Musical Life under Vichy

In the inter-war years, Vichy was the summer capital of music. When the Armistice was signed in 1940, the freedom it had enjoyed until then was crushed, although musical life did continue and arguably flourished during the Second World War.

In the early months of the Occupation, concerts organised under the Vichy regime seemed motivated by the desire to help the French people, rather than by collaboration. For example, in July 1941, a Commissariat was established to organise performances to help fight unemployment. These included concerts by Alfred Cortot as well as the Legion Française des Combattants (French Legion of Fighters). In total, over 300 musicians performed in Vichy from 1940-44. The music performed was generally similar to that before the war, but with fewer German works and no ‘Jewish’ ones. From 1942, profits of concerts went to the Red Cross and Secours National (Emergency Services), and from 1943, to French prisoners of war as well. National Minister for Prisoners of War, Maurice Pinot, who supported Pétain but was against collaboration, also organised a system of concerts dedicated to music composed by French prisoners of war, which were transmitted on the radio to the prisoners themselves. One of the works emerging from this scheme was Symphonie en Sol Majeur (Symphony in G major, 1941) by Henri Challan. It was performed by the Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire (Society for Conservatoire Concerts) under the baton of Jean Guitton, himself an ex-prisoner. Another work in the same concert was Le Livre pour Jean (The book of John) by Maurice Thiriet, who had been imprisoned at Ziegenhain in West Germany alongside Francois Mitterrand (later president of France). Some of the composers were still in prison at the time their works were performed. For example, Psaume CXXII (Psalm 122) was composed for the scheme by Emile Goué, who was imprisoned in Nienburg in North Germany in June 1940 and died just after his release in 1946. Poeme symphonique sur un texte de Charles Peguy (Symphonic poem on a text by Charles Peguy) was written by Emile Damais, who survived the war.

Musical activities became gradually more collaborationist as Pétain and his government became more involved in cultural life, seeking to construct a suitable environment for the renewal of the ‘French values’ of ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ (Work, Family, Homeland). Vichy had two opera companies, four symphony orchestras, and numerous chamber ensembles at its disposal to further its propaganda. Government-organised groups such as the Chantiers de Jeunesse (Youth Camps) gave concerts of patriotic songs to raise the profile of the state. These concerts were broadcast on Radio-Vichy to increase their listenership. Concerts such as these spread to other cities such as Marseille which gradually became more ideologically unified with Vichy. Marseille experienced material difficulties during the war, and easy entertainment such as music, which could distract people from their hardships, became extremely popular. Consequently, the people of Marseille were easy prey for Vichy as their eagerness for music meant that they were receptive to the political messages embedded in the songs. Despite this, Vichy used magazines such as La Revue des Beaux-Arts de France (The Fine Arts Review of France) to deny any political influence in its music, claiming that ‘no aesthetic rules are imposed’.

Vichy also commissioned numerous new works. Initially set up to alleviate the economic hardships of the late 1930s, the Administration des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Administration) began awarding commissions to composers to give them an incentive to work. Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, and Charles Koechlin were among the first twelve commissioned in 1938, followed by Delvincourt and seven others in 1939. However, from the signing of the Armistice and division of France, the scheme restricted the composers it employed to those who upheld the conservative, anti-modernist and pro-Catholic sentiments of the regime. In total, 81 works were written specifically for the Vichy government during the Occupation, and performed all around the country as well as on the radio.

Among those composers sidelined in the new political environment was Olivier Messiaen. Drafted into the army as a medical auxiliary, he was captured at Verdun in 1940 and imprisoned. Whilst in the Stalag, he joined forces with a violinist, a cellist, and a clarinettist among the prisoners and wrote pieces for them which he incorporated into his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time). It was first performed in January 1941 in the prison, and four months later Messiaen was released and returned to Paris. Although Vichy never formally banned his works, it excluded them from the mainstream of musical life, and did not commission anything from the composer despite his prominent position as Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire. His music was seen to break from his predecessors and contemporaries and thus could not reinforce the rich French musical heritage Vichy wished to promote. It was also seen as too modern for the conservative regime.

In contrast, works favoured included those by Marcel Delannoy, whose compositions were so popular that they were recorded by Pathé alongside Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande in 1941. Delannoy’s Ginevra tried to revive comic-opera, which had been a popular form in Italy and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. It also combined Italian bel canto (singing) style with quotations from Italian composers such as Pergolese and Cimarosa. Vichy hoped that by highlighting the strong musical heritage of France and combining this with German and Italian musical styles, France could show its comparable cultural richness and sophistication. Pétain saw this as a means of combating concerns about German superiority. This plan was aided by the programming of concerts: Vichy commissions were often performed alongside German works. For example, Alfre Bachelet’s Surya was performed in 1942 alongside Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Another popular and politically-charged work was Ode à la France Blessée (Ode to an Injured France) by André Gailhard, who worked for the Comité des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Committee) with Alfred Cortot. Gailhard’s symphonic poem with chorus narrates the war, ending with a vision of France waking up to a united nation and the dawn of a new era. The work also drew on folk songs from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne (The girl from Arles) which reinforced the importance of France’s cultural heritage. Other major commissioned works included Duruflé’s Requiem, the only Vichy commission still in regular performance today.

The occupation of southern France by the Nazis in 1942 intensified political intervention into musical life. Evening performances became more difficult due to curfews. German works experienced a revival in the form of propaganda, while popular French and Italian works which threatened to undermine the superiority of German music, such as Leo Delibes’s opera Lakmé and Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, were forbidden. In 1943, most concerts given in Marseille were by the Berlin Philharmonic rather than French orchestras. From 1944, the number of performances declined as the Nazis turned their attention to the war effort. Musical life only resumed after after the liberation of Vichy in August, and this time with a renewed political objective: to demonstrate the courage and inextinguishable spirit of France and to reintroduce joy into a country that had suffered for so long.

By Daisy Fancourt


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