Parnassianism was a French poetry movement that developed during the second half of the 19th century. It’s located chronologically after Romanticism and before Symbolism. Theophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle and José María de Heredia were Parnassian poets; also, Stephane Mallarme and Charles Baudelaire wrote some Parnassian poetry before becoming Symbolists.
Parnassians declared art for art’s sake as their doctrine, as they rejected what they believed was an exaggerated political and social activism of their contemporary romantic poets. Parnassians seek for beauty through formal perfection and a rigorous metric. Their poetry was descriptive and they inspired themselves in evocative Greco-Latin mythology and other exotic environments, such as ancient Hindu and Egyptian cultures or Old Testament stories, while refusing, at the same time, to represent contemporary reality. Parnassianism is frankly pessimistic and dark; there is a tendency between Parnassian poets of considering death as liberation from “life’s anxiety” and “modern decadence,” caused, in their opinion, by the loss of the old classical culture and the traditional way of life.
Parnassianism spread outside of France -and also away from poetry- giving birth to other tendencies, like Latin American Modernism and British Aestheticism in literature, and inspiring painters such as Albert Joseph More and Frederic Leighton. But no matter how much I seek, I can’t find any reference on Parnassian music, what brings me to the question: Was there such thing as Parnassianism in music?
This doubt came up to me while I was editing Eduardo Calcaño’s pieces for flute and piano (recently published by Cayambis Music Press). Calcaño (1831-1904) was a Venezuelan politician and an attorney of outstanding public trajectory. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as the Ambassador of Venezuela to Spain. He was better known as a writer than as a composer, and he was considered one of Venezuela’s most representative Parnassian poets. A selection of his verses was published in an anthology of Venezuelan Parnassian poetry in 1915, compiled by Pedro Antonio Velázquez.
Did Calcaño reflect some of his lyric Parnassianism in his six flute pieces? This is an excellent opportunity to find out. Let’s explore the titles to begin with, so we can have an idea of his sources of inspiration.
There are two elegies among the six flute pieces; one of them, Rachel, was named after an old-testament heroine who died labor giving birth to Benjamin, who later became the patriarch of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. We shall consider two Parnassian characteristics here: the inclination towards heroic death and Old Testament legends. Then we have Melancholy, Nostalgia and A Tear, which are clear signs of the sad and pessimistic atmosphere uttered later in the scores. But not everything is darkness; in Romanza we can listen to the typical Latin American 19th century sophisticated joy and sentimentalism, expressed in an almost danceable tune. There is also a gorgeous Habanera at the end of A Tear, that allows us to experience the environment of Caribbean end-of-the-century salon that we associate with musicians like Cuban pianist and composer Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905).
Calcaño achieves this atmosphere of sadness, evasion and musing, using resources such as the flute’s low register, minor keys, modulations to distant tonalities and slow tempo indications. In regards to formalism, the composer mainly uses a free ABA song form, which is common to the majority of 19th century short pieces in the Latin-American repertoire, and should not necessarily be seen as a “strict use of classical patterns,” but nevertheless, it calls our attention to the fact that in Elegy, the composer matches the two climatic points of the score with measures that coincide with numbers of the Fibonacci series, making this particular piece an example of the use of the golden proportion in music; a resource associated with ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and Renaissance architecture.
This notwithstanding, I don’t consider a new category called Parnassian composers should be created; however, comparative analysis is an excellent tool for the discovery of analogies and parallels between two or more artistic manifestations; such as poetry and music in our case. I will show this with an example: before reading about Parnassianism, it did not occur to me that the insistent use of the flute’s low register by Calcaño was due to an expressive need; in my ignorance I thought that the composer had dedicated the pieces to an amateur flute player…