Who is Romain Rolland?

You aren't finding anything in the Stanford catalog because "Rolland" has two l's. I did the same thing and got nothing in a quick check on Stanford's online catalog -- totally bewildering because the man is a Nobel Laureate. His books are there, though.

Romain Rolland


Entry Updated : 04/08/2002
Birth Place: Clamecy, France
Death Place: Vezelay, France

Personal Information: Family: Born January 29, 1866, in Clamecy, France; died December 30, 1944, in Vezelay, France; son of Emile (a lawyer) and Antoinette-Marie (Courot) Rolland; married Clotilde Breal, 1892 (divorced); married Marie Koudachev, 1934. Education: attended the Lycée Saint-Louis; attended École Normale Superieure, 1886-89; studied in Paris and Rome; received a doctorate in art (music) from the Sorbonne, 1895. Politics: Pacifist, socialist. Religion: Raised Catholic. Memberships: International Congress against War and Fascism, 1932.

Career: French novelist, biographer, musicologist, historian, critic, and dramatist; École Normale and École des Hautes Études Sociales, educator; Sorbonne, professor of music history, 1903.

Awards: Nobel Prize in literature, 1915.

As a musicologist, novelist, biographer, and essayist, French author Romain Rolland was a romantic in the nineteenth-century tradition. He wrote in the early twentieth century, but his narrative style was sweeping and idealistic, and his subject matter usually dealt in some way with nineteenth-century German composers. Rolland is best known for his ten-volume cyclical novel Jean-Christophe, published serially in Cahier de la Quinzaine from 1903 to 1912 and published in translation from 1910 to 1913. Rolland, a pacifist and humanist who sought to unify nations through his writings, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1915.

In the pastoral Burgundy region of central France his father, Emile, worked as a lawyer and a local official. The family moved to Paris in 1880 at Romain's mother's insistence. Antoinette-Marie desired a superior education for her son. Rolland attended the Lycee Saint-Louis and then the illustrious École Normale Superieure. He focused on history and philosophy but his passion for music, which his mother encouraged, moved him to study its nature and origins. He longed to be a composer, and later said his frustrated creative energy showed in his writings. After Rolland graduated in 1899 he did postgraduate research in Rome. He studied the origins of opera before Jean-Baptist Lully and Alessandro Scarlatti for his doctoral thesis, Histoire de l'opéra en Europe avant Lully et Scarlatti. Rome inspired his first works, a cycle of dramas based on classical themes, which he eventually abandoned.

Rolland wrote in 1890, "I would not be a professor for anything in the world . . . I am an artist at heart." Yet within a few years, when he had not achieved literary success, he had to teach in Paris. He taught at École Normale and École des Hautes Etudes Sociales, before becoming a professor of music history at the Sorbonne in 1903. He published the only surviving drama from his first Rome-inspired cycle, Saint-Louis, in the Revue de Paris in 1897. It was not a critical success. The French Revolution inspired his second cycle of dramas. This cycle did better with the critics, but Rolland's dramatic works are considered among his inferior work. In 1901 his nine-year marriage with Clotilde Breal dissolved. He moved to a small apartment in Paris and began working on his novel cycle, Jean-Christophe. He had begun planning the project since traveling to Rome twelve years earlier. Rolland spent the next ten years in near seclusion, writing this work and musical history and criticism. By the time he finished Jean-Christophe in 1912 he was an internationally known music scholar. Jean-Christophe was so successful that the early sections were immediately translated into German, English, Spanish, and Italian.

Jean-Christophe is the story of a brave, romantic German musician, Jean-Christophe Kraft, who lives in France. Rolland imbued all his ideals in the character of the musician: courage, sensitivity, creative genius, objectivity, and perceptive acuity. He based his character on both on the man he wanted to be and on one of his heroes, Ludwig von Beethoven. Jean-Christophe occasionally is tempted to choose his own pleasures and materialistic trappings over his ideals; yet he never falters. He also struggles to balance his German identity with French culture. As he travels through France and Germany he offers his observations and criticism of modern civilization. Jean-Christophe is an argument for Rolland's morals, but Rolland also sought to create literary innovations influenced by his music studies. Critics recognized the application of musical elements such as coda, crescendo, and recurring motifs, but wrote that these are not true innovations. Rolland's most successful literary technique is using the river as his dominant thematic motif. In the novel cycle, life is the flow of phenomena. Its parts, humanity and the natural world, are all formed from the same essential elements, governed by the same laws, and are interdependent. Important to the novel cycle is Rolland's belief that art should express moral truth and combat the disintegration of values. Cleveland Palmer, in a review for the Bookman, had mixed reactions, but concluded, "While it is not always possible to praise, it is impossible to deny that he [Rolland] has brought back the spirit of youth, or some semblance of it, into the desiccated French novel of to-day."

Rolland was enamored with German artists. He was attracted to the metaphysical orientation and power of German Romantic art, and claimed an affinity with the Teutonic people. Yet as a trained historian and critic, he was as objective and accurate as possible. His critical biographies, particularly that of Beethoven, are considered his finest work. Rolland employed the river motif in his second novel cycle, L'Ame enchantée. Critics have called the protagonist, a woman named Annette Riviere, an attempted counterpart to Jean-Christophe. L'Ame enchantée is considered an inferior work because Rolland's political polemics undermine the narrative.

Rolland often used his fame to promote his ideals. As forces of war gathered in Europe he became an outspoken pacifist, urging internationalism. He moved to Switzerland in 1914, hoping to help build a cosmopolitan society. He wanted to escape the intense nationalism that he felt was ripping Europe apart. During World War I he wrote several antiwar essays, response to which was mixed. In his most famous essay, "Au-dessus de la melee," he condemned all forms of violence. He published a collection of essays opposing the conflict between Germany and France during the war, also titled Au-dessus de la melée, in 1915. That year Rolland won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Rolland's uncompromising pacifist stance outraged the French, who felt justified in defending against German attacks. Rolland, by then known for his adoration of some German artists, was accused of pro-Germany sympathies. Sentiment against Rolland did not fade after the war, and he remained in Switzerland until 1936. He thought the Treaty of Versailles had settled nothing; if anything, it had aggravated tensions. He appealed for international cooperation during the years between the world wars, and enlisted the help of other prominent European intellectuals to organize an international community. He succeeded in forming the International Congress against War and Fascism in 1932. But through the rest of the decade, Germany's simmering threat made war seem inevitable. Even Rolland came to admit self-defense as a necessary evil.

In 1937 Rolland and his second wife, Marie Koudachev, returned to France and bought a small villa near Clamecy. He spent his last days writing his memoirs, a biography of his friend and former publisher, Charles Peguy, and a new conclusion to his seven-volume study of Beethoven. He grew disillusioned with politics when the war broke out again, in 1939. A few months before his death Rolland wrote in a letter to his friend Jean-Richard Bloch, "From our high walls which kept us prisoner without defending us, we have seen these days the beginnings of the pitiful exodus, then the invasion. . . . For a long time we were occupied, under strong surveillance." He died in Vazelay, France. Helene Kastinger Riley described Rolland's position in history in a 1983 essay on Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland: "Roland catered to the prevalent international yearning for a creed, a sense of direction, a strong ideology, and in that perspective [his] undertaking was a realistic attempt to gather the scattered humanitarian forces. Perhaps economic necessity will accomplish in future what moral concern failed to yield in the past."

Further reading:
Starr, William Thomas, Romain Rolland and a World War, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1956.
Zweig, Stefan, Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work, T. Seltzer (New York, NY), 1921.

Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.