Saturday, 11 October 2014

Guest Post: Music in Paris under the Occupation by Rachel Hore

Today it's my stop on the blog tour for Rachel Hore's latest novel, A Week in Paris, for which Rachel Hore has written a fascinating piece about music in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

The streets of Paris hide a dark past...September, 1937. Kitty Travers enrols at the Conservatoire on the banks of the Seine to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. But then war breaks out and the city of light falls into shadow. Nearly twenty-five years later, Fay Knox, a talented young violinist, visits Paris on tour with her orchestra. She barely knows the city, so why does it feel so familiar? Soon touches of memory become something stronger, and she realises her connection with these streets runs deeper than she ever expected. As Fay traces the past, with only an address in an old rucksack to help her, she discovers dark secrets hidden years ago, secrets that cause her to question who she is and where she belongs...

My new novel, A Week in Paris, is about music and war.  In it, Kitty Travers a young Englishwoman travels to Paris in 1937 to study the piano with a distinguished maestro at the Conservatoire, Paris’s internationally famous academy of music.  War breaks out and when her teacher flees Paris in June 1940 as the Nazis prepare to occupy the city, her studies come to an abrupt end. Her friend and fellow student Serge Ramond, however, struggles on in pursuit of his dreams, his Jewishness his dangerous secret.

All cultural life under German Occupation suffered interference and music was no exception.  The Conservatoire experienced dramatic swings between collaboration and resistance. Fearing it might be closed by the Nazis, its director, Henri Raboud, expelled Jews from the institution or severely restricted their field of activity.   Claude Delvincourt, however, who succeeded him in 1940, acted completely differently, protecting Jewish musicians with false documentation and enabling 60 of his students to escape forced labour by forming an official ‘cadet’ orchestra.  In my novel, Serge Ramond unknowingly obtains some protection through the patronage of a wealthy Frenchwoman, at whose salons he is dismayed to find himself playing for Nazi officers. 

Performances were difficult because of evening curfew, but also because of restrictions on what orchestras were allowed to play.  Patriots like Charles Munch, however, who conducted the main Conservatoire orchestra, did his best to promote French music. He also arranged performances for audiences of less than 40 (for which no special permission was required), where clandestine works, such as by the Jewish composer Darius Mihaud, might be played.  One French composer, Henri Dutilleux, as an act of resistance, refused to write music at all during the Occupation.

Strings atelier
Rue de Madrid 
Rue de Rome Piano shop

Popular songs, traditionally an expression of community feeling, became during the war vehicles of French solidarity and resistance.  ‘Le Madelon’, a song from the First World War about soldiers flirting with a young waitress, had been revived in 1939 by the German-American Marlene Dietrich.  Throughout the Occupation French people sang it on 14th July, Bastille Day, and to mark Remembrance on 11th November, which they continued to do in defiance of the Nazis – but with Resistance lyrics substituted.  Paul Arma, a resistant Hungarian pianist, composer and conductor in Paris during the war, secretly collected an astonishing 1800 French songs with anti-Nazi lyrics.  Other songs, of course, were simply sung for pleasure:  ‘Boum’, a 1938 hit written by Charles Trent, about a young man in love seeing life with fresh eyes, remained a particular favourite.  It was songs like this that Kitty’s friend Lili taught her as they sat with their children in their Paris park.

Some of the stars of the popular music scene appealed to French and German audiences alike, but as the war ran on it was difficult for individuals to steer a course through the political climate unscathed.  Maurice Chevalier was wrongly accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime.  Edith Piaf’s career was just taking off in 1940 when the Germans invaded France, but she made the most of the wartime situation, refusing to allow it to infringe upon her music.  Although she is long dead, fears for her image as a French national treasure have meant that evidence of her warmth towards the Germans has largely been ignored in accounts of her, such as the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose.

Josephine Baker
Finally, it’s impossible not to mention Kitty’s husband Eugene’s great love, jazz. Flourishing in France, jazz initially faltered when war broke out and many musicians were called up, or fled to America.  It was regarded with suspicion by the Nazis as a degenerate American product, played by blacks, Jews and gypsies, but it regained its popularity in France by assuming a kind of double-life.  Cleverly rebranding it as French, enthusiasts such as Charles Delauney steered a way for it, setting up concerts and promoting musicians.  The authorities tolerated it being played on radio stations as useful bait for getting people to hear their propaganda.  Many Germans loved it and musicians as diverse as Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt and singer Josephine Baker continued to be hugely popular.  Reinhardt several times tried to escape Occupied France. Baker used her acquaintance with Nazi admirers to spy for the Allies.

In researching this piece I’m indebted to Daisy Fancourt’s articles on

Parisian violin atelier 2014
Students outside the Conservatoire 2014
Josephine Baker (found image)
Piano shop
Text and photographs (except where stated) © Rachel Hore 2014

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