Prize or Penance?

Locked in cells to compose, the Prix de Rome winners had little fun. Michael Oliver finds out why Berlioz played truant and why Boulanger was tied to a chair.

Henry James said there was nothing worse for an artist than to work in Italy: every time you raise your eyes you’re distracted. The Rome Prize, the Prix de Rome, enabled an artist to do exactly that. An annual competition, the winners to receive free board and lodging in Rome while they absorbed all that Italy had to offer. Of course they had to send back envois, annual samples of their work, to show how conscientiously they were learning the rules of art. For many years successful entrants had to be male and unmarried; for some while they were symbolically housed in a monastery near the centre of the city – they were expected to show monastic devotion to their art and to shun distraction.

Women need not apply!
Later the pensionnaires, as they are still called, were moved to the austere magnificence of the Villa Medici, a vast palace overlooking Rome. By the nineteenth century musicians were allowed to join the visual artists, but women weren’t admitted until the twentieth.

For composers there was first a straightforward but demanding test of technical competence: isolated from each other in separate rooms, they were required to compose an elaborate fugue or formal motet in strict, textbook counterpoint. For the second stage entrants were again isolated, meeting for meals but locked into their ‘cells’ until the competition was over: it lasted three weeks. This time they had to write a cantata on a commissioned text, usually of extreme dullness, but the reward was a ‘pension of five years, the first two of them (later three) to be spent in Rome’. It’s what every artist dreams of – five years of freedom from economic pressure, freedom to create.

Berlioz, the first great composer to win the Prix de Rome, did so only on his fifth attempt and even then, as he admitted, by writing a cantata so academically correct that even the most hidebound judge could find no objection to it. By that time, head-over-heels in love, Rome was the last place he wanted to go and, despite all the risks (pensionnaires were exempted from military service only if they stayed at the Villa) he repeatedly played truant and never completed his full term in the city he’d always dreamed of.

Head over heels in love
Rome had still more distracting effects on Gounod. Hitherto as timid as a rabbit and very much under the thumb of his formidable mother, he was seen in the middle of the night climbing acacia trees, flinging armfuls of their flowers down to Fanny Mendelssohn with the awkward devotion of a puppy. He dutifully listened to what little music Rome could offer but was far more fruitfully influenced by its distractions: it was Mendelssohn’s lovely sister who introduced him to the subject of his opera: Faust.

Bizet, piqued by the poor reception of his first envoi, in place of the religious work demanded the following year, instead sent a comic opera and found his vocation. Poor Lili Boulanger, so desperately ill she shouldn’t have been in Rome at all, found there the strength to write most of her best music. She was so ill she could work only for an hour a day, so weak she had to be tied to her chair; but she might have lived longer had she stayed at home. Debussy, who loathed Rome and ‘this abominable Villa’ learned more there than he cared to admit. Berlioz, when not determinedly hurtling back to Paris to check Camille Moke hadn’t fallen for someone else (she had), spent hours by the Tiber reading Virgil and went off on expeditions into the Abruzzi, toying with the idea of becoming a bandit.

So who gained most from the Prix de Rome? Those who dutifully devoted themselves to studying Palestrina and Frescobaldi, or those who succumbed to Italy’s distractions? Which of them wasted their time in Rome and which really profited from it? When Jacques Ibert became director of the Villa Medici, he made a point of introducing his young composers not only to Stravinsky or Milhaud whenever they passed through Rome but also to writers, actors, even (provoking reactions of shocked horror from Paris) film stars. As a pensionnaire himself he had broken most of the rules. He was married and coolly brought his wife with him. He left the Villa for months at a time, and appalled the Parisian authorities with the levity and ‘modernity’ of his envois. Taxed with ingratitude for the generous award of a Prix de Rome he replied that if gratitude meant slavishly following your elders’ example and sticking to their rules, then an artist’s duty was ingratitude. To Henry James he might have replied: ‘Whatever is the point of going to Italy if you don’t allow yourself to be distracted?’

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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