Paris café after the defeat at Sedan
Paris café after the defeat at Sedan

The second half of the 19th century marked one of the high points of French culture. The Symbolist poets (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Nerval, Corbière…) and artists (Moreau, Redon, Fantin-Latour, Chavannes…) ; the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (Monet, Morisot, Sisley, Pissaro, Cézanne, Renoir…) and a whole string of distinguished composers (Saint-Saëns, d’Indy, Durparc, Chausson, Fauré, Franck, Dukas, Debussy…) all set out on dazzling careers within these fifty years: Paris became the art capital of the world.

The reason? Not one thing, surely; but it’s certain that, in the Franco-Prussian War, the total defeat of the French forces at Sedan and the siege and fall of Paris that followed did much to concentrate minds on nationhood; on what it was to be French.


Hyperesthesia (abnormal or pathological increase in sensitivity to sensory stimuli, as of the skin to touch or the ear to sound). Henri Duparc suffered from it; it stopped him composing at the age of 37. But not before he wrote 17 mélodies (the French equivalent of the German lied) which many hold to be among the greatest songs ever written:

Duparc: La Vie antérieure (Pre-existence) – Baudelaire (text in French & English)
[Spotify search term: La Vie antérieure van dam]

Duparc: L’invitation au voyage (Invitation to the Voyage) – Baudelaire (text in French & English)
[Spotify search term: L’invitation au voyage van dam]

In 1894 Vincent D’Indy (together with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant) founded a new music school, the Schola Cantorum de Paris. Its aim was to counterbalance the (over) emphasis placed on opera at the Conservatoire. D’Indy, – now only best known for his Symphonie cévenole (Symphony on a French Mountain Air) – composed several other fine pieces including the variations for orchestra, Istar.

D’Indy: La forêt enchantée (The enchanted forest)
[Spotify search term: La foret enchantee dervaux]

D’Indy: Istar
[Spotify search term: Istar dervaux]

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