‘From Rome with love’

Tue 25 May - 18.00
Lecture Venice

Un pomeriggio a Villa Medici

Tue 15 June - 19.30
Concert Venice

From Paris to Rome

Thu 8 July - 19.30
Concert Chamber Music Venice

Examination pieces for clarinet

Tue 13 July - 19.30
Concert Chamber Music Venice

Piano Trios

The French composers at the Villa Medici in the nineteenth century
The Prix de Rome for music, created in 1803, enabled the elite of French composers to spend several years training in Italy. The competition, and the period of residence for the winner that followed, were as controversial and envied as they were admired and lusted after...
The Prix de Rome competition was long the most coveted route to the top in French artistic education. This was because it not only singled out the elite of the nation, but also provided its prizewinners with financial subsidies and – unofficially – career support on their return from Italy, in the form either of teaching posts or of state commissions. Although the episode of the competitive examination itself has been richly documented and extensively commented on, notably by the candidates themselves (and especially Berlioz and Debussy), the period of residence in Rome still gives the impression of a Golden Legend about which little is known. It is this mystery surrounding the ‘pensionnat’ at the Villa Medici that the Palazzetto Bru Zane intends partly to dissipate with its spring festival. The music written there – the ‘envois de Rome’, so called because the pieces were dispatched to Paris for inspection – covers a very broad spectrum, from opera and symphony to mélodie and chamber music. Since the Italian origin of most of the envois that entered posterity – among them Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, Gounod’s Le Soir and Berlioz’s Rob-Roy Overture – is often little-known, few commentators have had much to say in favour of a sojourn in which farniente appeared to gain the upper hand over solid hard work. Yet such an attitude displays little understanding of the passionate artistic exchanges, the often plethoric output of compositions and the endless polemics that were the outcome of a residence at the Villa Medici…
Do you think it is possible to teach someone how to produce art?

Jules Laforgue, 1901

From Paris to Rome
To reach the Villa Medici was no easy task in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when horse-drawn carriages and seafaring were the only means of transport. There were two options: to go over the Alps and then traverse Italy from north to south, or to embark at the port of Marseille and sail to a coastal town near Rome. Although the Mediterranean was rarely rough, the sea crossing was nevertheless chaotic and gruelling. Above all, it deprived the traveller of splendid landscapes and the possibility of stopping off in legendary cities. Hence most Prix de Rome winners opted for a land route that took them successively through Turin, Milan, Venice, Bologna and Florence. To get to the first of these cities, one went with a mule train via Mont-Cenis, through gusts of wind and snowstorms. On reaching the mountain pass that is the gateway to Italy, new landscapes were revealed to the eye. The painter Flandrin wrote that he never saw ‘anything as rich: the plain was flooded with light, but such soft light’. For the sculptor Simart, ‘the journey from Lyon to Rome is itself worth winning the Grand Prix for’. This first stage long remained engraved in every traveller’s memory.

Academicism confronted by modernity
Each era in the history of the Prix de Rome saw its rebellions on the part of the residents, some of whom staked their claim to complete creative freedom. While the wind of Romanticism stirred the creative spirit, under the directorships of Vernet and Ingres (1828-41), a ‘Gothic’ wave appeared. This reversion to the harmonic simplicity of Palestrina reached its climax thanks to the composers’ attendance at the performances of the castrati of the Sistine Chapel. Androt found their singing ‘superb’ and Massenet said he was ‘impressed’. Then Wagnerism swept over the Villa: everyone hastened to study this modernity that the Institute tried in vain to eradicate. ‘And to think that there are amateurs who admire this music’, wrote Gabriel Pierné. At the opposite extreme, Gustave Charpentier experienced, thanks to Wagner, ‘unforgettable frissons; tears, vibrations, the collapse of the being, the exaltation of souls’. In the 1870s, the Ministère des Beaux-Arts protested against academic immobilism at the Villa, which it accused of ‘constraining and stifling the original temperament of the students’. Little by little, works that had their roots in the frequentation of the new ‘-isms’ sprang up on the Pincio: Symbolism, Naturalism, Expressionism... The way seemed finally clear to make one’s own voice heard. Two key concepts became the norm: contestation and transgression. This antagonism to the established order bore witness to the determination of inventive, freedom-loving young people. The way they dodged the regulations – whether in the nature of the envois or their style – offers a perfect illustration of the resulting power struggle between two generations, in which elderly mentors and young dissidents each contributed their arguments to a lively aesthetic debate.

The principal focus of this festival will be Max d’Ollone: his music will be heard in most of the seven concerts, which will alternate between mélodies, works for piano solo and string quartets, not forgetting the emblematic cantatas composed for the Prix de Rome competition.
birth in Besançon of Max d´Ollone
awarded the Prix de Rome in 1897 for his cantata Frédégonde
president of the Société des Concerts Populaires d'Angers
responsible for artistic action abroad at the Ministry of Fine Arts
director of the American Conservatoire of Fontainebleau and professor at the Conservatoire de Paris
director of the Opéra-Comique
Max d’Ollone dies in Paris
The ‘spleen factory’
With this darkly humorous phrase, Debussy reminds us that, for some of the residents of the Villa Medici, their stay in Rome marked the onset of vertiginous depression. Who would believe that working at one’s passion for four or five years at the state’s expense could turn into a nightmare? However, as early as the 1830s, Romantic spleen struck the Academy. This terrible and dreaded angst took hold of Berlioz after a few weeks: ‘I can tell you only of the inexpressible ennui that kills me, undermines me, gnaws at me, suffocates me, asphyxiates me...’ Even residents with a less volcanic temperament evoked such depression. Gounod, for example, overcome by a profound melancholy as soon as he moved in: ‘It was a total disappointment.’ He was later to see the immaturity of most of the residents as the explanation of the malaise from which many of them suffered. He himself, he said, was ‘too young then, not only in age, but also and above all in character’. First prize for discouragement goes to Debussy: ‘This whole Villa is crushing me, annihilating me. I’m suffocating and I’m perfectly incapable of making a move to shake off all this dreadful torpor that makes me see things in a detestable light. […] All this because I am here, by virtue of a decree that forced me to come, and I sense the shadow of the Academy weighing upon me.’ All that remained was to leave, as soon as possible: ‘Yes, one must flee Rome, flee that life which is too equable, too happy, too tranquil, where one has no worries. One must go away, shake oneself up, get the blood flowing again, in order to undertake serious work’, Henri Rabaud advised Max d’Ollone.

The Prix de Rome for musical composition
This year, Bru Zane Mediabase will focus on the Prix de Rome, from its creation to 1914. The librettos of the cantatas given to the candidates for musical setting have been edited and uploaded. A record has been created on the database for each candidate who entered the competition and each ‘envoi’ dispatched from the Villa Medici during the winners’ residence there. These in turn make it possible to index hundreds of press articles relating to the performances of cantatas or of envois, in addition to the reports on those productions drawn up by the Institut de France.


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Bru Zane Mediabase
Digital resources for French Romantic music
The Prix de Rome