Art Music: Cezanne - Music of His Time

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Paul Cezanne


Music of His Time

As styles change, so art history needs labels to describe them. The desire to sort thingsand group them is irresistible, and no sooner do we look at a painting than we startdeciding whether to call it Baroque or Rococo, Romantic or Realist, Cubist orFuturist. The labels are convenient and helpful - except when they becomeconfusing. It seems obvious, for instance, that Post-Impressionism must have comelater than Impressionism, and so in a sense it did. The ideas of Van Gogh andGauguin certainly arose as a reaction to what Monet, Pissarro and others hadachieved in the 1870s. But if we look at the dates of Cezanne, the man generallyregarded as the central Post-Impressionist, we find that he was an exactcontemporary of Monet and Renoir. He even presented his works in Impressionistexhibitions - where they came in for some of the most cruel criticism ever directed atthat group of painters.

So would it be right to say that Cezanne was also an Impressionist, at least beforehe became a Post-Impressionist? At this point a discreet refusal to come out with astraight answer is probably the best option. Yes, Cezanne kept a loose connection tosome members of a group that used to meet in the Cafe Guerbois in Paris, includingMonet, Renoir, Sisley, Manet and Degas; yes, he did paint landscapes in the open airusing an avant-garde technique. But no, he was never really one of their number andhe did not share their ideals.

Two things in particular mark Cezanne out as very different. First, his interest inpermanence, the underlying structure of things: Cezanne was concerned to conveyform and solidity, whereas the Impressionists were fascinated by the fleeting moment- the way light could be seen to play on a certain scene. Second, modernity. TheImpressionists were thoroughly inclusive when it came to subject matter, and theyhad a particular liking for the symbols of social change. Railways, boating, daytrippers,cafe life, entertainment generally were favoured subjects. Cezanne, bycontrast, blotted the modern world out of his canvases. Everything is traditional,secure, untainted. His landscapes are unpopulated; if there is a viaduct, there is notrain. Monumentality, not topicality, is the aim.

But by a nice irony, it was not the modern-minded Impressionists who providedthe essential pathway to Modernism. When Matisse referred to 'the father of us all',and Picasso to 'the mother who protects her children', they both had in mind thesame man: Paul Cezanne.


Cezanne was one of those frequent and unenviable figures in the history of the arts,the son who turns out to be a disappointment to a powerful father. The father in thiscase was an importer of felt hats who in 1839, the year of Paul's birth, establishedhimself in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France. Later he raised his station in life bytransforming himself into a successful banker. The son of such a man, he decided,would do well to train for the law. Paul, however, wrote poetry and had very differentideas. So too did a close friend from school, one Emile Zola, who dreamed of aliterary career. It was Zola who dragged the shy and reserved Cezanne to Paris in1861 to broaden his artistic outlook by studying at the Academie Suisse. Despite theoccasional loss of nerve, followed by flight towards home, Cezanne persevered withthe life drawing that formed the basis of his instruction - a minor torment for a manwho was never at ease in the presence of nude models.

Zola was inclined to be exasperated by the hesitancy and general slowness thatcharacterised Cezanne. He knew his friend had great talent, but bringing it to thesurface was another matter. Nor did Cezanne shine in company. He wouldsometimes join the group, originally centred around Manet, that tended tocongregate in the Cafe Guerbois to debate the purpose of art, life and anything elsethat took their fancy. Cezanne had been very well educated, and he certainly knewmore about literature than those around him. But he remained obstinately roughand uncouth in company, almost wilfully so. On one occasion he made a point of notshaking the hand of the impeccably dressed Manet, explaining that he had notwashed his own. The airs and refinements of Parisian society were not for him.

Cezanne was still fighting the world as he searched for his own style. The works ofthe 1860s include some with violent and erotic undercurrents, remarkably at oddswith his later paintings. His ambitions at this time mirrored those of almost everyFrench artist: to have his paintings accepted by the Paris Salon, which had appointeditself as the sole arbiter of artistic taste and decorum. Cezanne's works were regularlyturned down, along with those of Monet, Manet and any other painter who failed tosatisfy the Salon's increasingly wearisome and academic formulae. It was CamillePissarro who eventually pointed him in the right direction, persuading him that heshould immerse himself in nature and learn the recently developed art of painting inthe open air. From 1872 onwards, when Cezanne went to live in Auvers, nearPissarro's home, the two men made regular expeditions into the surroundingcountryside, often working on their landscapes side by side.

As Cezanne doggedly pursued his own path, so he gradually fell out of sympathywith Impressionism. Some friendships endured, and as late as the 1890s he was stillglad of the chance to meet up again with Monet and Renoir. But their paintings, tohis eye, were fluffy and insubstantial, too far removed from the ideals of compositionthat he found in the great artists of the past, many of whom he had himself devotedlycopied over many years of study in the Louvre. His own art spoke of somethingtimeless and unchanging, and the best place for him to create it was back inProvence. There by the Mediterranean he could find the brightest light and the mostintense colours.

Recognition came very late. His supporters had always been few and he wasreliant on a small allowance from his father for financial security. Every year until1885 he submitted a painting to the Salon, and every year, almost without exception,it was turned down. Even Zola had lost faith, and the friendship was finally destroyedin 1886 when Cezanne read L'OEuvre, a novel by Zola in which the hero, a painter ofgenius, becomes increasingly embittered with the world and kills himself. But thereal Cezanne did not despair. He simply kept on painting, until the world finallycaught up with his ideas and his peaceful existence in Aix was disturbed by anunwelcome stream of young painters eager for instruction.

Music of the time

When Cezanne was a young man the greatest composer in France was Hector Berlioz(1803-1869). That, however, was not how the French saw it. In 1838 the operaBenvenuto Cellini had been a failure at the Paris Opera, since when Berlioz had foundit almost impossible to get his works performed in his own country. He was not evenconsidered worthy of a teaching position at the Conservatoire, and so was reduced toearning his bread through musical journalism, a task that he despised even whilefulfilling it brilliantly. Outside France, however, there were many admirers of hishighly dramatic and impassioned music, and he spent much of his time touringGermany, Russia, England and other places to conduct performances of his ownworks.

The masterwork of his later years was The Trojans, a vast epic opera based on thesecond and fourth books of Virgil's Aeneid (track 1). Berlioz wrote the work -including the libretto - from pure love of the original poem and its subject, knowingthat his chances of ever getting it satisfactorily staged were very slim. Producers wereshy of becoming involved with a project that made such enormous demands, bothmusically
Disc: 1
Miroirs (excerpts)
1 Les Troyens a Carthage (The Trojans at Carthage):
2 L'Arlesienne, Suite No. 2: I. Pastorale
3 Melancolie
4 Improvisation
5 Chanson triste
6 Le Manoir de Rosemonde
7 Elegie
8 Gavotte
9 Pastorale
10 Piano Quartet in F minor, Op. 10: IV. Finale: Alle
11 Gymnopedie No. 1: Lent et douloureux
12 Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune
13 24 Pieces en style libre, Op. 31: Epitaphe
14 Nocturnes: I. Nuages
15 Noctuelles
16 Oiseaux tristes
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