Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2437
First published: 1904-1912 (English translation, 1910-1913)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Locale: Germany, France, and Switzerland
Jean-Christophe Krafft, a musician
Melchior, his father
Jean Michel, his grandfather
Louisa, his mother
Antoinette, a French girl
Olivier, her brother
Grazia, Jean-Christophe’s friend
Lorchen, a farm girl
Colette, Grazia’s cousin
Jacqueline, Olivier’s wife
Melchior Krafft was a virtuoso, his father Jean Michel a famous conductor. It was no wonder that Melchior’s son, Christophe, should be a musician.
Louisa, Melchior’s wife, was a stolid woman of the lower class. Her father-in-law had been furious at his son for marrying beneath him, but he was soon won over by the patient goodness of Louisa. It was fortunate that there was a strong tie between them, for Melchior drank and wasted his money. Often the grandfather gave his little pension to Louisa because there was no money for the family.
Melchior by chance one day heard his three-year-old Christophe playing at the piano. In his drunken enthusiasm, Melchior conceived the idea of creating a musical prodigy. So began Christophe’s lessons. Over and over he played his scales; over and over he practiced until he was letter perfect. Often he rebelled. Whipping only made him more rebellious, but in the end the piano always pulled him back.
His grandfather noticed that he would often improvise melodies as he played with his toys. Sitting in a different room, he would transcribe those airs and arrange them. Christophe showed real genius in composition.
At the age of seven and a half, Christophe was ready for his first concert. Dressed in a ridiculous costume, he was presented at court as a child prodigy of six. He played works of some of the German masters and then performed with great success his own compositions gathered into an expensive privately printed volume, THE PLEASURES OF CHILDHOOD: ARIA, MINUETTO, VALSE, AND MARCIA, OPUS 1, by Jean-Christophe Krafft. The grand duke was delighted and bestowed the favor of the court on the prodigy.
Before reaching his teens, Christophe was firmly installed as official second violinist in the court orchestra, where his father was concert master. Rehearsals, concerts, composition, lessons to give and take—that was his life. He became the mainstay of the family financially, even collecting his father’s wages before Melchior could get his hands on them. All the other phases of his life were neglected; no one even bothered to teach him table manners.
When Melchior finally drowned himself, his death was a financial benefit to the Kraffts, but when Jean Michel died, it was a different matter. Christophe’s two brothers were seldom home, and only Louisa and her musician son were left. To save money, they moved into a smaller, more wretched flat.
Meanwhile, Christophe was going through a series of love affairs which always terminated unhappily because of his unswerving honesty and lack of social graces. In his early twenties he took Ada, a vulgar shop girl, for his mistress. Because of gossip, he found it much harder to get and keep pupils. When he dared to publish a criticism of the older masters, he lost his standing at court. He had almost decided to leave Germany.
At a peasant dance one night, he protected Lorchen, a farm girl, from a group of drunken soldiers. In the ensuing brawl, one soldier was killed and two were seriously injured. With a warrant out for his arrest, Christophe escaped to Paris.
Once in France, a country he greatly admired, Christophe found it difficult to acclimate himself. He met a group of wealthy and cynical Jews, Americans, Belgians, and Germans, but he judged their sophistication painful and their affectations boring. His compositions, although appreciated by a few, were not generally well received at first.
After a time, with increasing recognition, he found himself alternately praised and blamed by the critics. Nevertheless, he was noticed, and that was the important thing. Although he was received in wealthy homes and given complimentary tickets for theaters and concerts, he was still desperately poor.
At the home of the Stevens family, where he was kindly received, he instructed Colette, the coquettish daughter, and the younger, gentler Grazia, her cousin. Without falling in love with Colette, he was for a time her teacher and good friend. Grazia, who adored him, was only another pupil.
One night a blushing, stammering young man of letters was introduced to him. It was Olivier, who had long been a faithful admirer of Christophe’s music. Christophe was immediately attracted to Olivier, although at first he was not quite sure why. Olivier’s face was only hauntingly familiar.
It turned out that Olivier was the younger brother of Antoinette, a girl whose image Christophe cherished. Before he left Germany, a Jewish friend had given Christophe tickets for a box at the theater. Knowing no one to ask to accompany him, he went alone. In the lobby, he saw a French governess who was being turned away from the box office. Impulsively, Christophe took her in with him. The Grunebaums, the girl’s employers, had also expected to be invited, and they were angry at the fancied slight. Antoinette was dismissed from their employ.
As she was returning to France, Christophe caught a glimpse of her on the train. That was all the contact he ever had with Antoinette. Now he learned that she had worn herself out by supporting Olivier until he could enter the Ecole Normale. When he finally passed the entrance examinations, she had already contracted consumption, and she died before Christophe came to Paris.
Finding a real friend in Olivier, Christophe took an apartment with him. The house was only middle-class or less; but in that house and its inhabitants, and with Olivier’s guidance, Christophe began to find the real soul of France. Away from the sophisticated glitter of Paris, the ordinary people lived calm and purposeful lives filled with the ideal of personal liberty.
Oliver became a champion of Christophe and helped establish his reputation in the reviews. Then someone, an important person, worked anonymously on Christophe’s behalf. In a few years, he found himself famous in France and abroad as the foremost composer of the new music.
Olivier’s marriage to the shallow Jacqueline separated the two friends. In his eventful life Christophe made many more friends, but none so dear as Olivier. He did, however, discover his anonymous benefactor. It was Grazia, no longer in love with him and married to a secretary of the Austrian legation.
Jacqueline left Olivier, and he and Christophe became interested in the syndicalist movement. They attended a May Day celebration which turned into a riot. Olivier was fatally stabbed. After killing a soldier, Christophe fled the country.
During his exile in Switzerland, Christophe went through an unhappy love affair with Anna, the wife of a friend, and the consequent sense of guilt temporarily stilled his genius; but with the help of the new widowed Grazia, Christophe spent ten fruitful years in Switzerland.
When he returned to France, he was sought after and acclaimed. He was vastly amused to find himself an established master, and even considered out of date by younger artists.
Although Grazia and Christophe never married, they remained steadfast and consoling friends. Grazia died in Egypt, far from her beloved Christophe. He died in Paris. To the end, Christophe was uncompromising, for he was a true artist.
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is a two-thousand-page novel originally published in ten volumes; it is the painstaking record of the artistic development of a musical genius. Romain Rolland set out to portray the adventures of the soul of his hero and succeeded magnificently; in addition, he broke down the artistic barrier between France and Germany. The experiences of Jean-Christophe are those of every genius who turns from the past to serve the future. In 1915, Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in great part for JEAN-CHRISTOPHE.
The subject matter in JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is more important than the technique. The style of composition and manner of construction are straightforward and plain; with few exceptions, the narrative moves smoothly forward, like a river, carrying Christophe through his life. The first sentence establishes the continuous symbolism of the river. Days, weeks, and months are seen as a tide, ebbing and flowing, always beginning anew. First the Rhine and then the Seine dominate the setting. Christophe’s first experience of lovemaking, with Ada, is on the river, and his father drowns in the river. When Christophe dies, the image of the river recurs.
The importance of honesty and integrity forms a continuing theme in the novel. Only one thing is asked of a baby, Christophe’s grandfather says at his birth: that he grow into an honest man. Old Jean Michel, one of the finest characters in the novel, has a fondness for spouting aphorisms; he suggests many of the thematic beliefs—honesty, duty, industry—that will later be developed in the book.
Rolland effectively attempts to reveal the world from the point of view of the baby and tiny child. From infancy, music has a special, magical effect on Christophe, whether it is the ringing of church bells or the playing of the church organ. He does not understand the feeling, but it foreshadows the dominant influence in his life. An old piano becomes a source of magic and joy to the child and soon is the most important power in his life. Christophe dreams and muses through childhood. The first crisis of his life occurs when he realizes that some men command and others are commanded. Injustice torments him all of his life. The name Jean-Christophe suggests Jesus Christ, and he later thinks that to create music is to be God on earth.
The maturing process is shown in great detail; the reader is spared none of the pains and joys of Christophe’s development. Christophe’s grandfather set him on the path of composing, and his Uncle Gottfried taught him to respect music. He saw the faults of the composers around him and labored to avoid those faults in his own work. He struggled always to make his work true. He was torn between the instincts of his family and those of his genius; this struggle is at the heart of the novel. Christophe’s “progress” seems to move inevitably from the horror of his grandfather’s death, to the importance of his first friendship at age fifteen with Otto, to the civilizing influence of Frau von Kerich, and to the beauty and pain of his first love for Minna.
Occasionally, the reader wonders if it is really necessary to learn about each and every quarrel in which Christophe is involved or to see every suffering moment and witness every betrayal and agonized failure. The catalog of pain is somewhat excessive. The moral growth of the protagonist is shown with special sensitivity, beginning with the religious crisis that he experiences in his late teens. Before then, he does not have time or education enough to consider philosophical or religious questions. Sabine’s sudden death teaches him another painful lesson about the injustices of life; but it is perhaps Ada who teaches him the most of the inconsistencies of the human heart and the treacherousness of life. Ada, ignorant and vain, petty and jealous, with nothing appealing about her but her physical appearance, is particularly well drawn. She hates Christophe’s music because she hates anything that she cannot understand, but Christophe is captivated by her until he catches her in an affair with his brother. The least sympathetic characters, such as Ada, are often the best drawn in the book.
The narrator holds up Christophe as an example of a man who refuses to give up in the face of defeat, a man who is made stronger by setbacks. The theme of endurance, survival at all costs, is important in the book. If Christophe can be said to possess any one outstanding characteristic, it is tenacity. Perhaps it begins when his Uncle Gottfried tells him that what men will and what they do are seldom the same, but the important thing is never to give up either. Christophe becomes disillusioned with both German and French music, because he feels it is filled with cheating and superficialities. He realizes that honesty must be everything to him. The novel, in large part, is the story of this honesty confronting the sham and lying of the world. Life is always a struggle for Christophe; without his music and friendships, he would not be able to endure the hardships that he faces. The theme of the importance of friendship runs through the many volumes of JEAN-CHRISTOPHE; Olivier recalls Otto of so many years before. Christophe, however, realizes that he is a man alone; it is the man who counts only on his own efforts in life and does not lean on others who wins the author’s respect. Rolland does not moralize, but he makes his opinions clear. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is more than the romantic story of a struggling young musician; intellectual and moral beliefs play an important part in the narrative.
The account of the world of the arts, and particularly music, as no more than a great marketplace is superbly detailed. A better indictment of Philistinism has never been written. Christophe’s futile efforts to find an unmercenary musician or writer are poignantly described. The section of Christophe’s confrontation with the artistic establishment of Paris is well written, although at times it turns into a diatribe. The book is filled with many intellectual conversations about the arts, politics, science, and philosophy, as well as about psychology and human nature. Christophe is amazed and horrified, in particular, by French politics. The descriptions of Christophe’s first impressions of Paris and later efforts to succeed in the French capital are fascinating, filled with both humorous and pathetic details. Vast numbers of characters pass through the book, many only slightly touching Christophe’s life; this device stresses Christophe’s immersion in the world. He moves in a complex and real society, and he cannot retreat into isolation.
The frustrations and ultimate successes of the protagonist are detailed fully, but Christophe is one of those true artists who creates without hope of glory. Despite loneliness, illness, and poverty, Christophe is patient; he feels that suffering purifies the soul, a romantic notion that runs throughout the book. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is an immense achievement, perhaps somewhat dated in its romantic attitudes but nevertheless impressive.