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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Romain Rolland (1866–1944)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Leland Hall (1883–1957)
ROMAIN ROLLAND was born on January 29th, 1866, at Clamecy, a little town in the Morvan, of which in later years he put many a peaceful recollection in ‘Jean-Christophe.’ Here his boyhood was passed, in happy circumstances and under the guidance of wise and affectionate parents. At an early age he showed marked sensitiveness to and fondness for music, and his mother was able to initiate him into the secrets of the art which all through his life he has faithfully served. His father sacrificed an excellent and prominent position in Clamecy to bring the family to Paris that Romain might have all the advantages of a thorough education. At the age of twenty the son matriculated at the École Normale Supérieure. He chose to enter the department of history and geography, not only as a concession to his father’s wishes, but also because he was aware of his own need of a strict and somewhat abstract training. Later he spent some years at the French School of Archæology in Rome. During all his young manhood he was deeply interested in literature, especially in the drama, and in painting and architecture, as well as in music. Those who knew him in these years remember his enthusiasm for play-writing rather than the fervor of his piano playing. Yet the doctor’s thesis which he submitted to the Sorbonne in June 1895, was on the origin of the lyrical drama, the opera in Europe before Lully and Scarlatti; and his was the first case in which the Sorbonne awarded its degree for work done on a subject in music. In 1898 he organized a course in the history of music at the École des Hautes Études Sociales, and a course on the history of art which he was engaged to give at the École Normale he converted eventually into a course on the history of music.  1
  As a teacher he has striven to win a high place for music in social education; but his works which deal exclusively with music are relatively few. Apart from his doctor’s thesis, the most noteworthy are two volumes of rather brilliant critical study; ‘Musiciens d’Autrefois’ (Musicians of an Earlier Day), and ‘Musiciens d’Aujourdhui’ (Musicians of To-day). In the former he has succeeded in depicting vividly musical life in Paris during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth, with the emphasis thrown on the lives and the personal characteristics of the men who swayed music at that time: Gluck, Mozart, and Grétry, for instance. ‘Musiciens d’Aujourdhui’ has more critical analysis of music, and shows a remarkably clear understanding of the tendencies in its modern development. What one welcomes most in both books is the combination of a thorough knowledge of music with genuine literary charm and skill. It is by virtue of this combination, manifest not only here in these partly technical books, but all through the romance of ‘Jean-Christophe’ as well, that Romain Rolland has been able to render great service to the cause, if one may so speak, of music. His writings have done much and will do more to reveal to a general public, which has perhaps both a desire for and a need of such revelation, what lies behind the creation of the great masterpieces of music.  2
  Though Romain Rolland has as an historian, a critic, and a novelist a triple claim to attention, it is plain that one impulse lies behind all his work. He has been inspired by a tremendous spirit of revolt against insincerity and pettiness. He has arraigned modern society and modern art, and has found them wanting in simplicity and directness, in sincerity and in vigor. When hardly more than a schoolboy, influenced partly by Wagner, but vastly more by Tolstoy, he dreamed of an art restored to life and power by the enthusiasm of the common people. Later he went so far as to plan a theatre for the people, writing a book for his project (‘Le Théâtre du Peuple’), and a cycle of four plays, based on subjects taken from the French Revolution, ‘The Iliad of the French Nation.’ This was heroic material. Romain Rolland is, like Carlyle, a worshipper of heroes, as of those who reveal to the human race the full possibilities of life and living. The force of their great natures not only triumphs over sorrow and outward circumstance but bursts through all cant and narrow prejudice. They stand before the race, free spirits. Romain Rolland gave himself almost passionately to the study of heroes. He has written the biographies of five men who have left an indelible mark upon the civilization of the world: Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Tolstoy, Handel, and Millet.  3
  The study of Beethoven is a magnificent piece of work, perhaps on the whole the greatest thing Romain Rolland has done. It is restrained and yet impassioned, and more than any other biography of that singularly heroic man gives a vivid impression of the titanic quality of his nature and of his struggles. The studies of Michaelangelo and of Tolstoy are hardly inferior. The writing of the three books concurs strikingly with the composition of ‘Jean Christophe.’ ‘Beethoven’ was published in 1903; the first three volumes of ‘Jean-Christophe’ in 1904 and 1905. ‘Michaelangelo’ was published in 1906; the volumes which deal with Jean-Christophe’s development in Paris, between 1907 and 1909. The ‘Tolstoy’ was published in 1911; the last three volumes of ‘Jean-Christophe’ between 1910 and 1912. The similarity between the young Jean-Christophe and Beethoven is unmistakable, and the minute analysis of his further development owes much to his creator’s intense study of the development of Michaelangelo and Tolstoy.  4
  ‘Jean-Christophe’ remains the study of an ideal hero, a man born to suffer, to endure, and to triumph by virtue of the indomitable spirit within him. It represents an attempt to educate the people to “live,” to correct their errors, to conquer their prejudices, and to enlarge from day to day their thoughts and their hearts. So the author himself has spoken of it. Perhaps no important novel of recent years has been so widely read. It has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, proof that in some measure at least Romain Rolland has revealed in it qualities which are common to all mankind. As a work of art it is often long and rambling; but as an analysis of character and as a critique of life it is a masterpiece.  5
  Shortly after the beginning of the Great War, Romain Rolland began to plead through the press that reason and the recollection of what mankind had done in common and what it shared be not utterly swept away by a sea of hate. His articles were much garbled, and he was violently assailed and denounced on every hand. He has assembled what he has written on the subject and published it under the title of the longest article in the collection, ‘Au dessus de la Mêlée’ (Above the Battle). Probably in a calmer period of the world’s history the more detached reader will be surprised that these utterances aroused so much resentment; but there was no doubt about the reprobation of his countrymen at the time, and Rolland retired to Geneva, where he gave himself to philanthropic work of an international character.  6

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