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106 Working Paper

Allons enfants de *quelle* patrie: Breton Nationalism and the French Impressionist Aesthetic

May 25, 2024 – Paul-André Bempéchat


Since its annexation by France in 1532, preserving Brittany's cultural identity has been dependent upon the fluidity of its political relationship with France. As the French Republic came into existence, laws were enacted to suppress minority languages across the Hexagon in favour of French. After the Revolution of 1789, the only language to be used officially, universally and exclusively in matters of education and civic administration became French, at a time when less than half the territory we recognize as France indeed spoke the language. Repressive, violent retaliatory measures were taken whenever linguistic resurgence arose, and such tactics only fueled the flames of nationalism. It was in 1839, at the height of European Celtomania, that the vibrancy of Brittany's ancient culture gained in both stature and appreciation. This revival had been generated by the publication and enormous international success of La Villemarqué's Barzaz Breiz ("Songs and Ballads of Brittany"), the cornerstone of Brittany's cultural renaissance. When France fell to the Germans in 1870, a wounded Republic felt even more artistically vulnerable to the onslaught of German Romanticism that had beset the nation since Wagner's operatic successes of the 1840s. A "national nationalism" came into the fore as Camille Saint-Saëns founded the Société Nationale de Musique, whose mandate became the "de-Germanization" of French music, and a rediscovery of all that was musically French. France's cultural vulnerability opened a window for Breton literati and musical illuminati towards greater artistic expression. Refusing the wave of nationalism to pass them by, Breton composers began to assert their cultural identity by reviving ancient, modal Church canticles, folk melodies and traditionally Celtic instruments. As the tonal matrices of French post- Romanticism congealed into Impressionism, Breton musical Romanticism and Impressionism also entered the foreground of French musical life. By 1910, l’Association des compositeurs bretons was founded by Les Huit (Louis Aubert, Charles-Augustin Collin, Maurice Duhamel, Paul Ladmirault, Paul Le Flem, Paul Martineau, Joseph-Guy Ropartz, and Louis Vuillemin). Affectionately nicknamed La Cohorte bretonne ("The Invading Breton Troop") by critic René Dumesnil, the Association commissioned and launched Breton and Breton-inspired compositions in the national capital until the outbreak of World War I. After the Great War, Paris' greatest fear for the security of the Republic was the festering autonomist movement in Alsace, just regained after the Armistice. In extenso, Breton autonomist movements also presented a threat, and this led to further, violently repressive measures outlawing the speaking of the Breton language and the holding of Mass in Breton. Fearing that the impetus provided the cultural faction of Le Mouvement breton would wane, and coinciding with Maurice Duhamel's political address to the Bretons at the Congrès breton of 1929, Paul Ladmirault composed his own cultural epistle to Breton artists, L'Exemple des Cinq Russes in 1928. Ladmirault heralded the province's cultural originality and independence and aligned her struggles for recognition with those of the Russian musical nationalists, The Mighty Five (Mili Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modeste Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov), a generation earlier. Seeing that this movement had, after a half century, finally earned its rightful place within the musical Pantheon, Breton composers finally found the requisite impetus to develop their own, distinct cultural patrimony.