Music and Family Memory: Marguerite Blanchot in Chalon (1920s)

For the children, the period following the war was devoted to university study. Marguerite Blanchot was perfecting her musical skills at the Paris Conservatoire. And in 1922, Maurice Blanchot earned his baccalaureate before leaving for the University of Strasbourg. George married Marie Marguerite Canque in Montmerle, in the Ain département.1 In 1925, Uncle Edmond died at the age of sixty-four. He was buried on August 1 in his Devrouze parish.

The same year, Marguerite returned to Chalon, and the father of the family retired, buying the house on the Avenue Boucicaut that became for a long while the urban base for the Blanchot family. The land at Quain would henceforth be managed from here. Marguerite spent almost all the rest of her life there. Little by little, she would come to represent the memory of their origins. Never having married, due to religious devotion it was sometimes said, she lived first with her parents, later with her Aunt Élise, and then finally alone, following the death of all her predecessors. Handed down by a father who died there, situated a short walk from the cemetery where he was buried, the never-changing house would outlast time, would be a new site of demourance, of residence. Following Alexandrine’s death, Marguerite would leave one of its rooms almost intact, a room she continued to call “my mother’s room.” A journalist who visited her in 1979 evoked the residence with an almost Blanchotian formulation: “situated close to the center of Chalon,” it was nonetheless “of another place and time.” Philippe Merley recounted that “time there seems to stand still, and Marguerite Blanchot receives visitors in a sitting-room which could easily have been described by Proust.” After an interview lasting two hours, “I find myself in the street . . . somewhat lost. I am returning from another age, from a world that no longer exists.”2

The interviewer was no doubt interested in the fact that in the meantime Marguerite Blanchot had become a figure in public life in Chalon. Her return from Paris brought with it the airs of life in the capital. The person who came to be known in Chalon via the English expression “Miss Blanchot” took on a certain profile around town, with her unmistakable originality and the charm as well as authority of her pale and lively eyes.3 She gave individual piano lessons at home, almost adopting her father’s role, but in a musical capacity. Her lessons quickly became the most sought-after in Chalon. She gave lessons on three upright pianos, one grand piano, and an organ, and is widely remembered as having lived for her music and her pupils. On the retirement of Mr. Moine, at the end of the 1920s, she took over the cathedral’s organs as a volunteer and held the post for more than fifty years. Her discreet, slightly precious authority, known across town, was bolstered by a pride that could turn to anger if silence was not respected in what she considered her domain. She had a tendency, in her tacit but never-ending conflict with the religious authorities, to see the mass as her own recital. The priest followed the organ rather than the organ following the priest. One Sunday when this conflict was more pronounced than usual, she refused to stop playing Handel, drowning out the voice of a priest who was desperately attempting to continue mass and to sing the liturgy. Perhaps this was her own form of celebration and prayer. There was certainly no doubt about her devotion. Each year she would go to the monastery at Pradines near Roanne to visit a cousin who had taken the cloth. There she would give organ lessons to the nuns. In every part of her life she seemed to bring together a concern for distinction and the duty of self-effacement.

Her erudition relied on a perfect knowledge of the history of the organ and of music in general. She received Marcel Dupré in Chalon in 1965, gave lectures, wrote articles. With this specialized knowledge, as well as her own funds, she contributed to the restoration of the organ in Saint-Vincent Cathedral, after first drawing attention to this necessity and exerting a real influence on the relevant authorities at the end of the 1960s. The unceremonious manner in which, at over eighty years of age, she was relieved of her functions at the beginning of the 1980s would leave her with a bitter taste.

If the house in Chalon remained a site of memory throughout these years, this is also due to the music with which it was filled. Like her father, Marguerite Blanchot showed little interest in contemporary music, preferring classical or romantic pieces. While more open, a lover for instance of Schoenberg and Boulez, Maurice Blanchot nonetheless preferred a composer like Schumann. Music, which he named the “art par excellence,” was paramount in the family’s tastes, just as it was in those of his friends Louis-René des Forêts and Roger Laporte, who would often refer to their preference for music over literature, despite being writers themselves.4 Maurice Blanchot’s extreme discretion with respect to music in his critical writing reveals, paradoxically, his admiringly silent relationship with it. For his part, he had studied music theory and was an outstanding piano player.

Marguerite Blanchot venerated her brother Maurice. She was very proud of him and complained of not seeing him often enough. She placed great store in his political ideas, despite maintaining rather conservative views herself. She read a lot, often late into the evening, in the heart of the “other night” when her brother would be writing. They would speak on the telephone and exchange letters. They shared, from a distance, the same natural authority, the same concern for discretion.

Maurice Blanchot would also remain very close to his brother René, who would often protect him, welcoming him in difficult moments, making his homes available. George seems to have led his life in a more distant way. But among the three brothers and their sister there would remain, despite the distance in their lives and their convictions, a sense of solidarity and great respect for their parental link, for the past. Not to mention for its hauteur.

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