One of the unsung heroes of the French Resistance was conductor Roger Desormiere. He is frequently forgotten in histories of the war, as he worked behind the scenes, but the role he played was a pivotal one. Desormiere fought hard for the preservation of French music in the face of German cultural domination. In 1941 he recorded the entire 20-CD set of Debussy's Pelleas et Mélisande, kept alive performances of French Opera-comique, and programmed concerts of almost entirely French repertoire, only allowing two Germanic works during the entire Occupation. He set up a benefit concert to raise money for French musicians in distress, and after Darius Milhaud was forced to flee France, Desormiere saved all his paintings and personal possessions and paid his rent throughout the war. For musicians who were forced into hiding, such as Jewish film composer Jean Wiener, Desormiere signed the scores of their music so that they could continue to produce in secret. After the war he explained what he had done and the musicians received due credit. However, by far Desormiere's most significant act was the formation of the Resistance organisation Front National des Musiciens (The National Front of Musicians).
Along with the young French composer Elsa Barraine, Desormiere created the Front National des Musiciens in 1941, linking it to the Communist party and inviting notable musicians such as Francois Poulenc, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Charles Munch and Claude Delvincourt to join. The aim of the group was to get all French composers and all the heads of the major orchestras to join, but in the end the group remained more modest: by 1944 there were still only 30 members. Nevertheless, the group set out some important rules for musicians composing and performing in occupied France. By July 1942 the group was moulded into a well-organised committee and the first issue of a clandestine newspaper, Les Musiciens d'Aujourd'hui, was published. This aimed to instruct musicians on how to resist. A special edition of October 1942 entitled 'Front de la Résistance Chez les Musiciens' (The Resistance Front for Musicians) set out five key rules.
- Musicians were to programme concerts that would help France. Many secret concerts of Jewish composers were set up, such as those for Darius Milhaud. A public concert was arranged in Paris of a composition entitled 'Mous-a-Rachac' by 'Hamid-ul-Hasarid'. The concert was a tremendous success and the Germans failed to recognise the piece as Milhaud's Scaramouche.
- Musicians were also to show solidarity with one another, giving half their salary to the families of imprisoned comrades or Jewish musicians in hiding.
- Demonstrations were encouraged, such as spontaneous playing of the French national anthem La Marseillaise in the presence of German soldiers.
- Composers were called on to provide popular songs and marches for the soldiers of the Maquis Resistance groups, using lyrics from Resistance poets.
- Musicians were banned from collaborating with Germans, either through working on Radio-Paris, becoming involved with German concerts or festivals, or writing for German newspapers.
Articles were also written which exposed musical traitors. Elsa Barraine wrote several articles, including one titled 'German music in the service of Nazi regression' and another titled 'French music and the traditions of humanism' to help support French cultural self-belief. Desormiere also denounced collaborationist musicians such as the tenor Lucin Muratore, who supported Pétain. In September 1943, a second clandestine paper, Le Musician Patriote (the patriotic musician) was started too.
The Front National des Musiciens also fostered sub-groups. One of these was the team of musicians and radio technicians set up by Jewish composer Alexis Roland-Manuel. He started an experimental studio in Paris which broadcast poems of Resistance poets such as Eluard and Aragon, and played the records of banned musicians such as Schoenberg and Milhaud. He worked on creating radio sets which could be carried in small handbags for people to listen to in secret. In the lead up to D-Day, his team listened in on foreign radio stations to hear the music that had been banned by the Nazis. When an important piece, such as the Russian national anthem, came on the Moscow radio, his workers transcribed it onto manuscript paper as faithfully as possible and then recorded it. On the day the Allies liberated Paris, it was played alongside all the other Allied national anthems on loudspeakers in the streets of the capital.
It is easy to think that these musical acts were of secondary importance to the political campaigns and acts of guerilla warfare from other Resistance organisations. However, the Front National des Musiciens helped to foster a national spirit in the face of German cultural domination, united isolated people throughout France through promoting French music, and raised people's spirits with rousing and hopeful songs. The Nazis recognised the power of these acts and arrested Elsa Barraine several times, as well as pursuing the composer Manuel Rosenthal. Fortunately, most of the members escaped alive.
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