Looking back on four months in Paris

From January until the end of April 2015, I was a visiting student at the Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). I thought I’d take the opportunity, now that I’m back in the dreaming spires of Oxford endeavouring to immerse myself in some serious writing, to reflect on my time there: my experience at the Sorbonne, living in the French capital, and my research in the archives.

As a visiting student at the Sorbonne I had access to a plethora of institutions, resources, and seminars. The multi-system structure of the Sorbonne universities means I also had the resources of the inter-university platforms at my fingertips: other libraries, common rooms for instance. Although the majority of my time was taken up making the most of the library materials in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, I attended some seminars at the Sorbonne. These were informative and engaging: I noticed a focus on theory, in particular literary approaches to musicology (music through the eyes of French or German literature), and a strong interest in French music. Indeed, whenever I turned on the French classical music radio station, Fauré seemed to be playing – Fauré was everywhere in 1913 Paris too – much in the same way that Elgar or Vaughan-Williams might be on Classic FM in the UK. It seems there is (still) a prevalence for bordered nationalism in our respective musicking.

There was an impressive array of seminar-based modules available for taught and research master’s students. Seminars often took the format of a presentation by a doctoral student, followed by at least an hour allotted for debate amongst students. Most of these were theory-driven rather than focusing on specific historical periods and cultures; however, these were strongly catered towards studying Western art music, with an absence of ethnomusicology and popular music studies. There were also invited talks (followed by debates) from leading French contemporary composers.

Whilst in Paris, I benefitted from the advice and support of Dr Sylvie Douche, whose own background in French music helped direct me towards new avenues in my research, and as a central figure in the music department of the Paris IV she introduced me to other DPhil students working in a range of musicology topics: early French music, Nietzsche, piano music and vocal music research. Talking to other doctoral students at the Sorbonne, the pressure to complete the PhD in three years seemed much more relaxed than the competitive atmosphere that can often be found in Oxford and other UK institutions, and as a result reaching mile stones in the doctorate seemed less of a priority than gaining experience in teaching and taking the time to think around the subject carefully.

Alongside spending most of my time in the national libraries and the occasional visits to the Sorbonne, I took the time to explore Paris. Living in the city that is the focus of my research had unexpected benefits. Becoming increasingly familiar with the layout and feel of the Metro system, and the character of each arrondissement in relation to those surrounding it, will undoubtedly help as I begin to understand and imagine the city from the perspective of pre-war twentieth century Paris. Experiencing the city as a habitant rather than a tourist can offer more than simply a geographical knowledge of the city’s layout. But it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that enables a better understanding of how the city works. Perhaps it is just that: a familiarity with the nuances of the city’s everyday workings that helps imagine what it might have been like just over a century ago.

I was struck by how far out the Grand Palais and Petit Palais by the Pont Alexandre III felt compared to the clusters of theatres and important buildings surrounding the central arrondissements. I could easily imagine these leafy open spaces of the Champs-Elysées Jardin de Paris, populated with the upper and middle classes taking the time to listen to the outdoor concert orchestras in summer and covered cafes-concerts in winter such as the Alcazar. Like an out-of-place character from an E. M. Forster novel, I occasionally carried around a 1913 Baedeker Guide to Paris, comparing the streets of the past to the present day, and being struck by how little had changed in the mapped structure of the city. I could pinpoint the building I lived in, and the street looked no different to the one on the map, although lacking no doubt in horse-drawn buses, early motor cars, and the elegant, increasingly uncluttered and clean lines of fashion in pre-war Paris.

And of course, whilst living in Paris I also managed to find a favourite café (Café Foundation, a small space and elegantly simple, near Temple Metro stop), favourite bar (Place Verte opposite my flat: a wacky 70s-inspired interior and large, very popular, outdoor seating area) and my favourite Monoprix own-brand treats (the milk and white chocolate Florentines). Across the street from my flat there was a turn of the century bar, opened in 1900, named Café Charbon: a Parisian reliably informed me that the name originated from ‘the war’ (which war, it was never said) when Parisians deemed coffee and coal as the most necessary provisions to be able to get hold of.

I found myself frequently making comparisons between 1913 and 2015 Paris. I spent the days trawling 1913 letters, journals, publications, and manuscripts, often encountering the same advertisements over and over for perfume, tennis, hats, personal headphones; and then evenings and weekends bombarded with French 2015 ads – mostly for yoghurt. It almost felt like I was time travelling, between pre-war and present-day Paris. I found it rather strange to read emboldened headlines: ‘Tonight! Dinner and a show!’ Followed by a 5-digit phone number to book a table, and realising that the show was happening right around the corner, in an hour’s time, last century.

The research itself led to a variety of discoveries: most served to colour-in details of my proposed arguments, others led me to change the focus of my research. I came across a dinner invitation, for instance, to the Elysée Palace, sent from the President to the Lili Boulanger, the winner of the 1913 Prix de Rome, where they had 11 courses including a ‘Salade Russe’ and ‘Timbale Rossini’. Periodicals offering their own take on the musical year of 1913 were all an interesting read (e.g. Le Monde Musical 1913, L’Année Musicale 1913, Revue Musicale), with lengthy articles on long-forgotten compositions by ‘minor’ French composers, and short, critical reviews of the most innovative works, Le Sacre du Printemps and Jeux. Notably, I found a considerable collection of popular songs concerned with themes of temporality. French songs with titles such as ‘souvenirs’ (memories), ‘nostalgie’, ‘le temps passé’ were popular in 1912-1913. Even without a suggestive title, the large majority of popular songs from this period focused in some way on themes of lost time, coinciding with the literary activity of the time. What emerged was a sense of nostalgia for an idealised, reconstructed past that had never existed.

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