French Music and the Stage

Caroline Potter and Caroline Rae

French music has historically been associated with big theatrical productions. Jean-Baptiste Lully’s stage works composed for the court of Louis XIV were the multimedia extravaganzas of the age; Jean-Philippe Rameau’s operas and opéras-ballets are the glories of French music of the 18th century. By the 19th century, these spectacles had moved out of the court and into the public realm, and grand opera was the most prestigious musical genre for much of the century, with ballet an important element of the spectacle. In this period, French composers established their reputations primarily by composing opera.

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the construction of many important Paris venues, not least the Palais Garnier, home of the Opéra de Paris, with its grand sweeping staircase. The building is graced by images of great French musicians of the past and (then) present – and, just below the roofline, there is a frieze adorned with ‘N’ for Napoleon wreathed in laurels; this was imperial French national pride at its peak. The Palais Garnier, which now seats 1,750, opened in 1875 and is still used as a venue for opera and ballet; indeed, it was the venue for the première of Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise (1983). While the idea for a new Paris opera house was mooted soon after the opening of the Palais Garnier, the modern Opéra Bastille was not inaugurated until 1989.

Other stage genres have their own venues. The Opéra-Comique was confusingly not specifically a venue for comic opera, but for opera with spoken dialogue; its current Paris home is the 1,250-seat Salle Favart, which was opened in 1898. Even the spoken dialogue requirement was relaxed by the 20th century: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was premièred at this venue. This smaller house was considered the perfect venue for contemporary opera, including Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1907), which like Pelléas et Mélisande had a libretto by Maeterlinck, Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole (1911) and Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot (1927). Most of its repertoire, however, comprised popular works such as Bizet’s Carmen, which had been premièred in the Opéra-Comique in 1875.

Ballet and other stage spectacles found a 20th-century home in spaces including the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Théâtre du Châtelet, both of which are still working theatres. And more popular revue entertainment could be found at the Folies Bergère, the location of Josephine Baker’s spectacularly successful Revue nègre after its début at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1925. All these venues naturally offered employment opportunities to musicians, including the young Pierre Boulez who was the Folies Bergère house pianist in the late 1940s.

The first half of the 20th century was a highly collaborative age and Paris was a promised land for the many artists who emigrated there, especially Russians, Spaniards and North and Latin Americans. The city became a melting pot of the literary, artistic, musical and dance avant-garde, and Paris audiences were, for the most part, willing to be surprised and challenged by the new and the exotic. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes are the most celebrated of the international visitors who attracted the leading avant-garde artists as collaborators. Diaghilev was an impresario, a man who was not a musician, not an artist, not a dancer and not even a rich man, but according to one source he could ‘charm a corpse’. His early involvement with the journal World of Art led to a position with the St Petersburg Imperial Theatre, which opened the door for his artist friends to collaborate on stage works. Diaghilev organised an exhibition of Russian art that toured to the Petit Palais in 1906, his first connection with the French capital. This led to an orchestral residency in the city and in 1908 he brought Boris Godunov to the Opéra de Paris, with Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. From 1909, ballet productions became the mainstay of Diaghilev’s season. Some of their productions were of the old-style variety – a potpourri of dance numbers by different composers strung together under a generic title (such as Les Orientales) – but they are remembered now for their innovative works where a ballet is a total work of art, with costumes, lighting, stage design, music and scenario all contributing to the overall artistic concept. For the Ballets Russes, ballet was no longer a purely decorative artistic spectacle but one of the most adventurous of all art forms.  

The company is best remembered for Stravinsky’s three major early ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), but they did not simply repeat this winning formula and moved away from Russian-themed works. Non-Russian composers, including Debussy, Ravel, Satie and Falla, were commissioned and a flamenco show was a highlight of the 1921 season. Milhaud’s Le train bleu (1924) featured a huge curtain by Picasso and innovative, sporty jersey costumes by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, which were a world away from the exotic colourful Firebird outfits. The company toured incessantly, trying to keep one step ahead of their creditors, though never in Russia; the 1917 Revolution meant that Diaghilev would never return to his homeland.

The Ballets Russes had competition from another imported company, the Ballets Suédois, who were active in Paris from 1920-25. Their director, Rolf de Maré, was an art collector and (unlike Diaghilev) wealthy; he secured the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for his company by buying it. Like the Ballets Russes, the Ballets Suédois brought together cutting-edge composers, writers, set and costume designers and choreographers, and there was some overlap in their list of collaborators. The Ballets Suédois worked with members of Les Six and other contemporary composers based in Paris, including Prokofiev, though sadly no attempts were made to revive the company or their commissions after their dissolution in 1925. One of their most successful ballets was Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923), by the all-female team of the designer Hélène Perdriat and composer Germaine Tailleferre, which received 93 performances. 

More experimental productions included Cocteau’s work with five of Les Six, Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921), for which Cocteau finally realised his ambition of incorporating text in a ballet performance. The two narrators speak through megaphones, commentating on a surreal wedding party including a lion jumping out of a camera; while the gramophone and radio broadcasts were not new in the early 1920s, the idea of a concealed voice was still novel. Milhaud’s Afro-American, blues-inspired La création du monde (1923) was another unusual production. Billed as a ballet nègre, Blaise Cendrars’s scenario concerned an imagined black-African creation myth. The dancer and choreographer Jean Börlin also worked on Milhaud’s L’Homme et son désir (1920) and a revival of Debussy’s Jeux (1920) as well as productions of Albéniz’s Ibéria (1920) and Honegger’s Skating Rink (1922) in which the endless rounds of the rink were intended as a metaphor for the drudgery of life and sexual frustration. 

Relâche (the title means ‘no performance’) was one of the last Ballets Suédois productions, a collaboration between Francis Picabia and Erik Satie that incorporated a film interlude, Entr’acte, by René Clair. (Picabia and Satie appear in the first scene of the film, inspecting cannon fodder and jumping around on the roof of a Paris department store.) One hopes that the audience followed the creators’ advice to wear sunglasses to the performance, as the mirrored backdrop of the stage would have literally dazzled them when the spotlight shone on it. The dancers were apparently naked (though they were wearing body stockings) and Picabia and Satie greeted their public by driving on stage in a miniature Citroën car. It is hardly surprising that Satie’s final work provoked perhaps the biggest press scandal of his career. 

Paris also witnessed pioneering dancers from a dizzying variety of backgrounds and artistic traditions, starting with an American in Paris, Loïe Fuller. Her scarf dance was performed at venues including the Folies Bergère in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She also experimented with lighting effects and her dance was captured on film by the Lumière brothers as early as 1896. The composer Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) was written for Loïe Fuller and later performed by the Ballets Russes. Other artists collaborated with composers: the Canadian Maud Allan, who was notorious for her Salomé ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ which came to Paris in 1907, worked with Debussy on the ballet Khamma, which was orchestrated by Charles Koechlin in 1913 though never performed in Debussy’s lifetime. Valentine de Saint-Point, a descendant of the great poet Alphonse de Lamartine, devised métachorie, a concept unifying movement, music and words, collaborating with Satie on Les Pantins dansent (1913), which was performed in both Paris and New York. And Isadora Duncan, a ‘free dancer’ who was famed for performing barefoot in flowing Greek-style tunics, is immortalised in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées: there are carvings of her image in bas-relief over the entrance, and she is one of the nine Muses on an interior mural painted by Maurice Denis. 

A former Ballets Russes dancer, Ida Rubinstein was behind some of the most celebrated Parisian stage works of the period. She left Diaghilev’s company in 1911 to found her own troupe, and was renowned more for her stage presence and great beauty than her dancing ability. Rubinstein worked with Debussy, the writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst and choreographer Mikhail Fokine on Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (1911), and several years later commissioned Ravel’s Boléro (1928) and choreographed La valse (1929). Ravel and Rubinstein must have been an intriguing sight in Paris – she was a foot taller than him. Many of her collaborations were multimedia works that are difficult to label with a specific genre, not least Honegger’s ‘dramatic oratorio’ Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1938), which has singing and speaking roles, a children’s chorus and one of the first parts for ondes Martenot (an instrument played by its inventor at the première in Basel). 

Like many dramatists of the first half of the 20th century, French composers were often attracted to classical themes. These themes, however, were not always treated as multi-act epics: Milhaud’s three Opéras-minutes (1927–28) are drawn from classic myths including the abduction of Europa (L’enlèvement d’Europe), though none of them is more than ten minutes long. Milhaud also composed a series of miniature symphonies for chamber forces lasting only a few minutes – but his epic opera Christophe Colomb (1928) showed that this most prolific composer was also supremely versatile. 

The World War Two Occupation of Paris saw a huge Nazi banner hanging above the Opéra Garnier grand staircase, as if Parisians needed reminding who was in charge. While Wagner was a mainstay of the programmes, Nazi censorship of musical works was flawed. Honegger’s oratorio Judith (1925), in which the chorus sings the words ‘Israël revivra’, was performed at the Opéra during the Occupation, as was Poulenc’s ballet Les animaux modèles (1940-41), which features the popular song ‘Non, vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine’ (‘No, you will not have Alsace and Lorraine’) as an inner part towards the end of the score. Jolivet’s ballet Guignol et Pandore (1944) was also one of the rare French works premièred at the Opéra during the Occupation; the composer became director of the Comédie-Française in 1945.

Poulenc’s encounter with the light soprano Denise Duval resulted in a series of song cycles and stage works inspired by her voice. She created the title role of Les mamelles de Tirésias (1945), which in one sense was a throwback to his youth, a setting of a play by Apollinaire written in 1917, though the topic also resonated with pro-natal policies post-World War Two. It was one of few contemporary works to be premièred after the war at the Opéra-Comique, and indeed Poulenc is one of few composers active after the 1950s whose operas are still in the repertoire. Composers after 1950 showed little interest in conventional opera, many, such as Claude Prey, Maurice Ohana and Georges Aperghis, preferring more flexible music theatre works. And it is likely that Dutilleux was not the only French composer to feel inhibited by the illustrious past of French opera: he once said that Debussy’s solution to the ‘problem’ of sung conversation in Pelléas et Mélisande was an ideal that could never be surpassed.

Further Reading