Berlioz in Paris
96 rue de Richelieu and 1 rue Neuve Saint-Marc
Berlioz’s move from 58 rue de la Harpe to 96 rue de Richelieu is first attested in the composer’s correspondence in a letter dated 27 April 1828 (CG no. 81); it may have taken place not long before, though is not known exactly when. The change of address brought Berlioz for the first time to the rive droite and close to the heart of Paris: for example, the shop of the music publisher Maurice Schlesinger, much frequented by Berlioz, was opposite at no. 97, at the end of the street was the Café Le Cardinal, and the Salle Favart was within walking distance. Berlioz was to stay at the new address till the end of December 1830 and his departure for Italy. The address is last attested in a letter dated 4 December 1830 (CG no. 189bis [in vol. VIII]). The stay at rue de Richelieu coincided with a very productive period in Berlioz’s musical career: he wrote there, among other works, the Huit scènes de Faust and the Neuf Mélodies (later called Irlande) in 1829, the Symphonie fantastique and the overture on Shakespeare’s Tempest in 1830, as well as winning the Prix de Rome competition in the same year.
Rue de Richelieu was also to have special significance in Berlioz’s personal life. In September 1827 he had fallen in love with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson after witnessing performances of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon Theatre; when he moved to his new address he was unaware that she was at the time residing nearby with her mother. ‘By a stroke of fate, something she [Harriet] never believed, I had come to live at no. 96 rue de Richelieu, almost exactly facing the flat she occupied at the corner of [no. 1] rue Neuve-Saint-Marc’, he writes in the Memoirs (chapter 24). From the window of his flat, on the 4th (top) floor, Berlioz was able to witness day after day Harriet’s comings and goings. His letters give some glimpses of his torment as he sought, ultimately in vain, to approach the actress through intermediaries and make an impression on her (CG nos. 102, 111, 113, 114, 117). Eventually, on 3 March 1829, she departed for Amsterdam, and a distracted Berlioz was able to watch the scene; a letter of the day before describes what he saw during the evening (CG no. 117; cf. Memoirs ch. 24):
[…] She has just put out her light, and soon will be asleep. […]
Her mother is still busy in her flat. I can hear the sound of masks under my windows; the movement of carriages shakes my windows and hers simultaneously. Tomorrow they will no longer be hers.
I will go out early; she is departing at noon. […]
As is well known, the story did not end with Harriet’s departure to Holland, nor with Berlioz’s departure to Italy at the end of the following year. He eventually returned from Italy to Paris on 7 November 1832, and a letter written that same day to a friend states cryptically: ‘I have just arrived. I am staying at rue Neuve-St-Marc, no. 1, in the former lodgings of H. Sm… How curious!…’ (CG no. 290, cf. 291 the day after). A passage in the Memoirs elucidates the context (chapter 44):
Since the flat I was occupying in rue de Richelieu before my departure from Rome was not available, a secret impulse drove me to seek one facing it, in the house previously occupied by miss Smithson (rue Neuve-Saint-Marc, no.1); I took up lodgings there. The next day I met the old lady who for a long time had been running the establishment. ‘Well’, I asked her, ‘what has happened to miss Smithson? Do you have any news of her?’ ‘But, Sir…’, she replied, ‘she is in Paris, she was even staying here a few days ago; she only left the flat you are now occupying the day before yesterday, to go and stay in rue de Rivoli. She is now directing an English theatre company which is starting its performances next week.’ I was struck dumb by this incredible coincidence and turn of events. I saw then that all resistance on my part was futile. For two years I had been without news of the fair Ophelia. I did not know whether she was in England, or in Scotland, or in America; and I was returning from Italy at precisely the moment when she was appearing again in Paris after her travels in northern Europe. And we had very nearly met in the same house, and I was occupying a flat which she had left the day before…
The sequel is told at length by Berlioz in the same chapter – how Harriet Smithson attended the concert he gave at the Conservatoire on 9th December 1832 and was introduced to Berlioz the next day. After several months they eventually married on 3 October 1833 at the British Embassy. After a short honeymoon in Vincennes (CG nos. 347-9, 351) the couple initially stayed at rue Neuve-St-Marc, but then moved in April 1834 to Montmartre, though they seemed to have continued to use the address at rue Neuve-St-Marc till at least June 1834 (cf. CG nos. 391, 400).
All the photographs reproduced on this page were taken by Michel Austin. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
Berlioz lived in the small flat on the left, top floor.
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