Catharsis, Commentary, Protest: Elsa Barraine’s Deuxième Symphonie (1938)
Lecture Theatre 1, School of Music
The speaker is Dr Laura Hamer (Liverpool Hope University)
By the 1930s, neoclassical trends in French music were well established. The French preoccupation with the past had been developing throughout the later nineteenth century, and increased with Stravinsky’s residency in France. Stravinsky’s particular brand of neoclassicism did not find favour, however, with a number of intellectual young composers of the 1930s, including those associated with La Spirale and La Jeune France, who regarded neoclassicism as a false path for musical modernism. Although Elsa Barraine was not an official member of either group, she shared their doubts about the aesthetic value of Stravinskian neoclassicism. It could be seen as curious, therefore, that she turned to symphonic form in the period directly preceding the Second World War.
By focussing upon Barraine’s deuxième symphonie, this paper will explore the possibilities that symphonic form presented. Barraine’s creative process was also intimately associated with wider political and social events. Her deuxième symphonie was entitled Voïna (Russian for ‘war’), and reflects her unease over the imminence of conflict, and the rise of Nazism. Symphonic form, with its traditional associations with political commentary and catharsis, allowed Barraine – who was of Jewish descent – to express her fears over the rise of Anti-Semitism and the growing inevitability of war. This paper will explore Barraine’s success at turning to a traditional form without resorting to Stravinskian neoclassicism and the aesthetic possibilities of turning to symphonic form for a part-Jewish, French composer on the eve of World War Two.