On Not Writing a Preface
(Prefatory Letter to George Docquois, Le plaisir des jours et des nuits, Paris, 1907; Autograph Ms, BNF, Dept de la musique, Rés F.1644 )
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents Camille Saint–Saëns’ letter to George Docquois, telling him the reasons for not writing a preface to introduce Docquois’ poetical thoughts and collected verse plays. It holds that is generally acknowledged that writers, without knowing anything about music, are qualified to judge it, but that musicians on the contrary, however literate they may be, have no rights in the field of literature.
Have you thought carefully, dear friend, about the danger of what you are doing me the honour of asking? A preface for your collected verse plays! Would it be allowed? Would not any such notion make the hair stand up on the heads of all literary persons, or at least of those who still have any? Is it not generally acknowledged that writers, without knowing anything about music, are qualified to judge it, but that (p. 40 ) musicians on the contrary, however literate they may be, have no rights in the field of literature? Where have you been? How do you come to be so ignorant of the simplest facts? Because I can’t believe your soul is so black as to lure me into a wasps’ nest—not that that would be a serious inconvenience. Altogether more serious would be the damage that my recommendation—the recommendation of a composer!—would necessarily cause to you.
In any case I couldn’t possibly do what you ask, for the reason that I have long been convinced that I understand nothing about the theatre.
The first blow landed when I was still a boy, during a performance of Don Giovanni at the Théâtre Italien. I already knew the work and was keyed up at the thought of seeing the terrible final scene. I cannot describe my amazement when, as this scene was about to be played, I saw the hall emptying as though by magic, and I realized that what was for me the culminatory point of the drama, the climax towards which the whole opera had been moving, was for the public of no interest!
From that moment I intuitively felt that, between the public and myself, there would often be misunderstandings. This presentiment was to be all too fully realized. How many times have I found myself, in the theatre, laughing on my own amid total silence? Or being bored to death, while all round me are convulsed with hilarity? I no longer dare to go to hysterically funny plays, ones that run to hundreds of performances, in case I dislocate something; and I frankly enjoy Les femmes savantes, and even Athalie and Britannicus, plays where being bored to death is the respectable thing. These thousands of little theatrical conventions—you know what I mean—which no one dares abolish because the public, apparently, couldn’t do without them, they fill me with horror; and the worst of it is that this horror of banality has not turned me towards the contemporary movement, towards theatrical realism or mysticism. Wagner's operas interest me only from the musical point of view, while Ibsenism and its imitators strike me as forms of mental aberration…
So there we are! If I am not with the crowd nor with the elitists, that's because I don’t understand anything—it's as clear as daylight. So ask someone more competent to introduce your “poetical thoughts” to the public, and leave me to enjoy in silence your fine rhymes and ingenious plots. It would be better for you, for me, and for everybody.