Home Music therapy When music became therapy in interwar France

When music became therapy in interwar France


In March 2020, I found myself alone (except for my two cats) in a small bungalow in Bloomington, Indiana, trying and failing to distract myself from COVID-19. I was on an extended spring break from Indiana University in Bloomington, designed to allow time to adjust to what was to become the new standard of conduct for all online college affairs. I spent those two weeks in a deep spiral facilitated by doomscrolling. I worried about my high-risk parents, my friends around the world on different levels of lockdown, and everyone dying from COVID. I worried about healthcare workers without PPE and people who lost their jobs or were forced to work in unsafe conditions. The constant flow of news, and the fact that I had time to read it, only exacerbated my anxieties.

But March 2020 was also a month of reflection. I was finishing work on a book – and thinking about the people I was writing about, and the many echoes between their experiences and what we were going through collectively.

Over the past 10 years I have studied how classically trained French musicians used their art to deal with the traumas of World War I, a conflict that killed a generation of French men, and millions of women. and children. I have read thousands of letters and hundreds of diaries, memoirs and autobiographical novels; I consulted dozens of psychology and physiology texts, compositions and books on musical methods. This window into people living in wartime and interwar France made me realize that they viewed music as an embodied therapeutic practice with enormous console potential. Their stories also have a crucial role to play today, as the world reckon with the pain and trauma inflicted by the pandemic.

Like many of us dealing with COVID today, the people of WWI France lived through trauma with a lot of unknowing and uncertainty. Media coverage of the war in French newspapers was extensive, but most in France did not get the full story. People on the front lines knew what was really going on, but were not always allowed to talk about it; for example, civilians whose loved ones had been killed often waited months before the deaths were confirmed.

Combined with the disruption of everyday social interactions, the zone of silence surrounding wartime experiences has led to intense isolation. And to make matters worse, French culture despised talking about trauma. “Too much” public mourning was deemed shameful. The lounge hostess and amateur musician Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux wrote in her diary that the composer Maurice Ravel and his brother “were distraught” and “could not stand up” during their mother’s funeral: “Both were in complete disarray, incapable of reaction or self-control. A pitiful and distressing spectacle at this time when heroism manifests itself as naturally as breathing, ”she said – and she was their friend.

French doctors, scientists and the military considered traumatic reactions to be moral weaknesses. Newspapers chronicled contemporary debates over harsh electrotherapy “treatments” inflicted on soldiers who reported trauma and injuries but whose wounds showed no visible signs. In this context, there was little room to express feelings. As a result, music has become a vital way for people to deal with trauma.

The way French musicians have dealt with the trauma they have experienced has taken many forms. Public performance halls in France closed quickly at the start of the conflict in August 1914, and as a result the “normal” means for musicians to connect with each other, through live performance, was abruptly stopped. So they found alternative venues for musical performances, often at home or in other informal settings. When they couldn’t find instruments, they made them with whatever materials they could find. Musicians didn’t always expressly acknowledge that they were using music as a coping tool, but they probably had an idea of ​​what music could do for them. While music therapy was not yet an institutionalized discipline during World War I, French psychologists understood that mind and body were intimately linked. Given these musicians’ familiarity with the psychological theories of their day, many realized that the embodied nature of music – that it forces people to move their bodies in the act of creation – gives it the power to appease.

If we can be aware of how we engage with music, sound, and trauma, we can produce new ways of thinking about our ethical engagements with each other.

At the turn of the 20th century, French art music, inspired by post-Romantic composers like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, was largely lush and dissonant with little rhythmic regularity. But during the war, French musicians began to compose and perform extremely regular rhythmic “neoclassical” music which, in its predictability and repetitive patterns, soothed their bodies and distracted their minds. For example, after the deaths of their husbands in the early months of the war, pianist Marguerite Long and violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, previously known for performing the lush music of Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, turned to music repetitive filled with ostinati – constantly repeating musical phrases and regular rhythms that allowed them to move their bodies in a soothing groove. Much of this music was either 18th century or written by their friends Maurice Ravel, Jean Roger-Ducasse, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre, all of whom had participated in or lost loved ones during the war. According to French journalist Raymond Escholier, Long reported that when she sat down to play the Andante movement of the Piano Concerto in G major, written for her and dedicated to her by Ravel, she was “so moved” by it. that she had tears in her eyes. his eyes, especially in the part of the movement which presents a great rhythmic regularity brought by constant thirty-second notes.

The musicians’ private writings also suggest that creating music fostered personal relationships that helped them deal with trauma. In a letter to Nadia and Lili Boulanger, the musician-soldier Jacques de la Presle wrote in 1916 that “in a little rest we make music, that is one of our joys. You see that for souls subjected to such an ordeal, music is the great and principal comforter. Many other musicians, especially those who served on the front line, agree, including Ernest Mangeret who says that “a few moments of leisure allowed me to become myself again” when he found a piano in a house in half demolished. “[W]”We went down to the basement (you understand why!)”, he writes, “and in the evening, we got together, several friends, to make a little music”.

Making music also offered a way to remember what life was like before the war. Cellist Maurice Maréchal, who enlisted in 1914, writes in his letters and diary that performing with friends on the front lines and listening to phonograph recordings reminded him of his pre-war life at the Paris Conservatoire , which allowed him to come out of his traumatic state. military life for a moment. For still others, performing, composing and organizing concerts were visceral reminders of deceased friends and family. Composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, for example, reworked pieces written by her younger sister Lili, who died of intestinal tuberculosis in 1918, and performed them in concert for the rest of her life.

The experiences of musicians in 1910s and 1920s France remind us that today, as we struggle with the trauma of COVID-19, we must consider the inextricability of mind and body. Psychologists like Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Resmaa Menakem, and Peter Levine have recently highlighted how trauma becomes, to use van der Kolk’s phrase, “housed in the body,” and recommended body-focused practices. and movement, like yoga. , theater and, yes, music, to help counter the negative effects of trauma.

Music has incredible potential to help people cope – and indeed, we’ve seen it play that role before during COVID. As a musicologist Emily Abrams Ansari noted, the use of music as a tool to remember past times, people and places became commonplace during the early months of the pandemic. Similar to how French music lovers of the 1910s and 1920s embraced familiar music, many people in lockdown also turned to nostalgic music that reminded them of old times, as evidenced by a substantial increase in Spotify playlists. based on music from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

While we should embrace the benefits that music brings, we must also consider the darker lessons of World War I during this pandemic and in the future. The toxic masculinity that surrounded the expression of grief and trauma back then still resonates today. In the 21st century, we need to be thoughtful and ethical in how we interact with each other, and with music and sound. We shouldn’t expect people to “get over” trauma quickly. Instead, we must push for cultural, societal, and political change that prioritizes mental and emotional health. People in positions of power – government officials, police, teachers, school administrators – need training to deal effectively with trauma. Mental health care, including music and sound therapy, must be made more accessible to all who could benefit from it. Musicians and the music industry must also consider how music has been used as a weapon of control, punishment, exploitation and coercion.

If we can be aware of how we engage with music, sound, and trauma, we can produce new ways of thinking about our ethical engagements with each other.

At its best, music can restore and rejuvenate the body and mind. And it’s comforting to know that people who react emotionally to music will always find a way to make music, no matter how difficult it may be. Just as World War I musicians made music wherever they could, often in homes and churches that had been destroyed by bombs, in the spring of 2020 I was heartened to see musicians of all persuasions cultivate Zoom performance to provide themselves and others with comfort, whether interpreting classic pieces like “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland” Where hymns in the tradition of the chanting of the Sacred Heart. Even the simple act of singing can do wonders. Alone in my bungalow with my two cats, I sang them their favorite songs – “You Are My Sunshine” and “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley – and I suddenly found myself more alive and less alone.