometimes was considered not to be serious, although important composers of the time had their works performed in these venues.

Major Composers of this period.

Camille Saint-Saens; b. 1835, d.1921. Though he was a composer and performer of the Romantic era, this gifted and prolific composer was active during the 1890s. He was quintessentially French in his style, preserving strong qualities of clarity, precision and order. He travelled to Spain, Italy, Portugal Russia and Greece. He absorbed foreign influences, but above all he maintained a strong attachment to 17th and 18th Century European musical forms. Claude Debussy considered him to be a ‘musician of tradition’. During the 1880s he was considered to be the greatest living composer and gained wide respect in England. He had a lifelong interest in the natural sciences and mathematics also in archaeology, philosophy and astronomy.  In 1893 he was awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge University alongside Bruch and Tchaikovsky. Saint-Saens had a high regard for Mahler, but after 1900, had difficulty coming to terms with modernistic tendencies such as impressionism and modernism as exhibited by Debussy. He was somewhat critical of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He attempted unsuccessfully to have German music banned during the course of the WW1. However, it is important to observe that Saint-Saens was responsible for drawing the attention of composers to genres other than just opera. His gift of orchestration and instrumental harmony permeates all his works, he wrote concertos, songs, choral, orchestral and chamber works.

Ernest Chausson: b. 1855: Not a hugely prolific composer, only producing 39 Opus numbers. He was however a perfectionist, He was taught by Jules Massenet, but was drawn towards the style of Cesar Franck. He travelled to Germany and attended performances of Wagner and this cemented his musical style. He held salons in Paris, which were attended by Stephane Mallarme, Regnier, Debussy, Isaac Albeniz. He had close involvement with Parisian musical and intellectual circles. His works were small in scale, but heavily infused with literary themes drawn from Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Dante and classical mythology. Chausson composed highly respected music for vocal/orchestral settings, chamber works, sacred music and songs. He had great skill as a portraitist of musical themes. His music has great lyricism, delicacy, and expanded the chromaticism and sonorities in music composition. He died relatively young from a bicycle accident.

Chausson’s oeuvre are generally divided into three periods. In the first, he was stylistically dominated by the influence of Massenet. The second period, dating from 1886, is marked by a more dramatic and individualist character, deriving partly from his contacts with the artistic milieux in which he moved. In the last period of his life, he was especially influenced by his reading of the symbolist poets and Russian literature, particularly Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

His funeral was attended by many leading figures of the arts, including Duparc, Gabriel Faure, Isaac Albeniz & Claude Debussy.

Claude Debussy: b. 1862: Composer of considerable influence. Wrote piano and orchestral works exhibiting strongly individualistic character and quality. He won scholarships early in life, and studied briefly with Cesar Franck.  Travelled to Italy, Russia, Austria and Bayreuth. He became fascinated by Javanese gamelan at the World Exhibition in Paris. Was close to Earnest Chausson. Wrote Piano Etudes and Nocturnes, and a notable group of piano pieces “Images” in several sets. All of his works were reflective and impressionistic and associated with the portrayal of sounds and sensations of nature and the natural world, such as rain and night. In this respect he can be described as a “Symbolist”. We have titles such as Golliwog’s Cake Walk, Masques, the Sunken Cathedral etc. His work is characterised by lightness and delicacy. Evocations of exotic and oriental landscapes such as Greece, Spain and Egypt. Development of his solo piano work did not come until after 1907, but when it did, the influence and power of his work was revolutionary. His compositions were considered more daring, innovative and ground-breaking than the conventional styles of the time. While revolutionary, his works sometimes also sought to pay homage to earlier composers such as Rameau and Haydn. He used sonorities and harmonic figures, intervals, textures and sound colourings that were quite exotic and daring for his time. Debussy musical style had lasting influence over later composers, such as Bartok, Ravel and John Cage.

Gabriel Fauré: b.1845-d.1924. In his early days as a music student at École Niedermeyer, study included serious literary as well as musical training. He was at the École for 11 years, and he was taught piano by Camille Saint-Saens who was more than just a teacher to him, he also became a friend and a guide. Saint-Saens introduced his students to the music of Schumann, Franz Liszt and Wagner. Fauré later became appointed an organist. Until the 1890s he made modest advances and did not fully realize his musical ambitions. The turning point in Fauré’s composing career was the 1890s. He visited Venice, later Florence, and composed various minor works such as the Cinq Melodies with words by Paul Verlaine. Faure was one of the founding members of the Société Nationale de Musique which included Henri Duparc, Massenet, Debussy and Saint-Saens. Paris salons were venues where his music could gain exposure and appreciation.

In 1896 he became teacher of composition, replacing Massenet. Some of his notable pupils there were Ravel, Nadia Boulanger and Koechlin. Musical performance of his works within the milieu of the Paris salons constrained his reputation. Later, he began to gain critical recognition in his fifties. He was not a piano virtuoso as Saint-Saens was, but he was an effective performer of his own works. His early period was in a romantic style. His second and mature period was influenced by the poetry of the Parnassians. The Parnassian poets’ style was focussed on technical perfection, precise description, objectivity and restraint.

Fauré discovered the poetry of Paul Verlaine. It was through Princess de Polignac that Fauré began a collaboration with Paul Verlaine and produced Cinq Melodies “de Venise”. Symbolists broke with the pictorial style of poetry, and expressed poetic themes in a purified form, using medieval settings to seek to achieve sensory immediacy without describing or referring to anything real or concrete, but using evocative suggestion and abstraction, shadow and light towards creating something original. Using lyric content of obscure imagery and language, Fauré interpolated harmonic music that perfectly illustrated this poetic language.

His fourth period, realizing fully his creative skills, and as composer achieved great delicacy, profundity and harmonic richness in his writing, creating continuity of melodic sequences, with unexpected turns. He is considered a master of French Song. It is said that he chose Symbolist poetry for its pliability and aimed to communicate the atmosphere of the words rather than just the meaning. He did not compose much for orchestra, but his chamber writing has been said to be orchestral in scope. His work is full of depth and refinement.

Literature and Art of the Belle Epoque.

Symbolism was a major force in Literature, Poetry and Art at this time. The Symbolist Aesthetic was exemplified by writers throughout Europe. Oscar Wilde showed Aesthetic and Symbolist tendencies and his work “Salome” was staged in Paris to great acclaim. French writer Huysman’s novel A Rebours was a major Symbolist work influenced by the ideas of Oscar Wilde. Other figures of the Symbolist movement were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, even Auguste Rodin is thought of as a Symbolist artist. Symbolism was a strong movement also in Russian Literature till 1917, and this time is referred to as the Silver Age.  Some symbolist poets and Artists in Russia considered that the world was a system of symbols that reflected metaphysical realities, Alexander Blok was one such figure. French Symbolist poetry was employed in the imagery and songs of Chausson and Henri Duparc and others. Mythological, Oriental and Medieval themes figured strongly in Symbolist Art and poetry. The artist Gustave Moreau followed this tradition. Claude Debussy also used themes, ideas drawn from the French Symbolist movement such as Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine. Guy de Maupassant was a major writer of the period, a realist in the Balzac tradition, his work also had some stylistic similarities to Symbolism, but in addition he employed methods of psychological realism, writing only novelettes and short stories. He revolutionised the short story and along with the Russian Anton Chekhov contributed greatly to development of the short story as an art form. Some of Maupassant’s work employs elements of the fantastic, and the grotesque that express the troubled state of his characters and themes.

During the Belle Epoque, Literary realism and Naturalism achieved greater heights. Theodor Fontane Emile Zola as well as Guy de Maupassant were important examples. In drama, Alfred Jarry was the creator of what was to become Theatre of the Absurd. His play Ubu Roi satirised the hypocrisy, greed and avarice of the middle classes. His works scandalised Paris, but anticipated the absurdist drama of Samuel Becket, Ionesco, and Antonin Artaud.

During the Belle Epoque, Symbolism in the visual arts was also a major influence that contrasted itself to Impressionism. Ideas and meaning in Symbolist works were expressed subjectively and not through realism. Symbolists sought to find artistic expression through religious mysticism, the erotic, the grotesque and the decadent. Symbolism sought to express meaning through nuance and suggestion, rather than direct reference. Belgian artist James Ensor was painting in the tradition of Symbolism, for example his painting Death and the Masks (1897) used grotesquery as a critique of society. Gustave Moreau was also a major Symbolist artist, expressing beauty through the divine with his painting, for example, Jupiter and Semele (1895) His work has been compared to that of Wagner’s music, with its pictorial composition and expression of epic themes, using rich colour and detail in his works. Symbolism as a movement can be taken to be a midpoint between the period of Romanticism and that of Modernism.

The Belle Epoque can be considered a midpoint between the end of the Romantic Period, and the beginning of the early Modernist period. Brahms was composing his Clarinet Sonatas in 1894, towards the end of his composing career. Gustave Mahler another representative of the later Romantic composers worked until 1911. The 1890s saw the beginning of modernist tendencies, in Literature, Painting, Poetry and Drama, as well as Music. Kandinsky around 1903, was painting in a new style referred to as Expressionism, early appearance of the styles of Cubism and Fauvism in painting in the works of Matisse, Picasso, Braque were seen, these were works that used methods of manipulation of the physical image and of abstraction. Arnold Schoenberg an early musical innovator and modernist was composing works in the Serialist style. The catastrophic outbreak of WW1 was the event that changed forever the atmosphere, outlook and circumstance of this care-free golden period of time during which Europe experienced an extended period of peace. The Belle Epoque was brought to a close by the outbreak of the Great War.

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