February 1941. Nazi flags hang on the facade of the Palais Garnier (Paris)
February 1941. Nazi flags hang on the facade of the Palais Garnier (Paris) © Getty  /  Mondadori Portfolio

Musical resistance and smuggling: musicians during the Occupation

During the Second World War and the occupation of France by the Nazis, a large number of classical musicians united to defend their creative liberty.

By July 1940, the north and the west of France were under the auspices of the forces of the Third Reich, with the Pétain goverment in charge: the German occupation of France would last four years.

Daily life was deeply impacted, with shortages, checkpoints and curfews: it was impossible to forget the Nazi presence. Musically, however, the German occupants and the Pétain government maintained the illusion of complete freedom, a cultural and musical sphere unchanged, as if during peace time.

However, the reality was very different. Banned and censored works, composers forbidden from working and even forced into exile, and intellectual and cultural propaganda: the dictatorship was well and truly in control, provoking countless reactions from, first and foremost, the country's musicians and composers.

Darius Milhaud, compositeur français, est forcé de fuir la France dès 1940 car catégorisé comme « musicien juif » et compositeur d' « art dégénéré » par les nazis.
Darius Milhaud, compositeur français, est forcé de fuir la France dès 1940 car catégorisé comme « musicien juif » et compositeur d' « art dégénéré » par les nazis.  © Getty  /  Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive

Censorship and propaganda

The day after the Armistice, on 23 June 1940, Adolf Hitler visited the Opéra de Paris. The musical institution was quickly authorised to continue its usual activities, and even became a strategic point in Nazi propaganda. The Opéra de Paris was primarily patronised by the French upper class, the country's elite whom the German occupation sought above all to convince and seduce.

Through the use of classical music, Nazi dignitaries attempted to show another side of Germanic culture, bringing forth its famed composers, notably Mozart and Beethoven. At the Palais Garnier, for example, the season opened with The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, a French lyrical adaptation of Goethe's Faust.

As for the Vichy government, it began promoting its "National Revolution", a political and cultural project founded upon "an authoritative, hierarchical and social State", as well as ruralism and nationalism. In order to promote this nationalism, several French composers were made exemplary models: notably, the Pétain government reappropriated the works and image of Claude Debussy, now representative of the "French musical tradition".

On the one hand propaganda, on the other censorship. The performance of numerous works was now forbidden, including those by Jewish composers, those written by composers in exile, and those considered "decadent" such as jazz and the modern music of Stravinsky. 

The two Operas

At the Opéra de Paris, many used the new regime to spread their influence and launch their careers. Such was the case with dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar, whose opportunism led him to become one of the most sollicited artists during the Occupation, as well as in Germany, where he toured on several occasions.

In August 1942, Lifar choreographed Les Animaux Modèles by Francis Poulenc, a ballet linked to another aspect of life at the Opéra de Paris during the war: the resistance. Within the score of his work, Poulenc inserted various subtle patriotic references and notably the melody of a famous French song, L’Alsace et la Lorraine.

Though this act of musical resistance passed unnoticed on the night of its premiere on 8 August 1942, it is revelatory of a strong spirit of defiance and rebellion from many musicians at the time.

They're smugglers !

Hard to display an act of resistance within the Palais Garnier when faced with a public made up primarily of German officers. Though the few rebellious notes in L’Alsace et la Lorraine planted by Francis Poulenc were a daring display of audacity, the real acts of audacity were taking place outside of the Opéra.

Francis Poulenc, Roger Désormière, Irène Joachim, Charles Munch, and Georges Auric to name but a few... In total more than thirty artists gathered to found the "Front National des Musiciens". Between May 1941 and the Liberation, the group fought to defend French music and encourage musical creativity.

"But what is to be done if one does not have the heart or possibility of joining the Francs-Tireurs? [...] Well, one can always begin by refusing the enemy any form of collaboration, even if it is 'purely musical.'"(*)

(*) Excerpt of an editorial published in 1942, in the third volume of a clandestine publication called Musiciens d’aujourd’hui.

Much like Poulenc and L’Alsace et la Lorraine, these musicians worked fragments of patriotic airs into the performances of authorised works. They also defended the French musical heritage, reappropriating Germanic works instrumentalised by the Reich, and denounced the cultural Nazi and Vichy propaganda through clandestine publications.

Similarly to the famous "Concerts de la Pléiade" (clandestine concerts allowing for the creation of hundreds of works during the Occupation), the musicians of the "Front" organised secret concerts during which they programmed and performed banned works and new French compositions.

The defiant musicians also turned their attention to their Jewish and exiled colleagues, allowing them to continue working and composing under various pseudonyms. Joseph Kosma, for example, forbidden from practicing his musical profession, was nonetheless able to pen the score for the film Marel Carné's cinematic masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis (1944) with the help of his friend and poet Jacques Prévert.

It was also through this act of friendship and solidarity between Prévert and Kosma that the famous song Les Feuilles Mortes was born, a standard today of French song and jazz. Composed by Kosma for the film Les Portes de la nuit (1946), this song is an example of the important heritage left behind by the musicians of the Resistance.

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