The Paris Conservatoire

The Paris Conservatoire underwent dramatic shifts between collaboration and resistance during the Second World War. As soon as the Occupation had begun, the director of the Conservatoire, Henri Rabaud, wrote to the Nazis on his own initiative. Fearing that the number of Jewish musicians studying or working at the Conservatoire would lead to its closure, he suggested that he help the Germans 'cleanse' it to ensure its continued survival. Following the publication of the Nazis' 'Premier Statut des Juifs' (First Regulation Concerning Jews), Rabaud conducted a formal inquiry into the number of Jewish musicians in the institution, finding 24 Jews and 15 half-Jews out of the 580 students. Rabaud himself had the final say on who was Jewish, and once the enquiry was finished, he passed a motion forbidding Jewish musicians from receiving prizes or being allowed to take an active part in classes. Twenty-five students and two teachers were forced to leave.

In April 1941, however, Rabaud handed over directorship to Claude Delvincourt, who took the opposite approach. Delvincourt fought for a reprieve that allowed 60 of his students to escape the Service du Travail Obligatoire (Forced Labour Service) by forming the Orchester des Cadets du Conservatoire (Orchestra of the Conservatoire Cadets). By hiding musicians in this orchestra, he managed to stop them from being deported. Delvincourt also distributed false identity cards, ration tickets, work papers and money, with the help of Marie-Louise Boellman-Gigout, an organ teacher and member of the Resistance. Delvincourt argued with the Nazis to be allowed to keep 3% Jewish students at the institution, as many other higher education organisations were allowed. But in September 1942, French collaborator Abel Bonnard wrote to Delvincourt that no Jews were to be allowed at the Conservatoire. Thanks to the cataloguing Rabaud had undertaken in 1940, it took only four days for the Nazis to evict all Jewish students. Nevertheless, Delvincourt managed to save a few, such as Jewish student Sergé Blanc, who happened to have a French surname. He arranged for the others to receive secret tuition, helping them to re-enter the Conservatoire after the Liberation. Delvincourt used the pseudonym Monsieur Julien to escape persecution, and joined the Front National des Musiciens, meetings for which were often held in his office. Not a single pupil from the Conservatoire was deported under his supervision.

Delvincourt also helped teachers at the Conservatoire. Although eight teachers were excluded by the Germans in 1942, Delvincourt fought for harmony teacher Maurice Franck to be allowed to teach again after he was released from captivity as a prisoner of war. Other staff members helped Delvincourt. Charles Munch conducted the Conservatoire orchestra during the Occupation, protected members from the Gestapo, helped to promote French composers, and gave a portion of his income to the Resistance. He received the Légion d'honneur in 1945 in recognition of his efforts. Publisher Gaston Gallimard and film producer Denise Tual also set up the Concerts de la Pléiade (Concerts of the Pléiade – a reference to a group of French Renaissance poets) which frequently took place at the Conservatoire. As long as audiences were fewer than 40, no permission was needed, so they were able to slip in clandestine works such as those of Jewish composer Darius Milhaud.

Other musicians affiliated with the Conservatoire worked on Resistance activities elsewhere in France. Maurice Hewitt, a member of the renowned Capet String Quartet before the war, founded the Hewitt Chamber Orchestra in 1939 and recorded the works of French composer Rameau during the Occupation, to help promote France's cultural heritage. He also joined a British Resistance organisation which helped Allied pilots escape into Spain. He was arrested and deported to Buchenwald in 1943, where he organised a series of concerts. On his release in 1945, he conducted Fauré's Requiem in prison clothes, in commemoration of French citizens who had died in the camps. Similarly, Henri Dutilleux, who studied composition at the Conservatoire until just before the war broke out, refused to compose during the Occupation, writing: 'I didn't want to be in a golden cage. It was not the right moment. My brother was a prisoner of war, friends had been killed.' He worked for Radio Vichy and Pierre Schaeffer's Studio d'Essai, as well as joining the Front National des Musiciens, where he met his future wife Genevieve Joy.

Despite the success of Delvincourt's clandestine activities, we should not forget the members of the Conservatoire who were were killed during the war. These included the promising young composers Jean Vuillermoz and Jehan Alain. The students who suffered eviction from the Conservatoire at the hands of the Nazis have also only been acknowledged in the last two decades.

By Daisy Fancourt


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