German Music in France During the Fin de siècle (1870-1914)

At the outbreak of World War I, British music critic Ernest Newman feared that the conflict would force the nation to purge itself of all continental musical influences, particularly those of the Germans. In the mind of the critic and his contemporaries, such a situation was not without precedent. According to the writer, “French music is still suffering in all sorts of ways since 1870. It is so small because it is so bent on being exclusively French. By its refusal to fertilise itself with the great German tradition it deliberately cuts itself off from permanent spiritual elements in that tradition that would give it a wider range and a deeper humanity.”1 The date of 1870 is not arbitrary, for it marks the event which would haunt the French national psyche until the First World War: The Franco-Prussian war. On the surface, Newman’s statement seems almost a foregone conclusion, as would be almost natural for the French to culturally extricate themselves from their foes that had so bitterly defeated them. However, as Martin Cooper implies, Newman’s claim (and those of many contemporary British music critics up to the Second World War) shows an ignorance and almost contempt the English had towards French music. He simply remarks that “French music is generally not popular in England.”2

Ernest Newman (1868-1959)

Still, despite this contempt and even ignorance of French music, Newman’s comment bears some merit. It is true that initially, the French did attempt to shun performances of German music (particularly Wagner) and cultivate their own composers and musical identity. In the case of the former, however, both historians and primary sources agree that by the 1880s, French nationalism largely gave way to a general forgiveness of German music (particularly in the case of Wagner). In the case of the latter, it is true that the French still sought to cultivate their own music (and succeeded with the Impressionist movement of Debussy and Ravel), but by the mid-1880s, musical groups and societies had little interest in ostracizing foreign music. Indeed, although it is true that a distinct French musical identity came about in the years between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, it had little to do with the former conflict and nationalistic attempts at purging France of German music, and in fact owed much to the continued popularity of composers such as Wagner, who would go on to directly influence the likes of Debussy. 

French Music After 1870

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, the French musical community initially reacted by attempting to purge France of German composers such as Richard Wagner. As Marion Schmid notes, the French reaction to German music could be negative at times. In the case of Richard Wagner, one of “the most famous examples of the ideological controversies surrounding” the composer involves “the nationalist revulsion against his work after the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in a temporary ban of his operas in the 1870s and 1880s.”3 Even this ban of Wagner, however, seems less to do with the war and more to do with “the composer’s misguided taunting of the defeated French.”4  Nonetheless, Deirdre Donnellon notes that the post-war “climate…brought with it a decline in the popularity of foreign opera.”5  Furthermore, Camille Saint-Saens lambasted German music by remarking “nothing could be better than to go to Germany for masterpieces, but to go there for theories… even Richard Wagner’s theories are often pernicious; his works would not be what they are if he had always conformed to them; the harm they have done is incalculable.”6 This move away from foreign opera and disdain for Wagner proved short lived, for by the 1880s, the composer would be one of the cornerstones of French musical culture.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Additionally, several nationalistic musical groups and movements spurred from the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, although such efforts usually waned by the 1880s. Zoltan Roman described the formation of the Societe nationale de musique (SNM), a group founded in the wake of the fall of Sedan in 1871, with composer Gabriel Faure being a notable member. Among one of the goals of the SNM was “to inform itself by studying the unknown works (published or not) of French composers who belong to the society,” and “non-French persons may not become active members of the society.”7 While after 1886, the rules of the group lessened to include performances of non-French music, the group maintained its nationalist focus on promoting French composers. Although these French nationalistic tendencies developed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and even proved influential to the development of a distinct Franco-musical sound at the end of the century, they ultimately did little to purge the popularity of German music in the country during the late 1800s.

Purging Wagner in the Search For A French Musical Identity

Some continued to revile Wagner even after audiences generally forgave the composer and his ilk, although this disdain had little to do with the Franco-Prussian War itself and more to do with a search for a “French” musical identity in the wake of the continued popularity of German music. Robert Orledge, for example, acknowledged that Erik Satie “was a man of ideas who questioned every aspect of inherited nineteenth-century tradition and rejected its concepts of Romantic expressiveness and thematic development. He was the first to challenge Wagner’s pervasive influence on French music.”8 Jean Cocteau emphasizes this point when he recalled a 1891 conversation between Debussy and Erik Satie which showed the conflicting attitudes towards the German composer: 

“Satie asked Debussy what he was working on. Debussy, like everyone else, was writing a ‘Wagnerie’, on a text by Catulle Mendes. Satie grimaced. ‘Take my word for it,’ he murmured, ‘that’s enough of Wagner. It’s fine stuff, but it’s not ours. What’s needed…is for the orchestra not to pull a face when an actor comes on stage…the thing is to make musical scenery, not to create a musical climate in which the characters move and talk. No couplets, no leitmotifs- we should adopt a certain Puvis de Chavannes atmosphere.’”10 

Alongside Satie’s disdain for Germanic influences in French music, Cocteau also remarks the importance of the conversation on the development of Debussy’s later works, notably the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Furthermore, Cocteau implies that this movement in French music not only came about from Satie’s suggestion to Debussy, but also from the purging of Germanic musical influences from French compositions. Gertrude Schwartzman also points to the complex relationship which Claude Debussy had with the music of Richard Wagner during the late nineteenth century. While the composer “had become enthralled with Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde when he heard it for the first time at Bayreuth in 1881,” he would later “make fun of Wagner’s Tristan chord by slipping it into part of his Children’s Corner Suite, the Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”11 Furthermore, she acknowledges that “Debussy’s criticism of Wagner coincided with his desire to promote French music,” although makes no claim of tying this effort to post-war nationalism.12 Although Gabriel Faure made the pilgrimage to the Wagnerian Bayreuth festival in 1896, and gave the performances a positive review in a letter to his wife on August 5, J. Barrie Jones notes that “Faure did not admire Wagner’s music dramas without some reservations. In a letter to Marie dated 6 August he believed that ‘The Ring is stuffed with a philosophy and a quantity of symbols which are only manifestations of our misery and nothingness– no help at all.’”13 In regards to the music of Vincent d’Indy’s 1895 opera Fervaal, Norman Demuth remarked that “its symphonic propensities immediately raised a storm of indignation among those who saw it in a direct attempt to impinge Wagnerism on French art.”14

This turn of the century contempt for Wagner, however, seems little to do with the Franco-Prussian War or even a disdain for German music. On the contrary, much of the attacks on Wagner seem to be more iconoclastic appeals to separate French art away from the popularity of the composer, and the fear of the composers themselves being mere clones of the musical giant. This becomes more apparent in a 1900 letter Gabriel Faure wrote to his wife. In it, he laments that “as for work, it has reached a low point. Everything I have done seems ugly, and outrageously imitative of Wagner.”15 Additionally, in 1914, Maurice Ravel remarked 

“one might object that some twenty-years ago, an anti-Wagnerian movement became conspicuous among our young musicians… we had the right to express ourselves, and even the duty to do so. Wagner’s musical influence might have become disastrous in our country. One need only examine the important works written at that time: Fervaal, Le Roi Arthus, and even Gwendoline, in order to see a Wagnerian imprint here and there. Above all, one need only recall the deplorable multitude of theatrical works, chamber music, and songs, whose disproportion, heaviness, and sadness were so uninspired, that they have not survived these twenty years. Our inflexible position is therefore understandable.”16

Ravel doesn’t attack the music of Wagner itself, but rather the fact that French people adopted the Wagnerian influence to the point where it became a crutch to their own compositions. In fact, Ravel immediately acknowledges “Wagner’s prodigious creativeness and profound musicality.”17 Furthermore, very few of the attacks on Wagner make any mention of his ethnic background or of German music outside his sphere of influence. Wagner’s popularity in France, and not any resentment towards Germans following the Franco-Prussian war, therefore, made him the target of those who sought to extricate France from his influence.

The popularity of german music in the Fin de siècle

As the attacks on Wagner imply, the search for the French national musical identity had very little to do with the war itself, but more so to do with the prevalence of German music, both before and after the Franco-Prussian War. Martin Cooper, for example, argued that “the seeds of the new, post-war world had begun to germinate long before 1870.”18 Indeed, French national music existed long before the Franco-Prussian War, as composers such as Berlioz, Massanet and Gounod achieved pan-European prominence well before the conflict. Diedire Donnellon notes that even before the war “the success of Gounod’s Faust, Mireille, and Romeo et Juliette had already marked a change from the spectacle of grand opera in favour of greater emphasisi on sentimental characterization and emotional intensity.”19

French nationalism only went so far, however, as more often than not, German music was little affected in the years following the Franco-Prussian War, and, in the case of Wagner, became only more en vogue. In 1914, Lucian Nass described the reaction to an 1870 concert which featured pieces from Beethoven and Weber: 

they set upon the great classics, and the public, so ardently patriotic . .. praised the most beautiful passages by … German composers: Beethoven and Weber were applauded, moreover, by a public sufficiently intelligent not to confuse patriotism and chauvinism, and to welcome genius from whatever country it comes. It is difficult to imagine better proof of taste and artistic eclecticism than the example of these besieged inhabitants admiring, without reservation, the masterpieces of their enemies.20

Jess Tyre acknowledges the French separation of composers such as Beethoven with the Germans besieging Paris. She notes that “[French music critic Johannes] Weber…not only places Beethoven’s music above that of these popular composers, he elevates it to a politically ambiguous domain of aesthetics where the lines between prejudice and good taste are often blurred.”21 Furthermore, she remarks that, “the significance of Beethoven’s music can be divorced from the symbol of German creative power that the composer represents, for his art lives outside the scope of the Franco-Germanic conflict.”22  Additionally, she states that “both before and after the Franco-Prussian War, symphonic works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other German masters dominated orchestral repertories in Paris.”23 Furthermore, many years after Satie’s initial encounter with Debussy, the former recalled “I explained to Debussy the necessity for a Frenchman to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure which in no way corresponded to our national aspirations. I told him that I was not anti-Wagner in any way, but that we ought to have our own music.”24 Satie’s concerns seem to have merit. Edward Lockspeiser notes that in the 1880s and 1890s, “the Wagnerian fever in Paris was at its height, important Wagnerian extracts being regularly given at the Paris Symphony concerts.”25 This mania is also reflected in the French “pilgrimage” to the Bayreuth festivals. As Lockspeiser remarks, “nowadays…we have some difficulty in reconstructing the religious conception of a pilgrimage associated with the Bayreuth festivals. The journey was undertaken precisely in this sanctified spirit, particularly by the numerous French visitors for whom the music of Wagner, especially after Parsifal, filled the new religious need.”26 The love for German music, therefore, not only prospered in France regardless of the Franco-Prussian War, but prevailed to such a degree that it at times even stifled the development of the French musical identity. 

The Impact of German music on french composers

Some historians and contemporaries argued that German music, particularly that of Wagner, made an important cultural impact on France even following the Franco-Prussian War, even directly influencing French composition. Jess Tyre remarked that “for writers…Beethoven would become a symbol of hope for an insecure France in the years following the war. Eventually the man and the music would be almost entirely appropriated within constructs of French cultural and political identity.”27 Although Camille Saint-Saens remarked that “Debussy has been praised for avoiding” Wagner, as “his music resembles in no way that of the author of Tristan,” many historians and biographers see a direct connection between the German composer and the development of Debussy’s Impressionism.28 Gertrude Schwartzman notes that the symbolist movement in the late nineteenth century, owed much to Wagner, for

It was the Wagnerian conception of art that had inspired the symbolist movement, the symbolist poets being particularly attracted to the way that Wagner combined words with sounds. They were also enamored by the symbolism of the musical leitmotif, and the mysticism, which stimulated their imagination.29

This admiration of Wagner, according to Schwartzman, continued throughout the 19th century and only waned once Debussy premiered his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Marie Rolf additionally emphasizes the role the Wagnerian leitmotif had in the development of symbolist/Impressionist music: “Borrowing from the leitmotiv treatment of Wagner, whose Tristan und Isolde he called ‘the most beautiful thing I know, from the point of view of depth and emotion,’… Debussy achieved a sense of germinal growth in [Printemps (1887)].”30 Furthermore, “he hinted at this compositional technique in letters from October and November 1885, in which…he speculated that ‘Wagner would help’ him.”31 Additionally, Edward Lockspeiser notes that even when Debussy is dismissive of the works of Wagner, as in the case of an 1893 letter, “Debussy’s anti-Wagnerism was to some extent a pose, designed to conceal both his admiration and his fear of Wagner. There is no evidence that Wagner’s huge, sensuous philosophy left him indifferent.”32 Lockspeiser is a bit unclear at this point as to whether Debussy held either strongly positive or negative feelings towards the German composer. It can be assumed, however, that Debussy’s feeling towards Wagner were positive, as Lockspeiser also notes that 

“with remarkable self-knowledge, [Debussy] writes in a letter of 19 October 1886: ‘Wagner could be of use to me, but I needn’t tell you how absurd it would even try.’… Debussy’s knowledge of Wagner at this time must have been limited…yet this judgement clearly anticipates the Wagnerian impact shortly to be made on deeper levels of his sensibility.”33

Like Lockspeiser, other Debussy biographers also note the importance Wagner had on the young composer. Victor I. Seroff remarked that “he spent weeks studying Tristain und Isolde for at that time he was Wagnerian to the point of forgetting the most elementary principles of courtesy.’”34 J. Barrie Jones notes that Gabriel Faure was unusual amongst his contemporaries for the lack of Wagnerian influence in his work. He notes that 

“although Wagner fever was soon to reach it height in Paris [around 1880] affecting composers as diverse in their aims as d’Indy, Chabrier and Debussy…[Faure’s] musical idiom was hardly, if ever, influenced by Wagner, and this cannot be said for a great majority of his French contemporaries.”35

Even the iconoclastic Faure acknowledged the debt French composers had to German music. In his prologue to Georges Jean-Aubry’s French Music of To-Day, the composer “argued against what he perceived as an insular French view of cultural history, pleading for the continued acknowledgement of the salutary influence of the German contribution to French music and literature.”36 


Ultimately, Ernest Newman’s assessment of French musical isolationism in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war comes off as not only incorrect, but even ignorant when one considers the pervasiveness of German music, particularly that of Richard Wagner, among French audiences in the decades between the composer’s death and World War I. While it is true that the French made some nationalistic efforts to promote their own music at the expense of Germanic composers, these efforts ultimately bore little fruit. On the contrary, roughly a decade after the Franco-Prussian War, “Wagnermania” swept across France, leading not only to the popularity of German music in France during the late nineteenth century, but also many French composers and musicians to take the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see the city’s Wagnerian festivals. The near-religious reverence which the French held for Wagner caused Frenchman such as Erik Satie, Gabriel Faure, and Claude Debussy to distance themselves from the German composer and attempt to create a distinct French musical sound free from his influence. Nonetheless, this seperate of French music from the grip of Wagner was incomplete, and even the most ardent supporters of a distinct French national musical identity acknowledged the debt that it owed to the music of the German composer. 


1  Ernest Newman, “The War and the Future of Music,” from The Musical Times 55, no. 859 (Sept. 1914), 572. 

2  Martin Cooper, French Music From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure, (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 1. 

 3  Marion Schmid, “The French Press Campaign against Wagner during World War I,” from French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870-1939, ed. Barbara L. Kelly, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008), 77.  

4  Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” from French Music Since Berlioz, eds. Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter, (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 2. In a footnote, he elaborates that “the composer’s remarks were undoubtedly a symptom of his bitterness towards the French following the resounding failure of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.”

5  Ibid. 

6  Camille Saint-Saens, “German Influence,” on Musicians on Music, ed. Ferruccio Bonavia, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, 1956), 82.. 

7  Excerpt from the “Statuts de la Societe Nationale en 1871,” quoted in Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum: Selected Early Songs of Gabriel Fauré in the Socio-Cultural Context of His Time,” from Studia Musicologica 48, No. 1/2 (Mar., 2007), 12

8 Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum,” 12. Furthermore, Deirdre Donnellon notes this shift when he remarks that “In 1886 Vincent d’Indy introduced a motion to allow foreign music to be performed at the Societe nationale ” in footnote of Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” 3.

9  Robert Orledge, ed., Satie Remembered, (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995), 141. 

10  Robert Orledge, ed., “Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)”, from Satie Remembered, 45-46.

11 Gertrude Schwartzman, “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande: Secrecy, mystery and ambiguity in Debussy’s life and art,” from International Forum of Psychoanalysis 25, No. 1 (2016), 34.

12 Ibid.

13  J. Barrie Jones, ed., Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letters, (London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1989), 79.

14  Norman Demuth, Vincent d’Indy, 1851-1931: Champion of Classicism, (Salisbury: Rockliff, 1951), 48.

15 J. Barrie Jones, Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letters, 96.

16 Maurice Ravel, “Parsifal,” from A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, ed. Arbie Orenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 376.

17 Ibid., 376-377..

18 Cooper, French Music, 8.

19 Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” 2.

20 486*’, Essais de pathologie historique (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1914), 72. Translated quote lifted from Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” from The Journal of Musicology , Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring 2005), 179. 

21 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 181.

22 Ibid.

 23 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 182.

24 Victor I. Seroff, Debussy: Musician of France, (New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1956), 111.

25 Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. 1, 1862-1902, (London: Cassell, 1962), 90.

26 Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 92.

 27 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 180.

 28 Camille Saint-Saens, “German Influence,” in Musicians on Music, 82-83.

 29 Schwartzman, “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande,” 34 

30 Marie Rolf “Debussy’s Rites of Spring,” from Rethinking Debussy, eds. Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17. 

 31 Ibid.

 32 Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 91.

 33 Ibid, 76.

 34 Seroff, Debussy: Musician of France, 73.

 35 J. Barrie Jones, Gabriel Faure: A Life in Letters, 51.

36 Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum,” 11.

works cited

Cooper, Martin. French Music From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Demuth, Norman. Vincent d’Indy, 1851-1931: Champion of Classicism. Salisbury: Rockliff, 1951.

Donnellon, Deirdre. “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates.” In French Music Since Berlioz, edited by Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006:  1-18.

Jones, J. Barrie, ed.Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letter.London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1989.

Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. 1, 1862-1902. London: Cassell, 1962.

Newman, Ernest. “The War and the Future of Music.” The Musical Times 55, no. 859 (Sept. 1914): 571-572. 

Orledge, Robert, ed.Satie Remembered. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995.

Ravel, Maurice. “Parsifal.” In A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, edited by Arbie Orenstein New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Rolf, Marie. “Debussy’s Rites of Spring.” In Rethinking Debussy, edited by Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Roman, Zoltan. “Gradus ad Parnassum: Selected Early Songs of Gabriel Fauré in the Socio-Cultural Context of His Time.” In Studia Musicologica 48, No. 1/2 (Mar., 2007):  5-44.

Saint-Saens, Camille. “German Influence.” In Musicians on Music, ed. Ferruccio Bonavia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, 1956: 82-83.

Schmid, Marion. “A Bas Wagner: The French Press Campaign against Wagner during World War I.” In French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870-1939, edited by Barbara L. Kelly. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008: 77-91.

Schwartzman, Gertrude. “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande: Secrecy, mystery and ambiguity in Debussy’s life and art.” In International Forum of Psychoanalysis 25, No. 1 (2016): 1-9.

Seroff, Victor I. Debussy: Musician of France. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1956.)

Tyre, Jess. “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune.” In The Journal of Musicology 22, No. 2 (Spring 2005): 173-202.

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