The Rationalist Passion (part VI)

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Men saw it well. Kant turned aside from his road. Goethe stopped on his own for a moment. Beethoven took all the winds of heaven to breathe his hope into them. What matter if the France of this great, live century is occupied almost entirely with reason and but little with art! She had quite enough to do with the old myths that were to be beaten down, with the young myths that were to be anticipated, and with the terror and the love that had to be imposed with iron. She had had Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Jean- Jacques, and Vauvenargues. She had had Buffon, who recreated the earth. She had Laplace, who recreated the sky. She had Lavoisier, who recreated water and fire. She had Lamarck, who recreated life. Germany was offering her hymns to the multitudes and thereby unchaining their spirit.

Mysterious flux and reflux of souls! While an atrocious war was stifling Germany, the aristocratic France of the seventeenth century was erecting the intellectual scaffolding of which German music was first to take possession, in order to give the support of the heroes to the voice of the people. Until Wagner, French rationalism will guide German music. Without the architect Descartes, Sebastian Bach would not have come; and Beethoven could not have introduced Rousseau into Occidental passion if Bach had not taught him how to give order to symphonic masses according to the intelligence, lifted up by doubt to a feeling of its reality. The peoples were communing over the heads of the Christian sects. And French thought, in order to vanquish the Catholic theocracy, was borrowing from Protestantism its preoccupation with morality, even as German music, in order to vanquish the Protestant theocracy, was borrowing from Catholicism its architectural genius.

It is doubtless in music that we must look for the pursuit and continuance in the souls of men of the moral upheaval which prepares the death of the ancient theocracies; and the French Revolution stands only as the tragic passage of that upheaval into fact and law. Music is the most universal and the vaguest voice, the one always used by men to rejoin one another when they are most dispersed. It appears in Italy like a despairing appeal when the Renaissance has broken open the sheaf of social energy. When architecture is dead, when sculpture is dying, and painting is reaching its full expansion, music is hardly more than born there. Here is Palestrina, with his great wave rising and descending like a breast, the long sob which does not die away, the swelling voices which call to others, and the more valiant and pitiful hearts which sustain the other hearts. A century passes. The dispersal becomes more pronounced, and only one voice arises: the melody of Monteverde has the quality of the painter's arabesque; it unites into a line as hard and continuous as a sculptured volume the contradictory sentiments of an anarchical crowd, which no collective sentiment can bind together any longer. Another century passes. The despairing eloquence of Arcangelo Corelli is already broken into by strange cries; his line, too tightly strung, breaks in places; he feels that he is not understood. With Marcello, we no longer hear more than a voice of iron, and it awakens no echo. But in other places, other crowds are stirring. Lulli has already carried the Italian soul into France, where Gluck, the German, will be understood. Watteau, the Frenchman of the north, feels the current of hope coming out of Germany, and through the German of the south, Mozart, an infant Hercules of music who trails garlands of flowers through the tones of concerts and balls, there opens to Italian passion the formidable vessel which Bach has just constructed, in which the voices of Handel and of Haydn awaken multiple echoes, and in which there is already the dull rumble of the cry of Beethoven.

Between the innermost circle of the élite and the people, everything is effaced at that moment. The hero of the spirit sings. The people acts. No halfway art connects them, and none is necessary. All hearts beat together. The passage from one world to another is affirming itself irresistibly in the popular symphony which is embodied by Danton within the country, and which, later, is carried beyond it by Napoleon. But perhaps there is not more than one artist in France who feels that this passage is being accomplished in the spirit of the masters of intelligence by the voice of music alone. Prud'hon is a musician, even if he is unaware of it. In the art of this lover of form, everything occurs with relation to form, in the warm shadow which causes it to recede and which accentuates its depth. If the Revolution manifests itself in David through the stiff tenseness with which he draws himself up as he stands at the brink of the abyss, before the radical overturning of the horizon, it is felt in Prud'hon through the insensible progression with which the luminous surfaces emerge from the obscurity. From the superficial harmonies which Boucher and Fragonard, following Tiepolo and Lemoyne, associated in space by a slight brushing together of the paint, he penetrates to volumes modeled right in the material, and it is in the complicity of his penumbra, where the transition takes place, that Romanticism in painting appears for the first time. Prud'hon has read the Confessions, and the Nouvelle Héloise also, it is certain, and even Paul et Virginie, which he illustrates, but which his insinuating and sensual art dominates with all the force of a passion drawn from sources infinitely more pure than the sentimental wordiness of the salons of fashion. He loves the sculptured form which steals away and turns gently, pursued by the moving shadow. As he has the secret of making bosoms breathe, of caressing trembling breasts, and round limbs as they emerge from a kind of twilight, it is his right to give to them, as a frame, the dark woodlands full of brooks, and their murmuring leaves, and their black and slanting trunks. Certainly, he tries to obey David, whom he esteems; and Rome, where he passed several years, watches over him. But it does not touch him. And then he has seen Greuze. And above all he is Prud'hon. The severe profiles are softened by sensual languor, the attitudes of the statues sink as if under a weight, until they become tender gestures and loving abandon. The bosoms of the vestals bear down the folds of the antique robes, and the arms of the tragic muses are heavy with voluptuousness. The necks of all the women continually swell with the sighs which he seizes on their warm lips; and their eyelids know the pain of waiting for happiness or of seeing it pass. His women have the maternal abandon of those who love deeply and for whom man is always the child. Gluck is still very near to him. And the tender Prud'hon is the last evening of the dream of pleasure, of nostalgia, and of music which Watteau had begun, and which is on the threshold of a dawn bathed in a bloody mist. 

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