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January 17, 2013

Book Notes - Alex Danchev "Cezanne: A Life"

Cezanne: A Life

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Alex Danchev's Cezanne: A Life is an exhaustively researched and vividly told biography of the painter, one that will be revered and cherished for many years.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"A perceptive judge of pictures as well as a skilled narrator, Mr. Danchev excels at dissecting Cezanne's idiosyncratic, analytical approach to the depiction of nature, which eventually paved the way for the innovations of Cubism and modernist abstraction. Abundant colour plates and exhaustive documentation round out this magisterial biography."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Alex Danchev's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Cezanne: A Life:


Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is the exemplary artist-creator of the modern age, the painter revered above all others by his contemporaries and successors. "How does he do it?" asked Renoir. "He has only to put two strokes of colour on a canvas and it's already something." For Picasso, he was the sole protector: mother, father, grandfather, and spiritual advisor. For Braque, he was one of the greatest revolutionaries. "He gave us a taste for risk. His personality is always in play, with his weaknesses and his strengths. With him, we're poles apart from decorum. He melds his life in his work, the work in his life." For Matisse, Cézanne was God.

Painters are not the only ones. Cézanne inspires poets and philosophers, thinkers and dreamers. Rilke went every day to the first ever Cézanne retrospective in Paris, in 1907, and experienced something like a religious conversion. His Letters on Cézanne are perhaps the best ever written on the artist. Heidegger followed in his footsteps to Aix-en-Provence, and dedicated a poem to him. "Cézanne was not a philosopher," explained Heidegger, "but he understood all of philosophy. In a few words he summed up everything I have tried to express. He said: 'Life is terrifying.' I have been saying just that for forty years." Beckett found in Cézanne the source of self-knowledge. Beckett became Beckett by arguing with Cézanne beyond the grave.

Cézanne is a revelator. It was entirely characteristic of him to write to one young artist that he owed him the truth in painting and that he would tell it to him; or to another that he would speak to him about painting more truly than anyone, and that in art he had nothing to hide. His statements are a kind of gospel – the hottest gospel of the modern period. Painting was truth telling or it was nothing. That was his life's work and his legacy.

He was not obviously very musical. Some of his friends thought that he had no ear for music, and his dealer used to say that he liked only the barrel organ. As so often, however, Cézanne is full of surprises. Here are some tracks of his life.


1.Wagner, Overture to Thannhäuser

Cézanne painted a picture entitled Young Girl at the Piano – Overture to Thannhäuser (1869-70). It is indeed a study of a young girl at a piano, in a domestic interior. How much store we set by the rest of the title is another matter. Cézanne's taste in music may or may not have run to Wagner, but it did not run very far. Nevertheless, there are connections of a kind. A special performance of Thannhäuser at the Paris Opera in 1861 caused a sensation. Cézanne must have been aware of this in the years that followed. Wagner was de rigueur among several of his friends and acquaintances, including a German musician by the name of Heinrich Morstatt; and one of his favourite books by one of his favourite authors, Baudelaire's L'Art romantique (1868), reprinted the essay on "Richard Wagner and Thannhäuser in Paris," in which the poet had issued an impassioned plea for the composer to "persist in his destiny".


2. Weber, Der Freischütz (The Marksman)

His favourite composer was Weber, not Wagner; unlikely as it may seem, his favourite works were romantic operas. Interestingly enough, in one of Baudelaire's most celebrated poems, "The Beacons," a paean to certain artists much esteemed by Cézanne (who knew the poem by heart), the verse on his idol Delacroix links the painter's name with the composer's.

Delacroix, lake of blood, the evil angels' haunts,
Shaded within a wood of fir-trees always green;
Under a gloomy sky, strange fanfares pass away
And disappear, like one of Weber's smothered sighs

In later life he would sometimes ask Marie Gasquet, an accomplished pianist, to play for him – preferably selections from Weber – and almost invariably go to asleep. The delicate pianist was accustomed to playing the last few chords fortissimo to wake him up and spare him any embarrassment.


3. Boieldieu, La Dame blanche (The White Lady)

La Dame blanche is a comic opera based on episodes in the works of Sir Walter Scott, whose Anne of Geierstein (1829), known in French as Charles le témémaire (Charles the Bold), Cézanne cherished as depicting his homeland of Provence as the Arcadia of France. If this seems a rather tenuous connection to make, there is a more surprising warrant. Dining at home with him in his last years, the young writer Louis Aurenche was amazed to find that Cézanne knew by heart the songs of various operas: Boieldieu's La Dame blanche, Hérold's Le Pré aux clercs, Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. They would sing them lustily over dessert, to the consternation of Cézanne's housekeeper, washed down with a bottle of good Médoc.


4. Bassano, a Fantasia, for the cornet

Contrary to popular belief, Cézanne had a sense of humour. He was a practised ironist, with a keener wit and sharper intelligence than most of his interlocutors. He also had a simpler sense of fun. Opéra-bouffe appealed to him; it took him back to the ragtag choir of his schooldays – and the school band. In this distinguished ensemble Cézanne played the cornet. His classmate Louis Marguery played the first cornet, Cézanne the second, and his best friend Émile Zola a tuneless clarinet. On high days and holidays they processed through Aix, dressed up, behind the rain-bringing saints and the cholera-curing Virgin. Whenever they could get away, Cézanne and Zola would go and serenade a pretty girl whose pride and joy was a green parrot. Neither girl not parrot seemed to appreciate the noise they made. "We serenaded the girls of the quartier," Cézanne recalled. "I played the cornet, Zola, more distinguished, the clarinet. What a racket! But we were ... fifteen. We thought we could swallow the whole world at that age!"


5. Cabaner, Mazurka à Nina de Villars

For a few brief years in the 1870s one of Cézanne's closest friends was the musician Ernest Cabaner (1833-81). Actually Cabaner was not only a musician but also a poet, a painter, a pauper, and something of a philosopher. He came from Perpignan to study at the Paris Conservatoire and never left, claiming that he was allergic to the countryside. He lived, after a fashion, by playing barroom piano for soldiers and prostitutes. In his spare time he collected old shoes to use as flowerpots. He came to the notice of the prefect of police, who kept a file on him: "Eccentric musician, mad composer, one of the most fervent devotees of the caste" – a euphemism for homosexuals. As an eccentric, he out-Cézanned Cézanne. They used to meet at the salons of Nina de Villars, "the Princess of Bohemia," where artists, writers and musicians would dine, surrounded by her cats, dogs, parrots, squirrel, and monkey. One of these soirées was evoked in a novel by Cézanne's friend Paul Alexis, Madame Meuriot (1890), featuring the hostess Eva de Pommeuse and thinly veiled portraits of Manet, Mallarmé, and "Kabaner". Cézanne appears as Poldex (Paul d'Aix) – a kind of colossus, gauche and bald, an old child, naïf, inspired, at once timid and violent, the only one really understood Kabaner."


6. Scriabin, Prometheus, the Poem of Fire

Cabaner was also Rimbaud's piano teacher. His method was unconventional: he stuck little pieces of coloured paper to the keys. He believed that each note of the octave corresponded to a particular colour. The idea of some sort of synaesthesia, "hearing" colour or "seeing" sound, was deeply embedded in the culture. Scriabin's Prometheus included a part for a machine known as a clavier à lumières, a "colour organ", played like a piano, which projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall, rather than producing sound. Cézanne was susceptible to synaesthesia. He noted that Flaubert, another of his favourite authors, saw purple when writing Salammbô (1862). He himself saw "a Flaubert colour", a bluish russet, given off by Madame Bovary (1857). Painting outdoors, he talked of "the pure blue scent of pine" blending with "the fresh green scent of the fields". The common rebus for "virtue", a green U (vertU), would have appealed to him enormously.


7. A French organ mass

The young Cézanne had violin lessons with the organist and precentor of the Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur in Aix, Henri Poncet. This was not a success. Cézanne did not take to the violin. "Often the descent of the bow on his fingers bore witness to M. Poncet's displeasure," his sister remembered. And yet perhaps something stuck. Fifty years later, Cézanne reported to his son: "At Saint-Sauveur, the former choir leader Poncet has been replaced by an idiot of an abbot, who takes charge of the organ and plays out of tune. Such that I can't go to hear mass any more, his way of making music makes me positively ill."


8. Boulez, Sur Incises

This piece by Pierre Boulez for three pianos, three harps and three mallet instruments is based on fragments of Mallarmé's poetry. According to Boulez, "modernism is based on the fragment." In 2008 he curated an exhibition at the Louvre, under the banner of "Fragments", including work by Cézanne; and indeed it was the fragmentary or unfinished nature of Cézanne's painting that engaged or enraged so many of his contemporaries, and enraptured succeeding generations. This is especially true of his watercolours. According to Alfred Stieglitz, "there's nothing there but empty paper with a few splashes of colour". In the watercolours on white paper, it is the white paper that organizes the watercolour. The pathos of the paper was one of his great discoveries. Boulez for his part was also a student of Cézanne's letters. The artist's famous description of one his views of the Mediterranean, red roofs against blue sea, "It's like a playing card", was taken up again by the composer almost a century later: "Music is not a "playing card", to adapt Cézanne's remark on painting," wrote Boulez; "'depth', 'perspective', 'relief' have an important part to play."


9. Cézanne – the opera

Daniel Rothman's Cézanne's Doubt (1996) is a chamber opera for solo voice, clarinet, trumpet, cello, and audio and video processing. The opera takes place in Cézanne's mind. It is described as an "inner monologue", interweaving Baudelaire's poem "Carrion" – perhaps his favourite from The Flowers of Evil, a battered copy of which used to accompany him on painting expeditions outdoors – with Cézanne's letters to his son, and his correspondence with Zola. The title of the opera is also a deliberate echo of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's celebrated essay, "Cézanne's Doubt" (1945), which sought to capture and to crystallize the primary condition with which he was identified in life and afterlife: inquiétude – restlessness, anxiety. In the sense pervading so many accounts, this was an almost pathological condition. Merleau-Ponty did not shrink from speculating on his morbid symptoms, psychological disequilibrium, and "schizoid make-up". In reality, all that has been overdone. Cézanne was more normal and less pathological than is generally believed. He was neither demented nor depressed. The salient thing about his condition was that he had purpose – moral purpose – he was inquiet pour vérité: hot for truth. Too much has been made of Cézanne outlaw, as Edmond Jaloux put it.


10. Cézanne – the musical

Has yet to appear – no one has dared.


Alex Danchev and Cezanne: A Life links:

Barnes and Noble Review review
Bookslut review
Daily Mail review
Dallas Morning News review
Guardian review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Journal of Books review
Open Letters Monthly review
Philadelphia Inquirer review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Sunday Times review
Telegraph review
Washington Times review

The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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