Unlike his contemporaries André Gide and André Suarès, Claudel received hardly any musical education or training. In his youth, following in the footsteps of his sister Louise, he did try to learn to play the piano, but with little success. Nevertheless, music played a very important role both in his life and in his work. As he himself said in his conversations with Jean Amrouche, “Certainly, I have always loved music and have learned a great deal from it”.
As a student in Paris, Claudel became passionate about the music of Beethoven and, especially, of Wagner. He shared the enthusiasm of the Symbolists for the latter. “We are of a generation that has Wagner in its bones”, he was later to write to André Suarès. Wagner’s influence was manifold. To begin with, music filled the metaphysical void in a world without God and, in Claudel’s case, paved the way for his definitive conversion. It was also an abstract poetic model à la Mallarmé, while the Wagnerian myths and legends profoundly enriched Claudel’s imaginary world. Lastly, Wagner’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk —a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms—pervaded his own approach to writing for the stage.
Claudel’s diplomatic career provided him with the opportunity to widen his musical horizons. During his first posting to the United States, he became friends with Christian Larapidie, former violinist of the Opéra de Paris. His lengthy diplomatic mission in China from 1895 to 1909—although interspersed with various trips and periods of home leave back in France—resulted in his being to a large extent out of touch with western music. However, it did confirm his interest in Oriental theatre and its own special music, something he had first discovered at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Once posted back to Europe, he was able to attend concert halls again. For example, it was with a feeling of intense emotion that, in 1910 at the Volksoper in Vienna, he was able for the first time to attend a production of Tannhäuser. Over time, his enthusiasm for Wagner changed into an attitude of rejection, with Berlioz taking his place—although the Wagnerian corpus is still the key reference.
As well as the above three major figures—Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner—Claudel displayed an interest in many other composers, Bach and Mozart in particular. Notably, he was also interested in the music of his contemporaries—Debussy, Stravinsky, and Berg among others including, of course, his two great musician friends, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger.
Léon Guichard, La Musique et les lettres en France au temps du wagnérisme, Paris, PUF, 1963.