“Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans,” wrote Noel Coward, and I disagree. If we can’t be beastly to the Germans, whom else can we possibly be beastly to?
Well, the French, wrote the Swiss-British musicologist Eric Blom in his brilliant 1928 book The Limitations of Music. That is, he didn’t call for beastliness to the French in so many words. He just practised what he didn’t preach.
Before I cite some of the appropriate excerpts, I wish to issue a disclaimer for the benefit of my French readers: I emphatically and unreservedly disavow every Francophobe remark Blom saw fit to make. In fact, if I were French, and he hadn’t died in 1959, I’d sue him for libel.
Actually, since I know for a fact that some of my French readers are lawyers, perhaps they may want to investigate the possibility that Blom’s estate may still be liable. If it is, I volunteer as witness for the plaintiffs, the entire French nation.
I’m only publishing Blom’s diatribes to illustrate the depths to which even a naturalised Briton can sink in denigrating that great country and its wonderful inhabitants. Portraying them, as Blom did, as facile, humourless, obtuse nationalists with a short attention span is so inexcusable that I hate myself for even bringing those libellous remarks to your attention.
With that in mind, here comes:
“The typical Frenchman, though more than intelligent enough to see another point of view, is rendered incapable of doing so by a perverse cleverness which always infallibly puts him in the right. You cannot argue with him, or if you do, there are but two possible results to the discussion: either he is victorious or you have been tactless.”
“The French are too keenly cognisant of their national virtues to possess as much as a vestige of what we understand as a sense of humour, though of course they have a highly developed sense of fun and of ridicule. Voltaire, typical Frenchman…, is the very archetype of Gallic humourlessness, which the musician may find summed up with unconscious accuracy in a letter from Bizet to his mother: ‘Or, tout en aimant beaucoup à blaguer les autres, je ne pas supporter qu’on se fiche de moi.’ [Now, although I love making fun of other people, I cannot stand other people mocking me.] But the composer who illustrates it with more immediate relevance to the present issue is Debussy when he styles himself musicien français on the title pages of his last works. We dare hardly smile, ever so indulgently, at a great composer’s deadly seriousness in performing so utterly naïve a piece of self-appraisement.”
“France produces the greatest amount of poor music admirably presented.”
“The school which is most sensitively aware of the difference between innate and superficial nationalism is the French. France has always been a country artistic to the point of artificiality, and the art of revealing life has always been of negligible importance there compared with the art of concealing art. Hence the crudity of the French naturalist school of writers…”
“On listening to composers brought up in the school of delicious frivolity that is called Paris, we readily understand that a French audience soon grows weary of a Symphony by Brahms or Elgar, in fact of any art that takes thought more seriously than the manner in which it is uttered. One even sympathises with this attitude if one takes the trouble to understand a nation which objects to nothing as much as to being bored, even if the boredom may be more due to the attitude of the listener than the nature of the work heard.”
Now, I was going to thank my posthumous guest columnist for helping me out on a slow news day, but anger constricts my throat and paralyses my two typing fingers. So I’d better say à bientôt and sign off.