Carvalho and Berlioz: Les Troyens
Selected letters of Berlioz, 1856-1863
This page is also available in French
See also The Première of Les Troyens in November 1863
Compared to Paris’ other opera houses — notably the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre-Italien — the Théâtre-Lyrique was a relative late-comer to the scene: its beginning can be traced to the foundation on 15 November 1847 of a new opera company by the composer Adolphe Adam. Initially it was given the name of ‘Opéra-National’. The theatre was housed in what had been the Cirque Olympique on Boulevard du Temple (the venue that Berlioz had used for a series of concerts in the early months of 1845). Its declared purpose was to stage productions of French operas written in a lighter and popular style that appealed to a predominantly working-class audience, and to give an opening to younger composers who found it difficult or impossible to have their works performed by the Opéra or the Opéra-Comique.
From the start the Opéra-National was sometimes referred to informally as Paris’ ‘troisième théâtre-lyrique’ or third lyric theatre, as by Berlioz himself in his retrospect over its antecedents in the Journal des Débats (30 September 1851), or in the detailed notice that the weekly Le Ménestrel published to announce the new theatre (7 November 1847):
This is the third lyric theatre as it presents itself to the public and to young composers for whom it will become their cradle. [...] Far from providing premeditated competition to the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, it will become the true artistic nursery of all the theatres in France.
In practice the new theatre was very short-lived, and within a few months fell victim to the upheavals caused by the revolutions of 1848 (cf. Berlioz in Journal des Débats, 26 July 1848). But a few years later the project was revived, under new management but in the same venue, and this time successfully: the new incarnation of the Opéra-National was inaugurated on 27 September 1851. Le Ménestrel (5 October 1851) gave a detailed and positive review of its opening production, which in its view vindicated the creation of a ‘troisième théâtre-lyrique’ to supplement the Opéra and Opéra-Comique. By contrast Berlioz’s report on the event was much more critical and characteristically ironical (Journal des Débats, 30 September 1851). He subsequently reviewed two further productions at the Opéra-National (Débats 13 January and 21 February 1852). At this point the Opéra-National decided to change its name: in April 1852 it now became the ‘Théâtre-Lyrique’ (Le Ménestrel, 25 April 1852) and thereafter this was the name by which it was known. Henceforward that is how Berlioz referred to it in the many feuilletons in which he reviewed its numerous productions (first in Débats, 2-3 November 1852).
In private Berlioz had a low opinion of the theatre: ‘As to the third so-called lyric theatre, it is a musical sewer to which all the donkeys of Paris come to piss’, he writes in a letter of 8 February 1853 (CG no. 1563). In his public pronouncements in the Journal des Débats he was more polite but nevertheless frequently scathing. The feuilleton of 7 January 1853 is a lengthy tirade against the theatre’s shortcomings. Elsewhere he describes it sarcastically as ‘This essential theatre, this Lyric-Theatre, this theatre for music anybody can understand, this theatre of first necessity’ (6 September 1853), ‘This Hercules that is called the Théâtre-Lyrique’ (31 December 1855). ‘At the Théâtre-Lyrique beautiful performances are a rarity’ (2 October 1855).
A change for the better in both standards of performance and repertoire came early in 1856 with the appointment of a new director in replacement of M. Pellegrin who had resigned (announcement in Le Ménestrel of 24 February 1856). The new director, Léon Carvalho (1825-1897), had studied at the Conservatoire, and started his career as a baritone before becoming a theatre manager; he sang at the Opéra-Comique, where he met the singer Marie Miolan whom he married in 1853 (she is frequently mentioned in Berlioz’s feuilletons from 1850 onwards, first as Mlle Miolan, then as Mme Miolan-Carvalho or Mme Carvalho). Carvalho was to remain in charge of the Théâtre-Lyrique from 1856 to 1868, with a two-year interruption between April 1860 and October 1862 (see below). In a feuilleton of 29 March 1856 Berlioz immediately noted the difference brought about by the new director:
The Théâtre-Lyrique is now on the way to success. The impulse it has received from its new director is energetic and well-aimed. There is an improvement in the standards of musical performance, both the ensemble and the details of productions seem to show greater care.
He then goes on to urge the theatre not only to continue to improve its standards, but to become much more discriminating in its choice of repertoire. That is precisely the course that Carvalho was to follow over the coming years: as well as continuing to perform light operas with a popular appeal, the Théâtre-Lyrique promoted young French composers of merit, such as Gounod (his Faust, for example, was premièred there in March 1859), and also staged neglected classics from established masters: Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven and Weber.
Carvalho’s reputation has greatly suffered at the hands of Berlioz himself. Thanks to the Postface of the Mémoires, where Berlioz relates at length the history of the performances of Les Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique in November and December 1863, Carvalho is primarily remembered as the director who staged a mutilated and inadequate version of Berlioz’s great work, amputated of the first two of its five acts, with numerous cuts, under-rehearsed and rather cheaply produced. The rest of the Mémoires do not correct this negative presentation: the only other mention of Carvalho is in a rather cryptic footnote to chapter 59 (n. 5). Berlioz relates there how Carvalho once promised him a libretto for an opera to be performed at his theatre, but subsequently forgot his promise entirely (no precise date is given, except that it must have come after Carvalho’s appointment at the Théâtre-Lyrique in February 1856).
Berlioz did indeed have serious doubts about Carvalho, as shown by two letters years apart, one addressed to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein and dated 24 March 1857, that is long before there was any question of staging Les Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique (CG no. 2219), the other to his son Louis dated 3 or 4 May 1864, after the performances of Les Troyens (CG no. 2855). But it should be said that the presentation of the Mémoires, which is taken by many as a starting point, gives in fact an incomplete view of Berlioz’s estimate of Carvalho, whether in relation to his work in general at the Théâtre-Lyrique, or specifically concerning his production of Les Troyens in 1863. When the Mémoires were published posthumously in 1870, Carvalho was reportedly hurt at how he had been presented, understandably so. But against the evidence of the Mémoires should be set numerous passages from Berlioz’s other writings — his correspondence and his feuilletons — which give a much more positive estimate of Carvalho, including his production of Les Troyens.
Between 1856 and 1863 Berlioz reviewed many of Carvalho’s productions at the Théâtre-Lyrique in the Journal des Débats; his very last feuilleton was of a performance there of a new work, Bizet’s Pêcheurs de perles (8 October 1863). The tone of his reviews is predominantly complimentary. Reviewing the highly successful la Reine Topaze, Berlioz commented ‘The Théâtre-Lyrique is being rejuvenated, and if it continues we will soon be able to witness its complete transformation’ (31 December 1856). The previous month he reported that ‘M. Carvalho is preparing several works of great importance for which various improvements in the musical personnel will be made’ (15 November 1856). Some of these reviews Berlioz judged important enough to be included in 1862 in his volume of essays A Travers Chants: the production of Weber’s Oberon (‘the most important musical event to be noticed in Paris for many years’ — 6 March 1857) and Abu Hassan, also by Weber (19 May 1859), Beethoven’s Fidelio (19 May and 22 May 1860), and perhaps most important for Berlioz the celebrated production of Gluck’s Orphée in November 1859 with Pauline Viardot in the title role (22 November and 9 December 1859). The initiative for this undertaking belonged to Carvalho himself, and Berlioz, the acknowledged Gluck expert of his time, was invited to play a very active part as artistic adviser (he had previously advised Carvalho on the production of Weber’s Oberon in 1857).
It should be pointed out at this stage that Carvalho’s achievements with the Théâtre-Lyrique were carried out entirely with the theatre’s own limited resources: down to 1863 the Théâtre-Lyrique, unlike the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, did not enjoy the security of a state subsidy and thus had to rely solely on the receipts from its productions. As early as January 1853 Berlioz, who had long believed that the state had a duty to support the arts, had called for a subsidy to be given to the theatre, but it would take another decade before this happened.
Carvalho’s interest in new music extended to that of Berlioz himself. Late in 1856 he was reportedly planning to stage Benvenuto Cellini the following year; the work had been revived by Liszt in Weimar in 1852 then again in 1856. The new production would have involved some changes to the work and the use of spoken dialogue; Carvalho insisted that Berlioz keep the plan secret. Whatever his motives, it seems that it was Carvalho who took the initiative, and not Berlioz himself. In the end the plan failed to materialise, through lack of time as well as the departure of the tenor whom Berlioz had intended for the title role (CG nos. 2178, 2183, 2195, 2209).
In the same year 1856, after considerable hesitation over a long period of time, Berlioz was finally persuaded by Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein in Weimar to start work on his large five-act opera Les Troyens. His hesitation was based on well-founded doubts as to whether the work could ever be performed in Paris exactly as he conceived it. There was only one theatre in France large enough and with sufficient resources to stage adequately his work: the Paris Opéra. But Berlioz’s relations with the Opéra had long been difficult, ever since the failure of his opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838; as a music critic he did not pull any punches in his feuilletons, and his frankness made him many enemies. For example, in a feuilleton reviewing critically a reprise of Spontini’s La Vestale at the Opéra he declared that lyric theatres were ‘music’s places of ill-repute, and the chaste muse that is dragged there can only shudder as she enters’ (Journal des Débats, 21 March 1854). Great works, he insisted, can only be adequately performed if their author, or a musician of comparable authority, has total control over the entire production and is not prepared to accept any compromise. ‘Failing this condition there will be nothing but incomplete results, distortions, disorder and cacophony’. Berlioz was probably thinking of the fate that might await the opera he had been planning to write for years.
The story of how Les Troyens — or rather a substantial part of the work but not the whole — came to be staged in Paris is long and complicated. Two theatres came under consideration for the work’s performance, at first the Opéra, then from the autumn of 1859 the Théâtre-Lyrique, but in both cases matters were to prove anything but straightforward. The following gives a chronological outline of the main steps, with reference to excerpts from Berlioz’s correspondence, the most important source of information.
It so happened that just as Berlioz was starting to compose Les Troyens a new director was appointed at the Opéra (1 July 1856). This was Alphonse Royer (1803-1875), who had a career as writer and librettist before he was put in charge of the Opéra; he is frequently mentioned as a librettist in Berlioz’s feuilletons, and in 1847 when Berlioz was appointed conductor at Drury Lane theatre in London, his contract stipulated that he would write an opera on a libretto by Royer and Vaës (the opera was in fact never written). From Berlioz’s point of view Royer’s appointment was a bad omen: in a letter dated 28 March 1858 and addressed to the emperor Napoleon III (but not actually sent) Berlioz writes: ‘The Opéra is at the moment under the direction of one of my former friends [Alphonse Royer], who has the strangest ideas about my musical style — a style he has never got to know and which he is unable to appreciate’. Letters of 1856 add detail to this view (CG nos. 2170, 2181). Berlioz had so little trust in Royer’s musical judgement that until at least March 1859 he refused even to mention to Royer the existence of Les Troyens (CG nos. 2338, 2341, 2363).
Given this dilemma Berlioz had to find ways around the obstacle. He had made the decision at the outset to write the poem (or libretto) of the work before composing the music (CG nos. 2132, 2145). After completing the poem, and while working on the score, Berlioz started to publicise his work and get it known and talked about, in the hope of bringing pressure on the Opéra. The first to be sent a copy of the poem, at the end of June 1856, was appropriately Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, who commented on it at great length (CG nos. 2150, 2163, 2165, 2168). Soon after Berlioz started reading the poem to others as well (CG nos. 2164 [P.S.], 2170). On 4 March 1857 he gave a reading of the poem (without any music) before an audience consisting of the staff of the Journal des Débats and other guests, which was a success (CG no. 2214). He repeated the experiment on many occasions subsequently (see for example CG nos. 2274, 2279). At the same time as he started readings of the poem before selected audiences, Berlioz also sought to use his position as an academician (he was elected to the Institut on 21 June 1856, soon after he started working on Les Troyens). As a member of that prestigious official body he now had easier access to the imperial court and tried to interest the emperor and empress in his work, and thus prompt them to intervene to influence the Opéra (CG nos. 2219, 2222, 2235, 2256, 2275, 2277, 2279, 2292, 2293, 2299, 2334). But the emperor, besides his numerous preoccupations, had no time for music, unlike some of the cultured princes and kings whom Berlioz had met in his travels in Germany (CG no. 2857). Nevertheless, thanks to Berlioz’s efforts, there was growing talk in late 1858 and early 1859 that the Opéra might get interested in Les Troyens, though there was as yet no commitment on its part to take any action (CG nos. 2338, 2341, 2363).
It was at this point that a new development took place. In September 1859, while preparations for Gluck’s Orphée were in progress at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Carvalho asked Berlioz to let him read the libretto of Les Troyens, the full score of which was now nearing completion. Carvalho was impressed and offered without delay to stage the work at his theatre (CG nos. 2404, 2405, 2406, 2407, 2416, 2436); this led to a formal contract signed between Berlioz and Carvalho early in 1860 (CG nos. 2452, 2462, 2472). The plan was to perform the work at the inauguration of the new Théâtre-Lyrique which was to be built on Place du Châtelet on the banks of the Seine, to replace the old venue at Boulevard du Temple which was due to be demolished. The new theatre was to be larger than its predecessor, and Berlioz interceded with Baron Haussmann, the Préfet de la Seine, so that more land would be assigned for its construction (CG nos. 2474, 2475). Predictably the new theatre took longer to build than initially envisaged, which set the whole project back by many months.
Then came an unexpected twist: without warning or explanation Carvalho suddenly resigned as director on 1st April 1860 (Le Ménestrel, 8 April 1860, p. 149; CG no. 2494). His successor Charles Réty (1826-1895) assured Berlioz that the existing contract would be honoured (CG no. 2500), but the new director was clearly out of his depth and incapable of managing the theatre successfully; Berlioz now regretted the departure of Carvalho (CG nos. 2516, 2519, 2522, 2524, 2526). Finally, towards the end of April 1861, Berlioz formally withdrew Les Troyens from the Théâtre-Lyrique, as is shown by a letter of Charles Réty to Édouard Alexandre (NL p. 563-4; the letter is dated 3 May); Alexandre was a friend and supporter of Berlioz who had offered to support financially the production of Les Troyens (CG nos. 2405, 2407, 2436, 2519, 2524). Once more Berlioz had to place his hopes on the Opéra.
While Berlioz was awaiting the outcome of the offer from Carvalho, and then from his successor Réty, relations with Alphonse Royer seemed to be slowly thawing, though they are difficult to follow with any precision, as the few allusions in Berlioz’s correspondence are anything but clear. Their first attested contact came in October 1860 at the initiative of Royer, but it is quite obscure what was in his mind at the time (CG no. 2421). A rumour in December 1859 that Royer might be replaced as director of the Opéra by someone more sympathetic to Berlioz and his music proved unfounded (CG nos. 2441, 2442). Months later a letter of Berlioz to his son Louis of June 1860 states casually: ‘The director of the Opéra [Royer] is making me a preposterous offer for Les Troyens; I sent him to the devil’ (NL p. 550). This is the first known mention of Les Troyens to come from Royer; but whatever the nature of this ‘preposterous offer’ Berlioz was not convinced, and until the beginning of 1861 he continued to look to the Théâtre-Lyrique for the staging of Les Troyens, though with increasing scepticism (CG no. 2526). Early in February 1861 he now approached Count Walewski, the Minister of State who was all powerful at the Opéra, to try to interest him in Les Troyens (CG no. 2534). There was no immediate result, yet within the next few months the ground shifted considerably: towards the end of April Berlioz withdrew Les Troyens from the Théâtre-Lyrique (above), as though he could now look forward to an alternative. By late May he could report that Royer was now very favourably disposed (CG no. 2551ter), and early in June he announced that Les Troyens had been formally accepted for performance by the Opéra (CG nos. 2554, 2555, 2557; see also the letter of 22 June of Marie Recio-Berlioz).
In practice the matter was anything but settled: Les Troyens were placed in a queue behind two other operas, by Gounod and Gevaert, which in fact were not yet written. It is also clear from a manuscript note of Alphonse Royer to the general secretary of the Opéra that Royer had every intention of making drastic cuts to the work, and that he did not envisage a performance in the near future (NL p. 567; 8 June 1861). The opera by Gounod was eventually performed at the end of February 1862 but fell flat; it was reviewed by Berlioz (Journal des Débats, 8 March 1862), who privately regarded the work as a complete failure (CG no. 2596). The result was to paralyse the management of the Opéra which was reluctant to take any further risks (CG nos. 2608, 2677).
In the meantime the construction of the new Théâtre-Lyrique at Place du Châtelet proceeded and was eventually completed, but in October 1862 as it was about to be inaugurated Réty resigned and Carvalho was reinstated as its director (Le Ménestrel, 12 October 1862, pp. 365 & 366). The change was openly welcomed by Berlioz (Journal des Débats, 29 October 1862: ‘The destinies of the Théâtre-Lyrique have been once again entrusted to the capable hands of M. Carvalho. He is a man of action, intelligence and daring, full of fire and verve in carrying out what he undertakes’). A week later Berlioz reported on the inauguration of the new theatre which he described in positive terms: ‘The exterior of this theatre seems to me quite beautiful, it is even more beautiful inside, elegant, splendid, decorated with taste, and what interests me more, with a good acoustic that is neither too dry nor too shrill’. And once again Berlioz called for a state subsidy to be granted to the theatre (Débats, 6 November 1862).
On his return to the Théâtre-Lyrique Carvalho lost no time in reviving his old project to stage Les Troyens. He also toyed with the alternative idea of doing Béatrice et Bénédict (which had been premièred in August at Baden-Baden), but Berlioz was initially very cool (CG nos. 2669, 2677). Berlioz wanted to give the Opéra one last chance, though after months of drift it was thrown into further confusion by the resignation of Alphonse Royer in December 1862. Berlioz wrote to the new director Èmile Perrin urging him to acquaint himself again with the poem of Les Troyens (CG no. 2687, 10 January 1863). Early in February he gave the Opéra an ultimatum till the middle of the month (CG nos. 2694, 2695), and before the month was over he finally gave up on the Opéra and accepted the proposal of Carvalho: Les Troyens would be staged at the Théâtre-Lyrique during 1863 (CG no. 2697).
The preparations that followed and the performances of the work in November and December are covered in detail in the page on the Première of Les Troyens, to which the reader is referred.
As mentioned above, Berlioz’s account of the whole episode in the Postface of his Mémoires does less than justice to Carvalho. It is pleasant to record that after the event Berlioz was prepared to present a much more positive case for the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique. In 1862 the Grand-Duke of Weimar had interceded (unsuccessfully) with the emperor Napoleon III to urge that Les Troyens be staged at the Opéra; in a letter to the Grand-Duke dated 12 May 1864, Berlioz writes (CG no. 2857; see also the full text of this letter):
[...] My work [Les Troyens] was performed in these circumstances [at the Théâtre-Lyrique], and the efforts and daring of M. Carvalho succeeded in bringing about what your Highness would have liked to obtain for me in full from the administration of the imperial academy [the Opéra]. [...] M. Carvalho thus demonstrated once more that he was an artist; he has staged in his theatre the masterpieces of Gluck, Mozart, Weber, and Beethoven which were nowhere to be heard in Paris, and without him my great score would to this day remain completely unknown. I cannot refrain from bringing this to your attention, and should your Highness think it appropriate to bestow an honorific distinction on a theatre director, there is, I believe, no one in Europe who is more worthy of it and who would be more delighted than M. Carvalho. [...]
Carvalho remained in charge of the Théâtre-Lyrique till 1868. He later became director of the Opéra-Comique in 1876, a post he retained with one interruption till his death in 1897. In 1886 he appeared to be taking up the cause of Berlioz once more, this time with a plan to stage Benvenuto Cellini, an idea he had toyed with 30 years earlier at the Théâtre-Lyrique (see above) and which may on this occasion have been suggested to him by Berlioz’s friend and champion Ernest Reyer. Preparations were begun and actively pursued, but the whole project was abruptly abandoned early in 1887, it is not clear why, and Benvenuto Cellini had to wait till 1913 to be staged in Paris for the first time since its unsuccessful launch in 1838.
Carvalho died on 29 December 1897. A sympathetic obituary from the weekly Le Ménestrel (2 January 1898) is reproduced in the original on the French version of this page.
CG = Correspondance générale (1972-2003)
NL = Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporains (2016)
To Auguste Morel (CG no. 2170; 9 September)
[...] Has your opera progressed?
I am working exclusively on mine [les Troyens], but without saying anything about it to A. Royer, who like all the other directors of the Opéra, is a Hottentot as far as music is concerned. He regards me as a great symphonist who cannot and must not write anything but symphonies and who does not know how to write for voices. He has heard neither Faust nor l’Enfance du Christ, he knows nothing on the subject, but it is nevertheless for him a fixed idea. He said this recently to one of my friends. In any case I was perfectly sure of this in advance; I knew his ideas on music. [...]
In the meantime let me confess to you that the poem, which I have read to a number of people, is having considerable success. I believe that you will also find it beautiful. [...]
To his sister Adèle Suat (CG no. 2181; 26 October)
[...] I am unable to write my score quickly enough; I need an enormous, a disastrous amount of time. — I am worried about its future. — There are no suitable singers. — The Opéra is in the hands of the greatest enemies of my art. — The Emperor knows nothing and understands nothing. [...]
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2209; 13 February)
[...] The Théâtre-Lyrique is concluding its rehearsals for Oberon: I have no idea what they are going to do with Weber’s score. It is the intention of the director to stage Cellini after that; yet the season is advancing, the public’s rage for la Reine Topaze is not abating, the theatre brings its performances to a close at the end of May, and it seems to me that it would be unwise to risk this reprise around the middle or end of April, to see it then so quickly interrupted by the closing of the theatre. Besides, the tenor I was counting on [Tamberlick] has just broken his contract and departed for Rio de Janeiro [...]
To his sister Adèle Suat (CG no. 2214; 12 March)
[...] I recently [4 March] gave a solemn reading of Les Troyens at Ed. Bertin’s, the director of the Journal des Débats. Almost all our colleagues were present, together with several listeners who were not members of the staff. The success was very great; everyone seemed struck and almost terrified at the enormity of the composer’s task, at the force of those epic passions and the grandeur of this Virgilio-Shakespearian spectacle. [...]
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2219; 24 March)
[...] You say that we should support Carvalho and the Théâtre-Lyrique! Yes, that is what I am doing. But this is to give this director the idea of being what we would like him to be. Deep down that is not what he is... It is the same story with countless other things. There is nothing genuine in his pretence of having a feeling for serious music. Everything is vanity, lies and brittleness, as the song goes; I would add stupidity to the list. Carvalho is only a little less stupid than his colleagues.
I have heard the story about the construction of a new boulevard which would bring about the demolition of the Théâtre-Lyrique; but I do not know where or when the new hall that is to replace it will be built. [...]
To Franz Liszt (CG no. 2338; 13 December)
[...] The idea or at least the name of my opera Les Troyens is fermenting quietly at the Opéra; I am hearing rumours about this from every quarter. The Commission has been dealing with it; I had a long conversation on the subject with the Minister of State. And I persist in refusing to say anything about it to the director, and in believing that the performance of such a work is impossible by the singers who hold us under their sway at the moment. [...]
To Adolphe Samuel (CG no. 2341; 1 January)
[...] I will not answer your questions on Les Troyens; I do not have the strength to do it. The work has been discussed recently by the Commission for the Opéra; the Emperor seems to have recommended my work. I had a long conversation on the subject with the Minister of State. But I absolutely refuse to say anything about it to the director of the Opéra, whose strange pretensions to have musical taste are familiar to me.
The staging of Les Troyens will come when it is fitting for it to come, or it will not come. The work seems to me beautiful; the score was dictated at once by Virgil and by Shakespeare; have I understood my two masters correctly?... But in any case I will not bear to see it insulted by the cretins who at the moment are in power at the Opéra. [...]
To Auguste Morel (CG no. 2363; 18 March)
[...] I have a new champion for my opera, a very warm supporter; he is M. Véron [director of the Opéra, 1829-1835], who recently wanted to attend a reading of the poem and who says wonderful things about it everywhere. He declares that the fifth act is a masterpiece, and adds that if he was director he would spend 150,000 francs to stage it.
It is true that his words do not commit him to anything, but they are causing a sensation among the people at the Opéra. Little by little, little by little, will they be forced to come to the mountain?.. At any rate the mountain refuses to go to them. I have never said a word to Royer about my work and will never do so. [...]
To his son Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2404; 23 September)
[...] Carvalho is enthusiastic about my poem for Les Troyens, which I let him borrow. He would like to stage the work at his theatre, but how is this to be done? He does not have a tenor for Aeneas... Madame Viardot is offering to perform on her own both roles in succession; the Cassandra of the first two acts would thus become the Dido of the last three. I imagine the public would be prepared to accept this excentric arrangement, which besides is not without precedent. And my two roles would be performed in a heroic manner by this great artist.
This would be for next year and in a new theatre which is going to be built on Place du Châtelet, on the banks of the Seine. Let us wait. In the meantime there are many conversations going on on various sides with the people at the Opéra. [...]
To Pauline Viardot (CG no. 2405; 24 September)
[...] Carvalho has got carried away with Les Troyens of which he has read the libretto. More than ever he would like to stage the work at his new theatre; in addition my good friend [Édouard] Alexandre has offered to him, should he tackle this difficult enterprise with conviction, to make a contribution of up to 50,000 francs. I can see clearly that Carvalho has in mind to get his wife to play the part of Dido... It is no less clear that this is absurd. But can you imagine the wife of the director ever accepting that the new theatre is opened without her and inaugurated with a vast work in which she did not play a part?... A few people, to whom I submitted our idea of having the two roles played by yourself, were telling me the day before yesterday that this bold experiment would be easily accepted by the public. I do believe this; though this might be stretching plausibility a little, it would always be preferable to have a heroic performance by a great artist, complete, stirring and inspired, than... [...]
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2406; 25 September)
[...] The Opéra is deaf, as everyone knows; but another theatre is about to rise, the theatre of the Imperial Prince; the city of Paris is going to build it near Place du Châtelet on the banks of the Seine, to compensate Carvalho for his Théâtre-Lyrique which has to be demolished. Now this same Carvalho wanted to read the story of Les Troyens, and he says he finds it superb, and intends to stage it for the opening of the new theatre. The problem is now to find singers. He had a nice tenor, but the Minister of State has just abducted him for the Opéra. And where to find the Dido? Mme Viardot would be an outstanding Cassandra... Let us be patient, as we always must! [...]
To his sister Adèle Suat (CG no. 2407; 29 September)
[...] Much talk on the subject of Les Troyens... There are proposals from Carvalho for his new theatre, which the city of Paris is going to build for him, and which he would like to inaugurate next year with my work. But he has the crazy idea of giving the role of Dido to his wife, something I will never accept. Can you imagine Mme Carvalho as the Queen of Carthage? As Eugène Delacroix was telling me the day before yesterday, ‘Dido sung by a tit!’ A typical idea for a director, or a husband!
Besides my friend Alexandre, the organ-builder, has offered Carvalho 50,000 francs to help with the staging of Les Troyens. That is a lot, but where can one find a Dido, or an Aeneas?... As for Cassandra Mme Viardot has taken possession of the role at Baden-Baden in such a way as to discourage others; she would be sublime in the part, and is dreaming of nothing else! I had brought her the whole part the other day at her country house, we studied it together, and she discovered there scenes far more grandiose and moving that the one she knew. Yes, but we need Dido, we need Aeneas... Let us be patient.
To his uncle Félix Marmion (CG no. 2416; 17 October)
[...] As for Les Troyens they are talked about more and more; the success scored by the two scenes performed at Baden-Baden has had an immense impact. But the seeming hostility and inertia of the director of the Opéra is a reality. [...] The director of the Théâtre-Lyrique would like to risk staging Les Troyens at the new theatre which is going to be built for him next year. He professes to be enthusiastic about the poem. But he does not have a tenor capable of singing Aeneas, and he has the incredible idea of having Dido sung by his wife (a warbler). Nothing can be done in these circumstances. In the meantime I keep polishing and repolishing the score, to make it as little unworthy as possible of the Virgilian poetry which so intoxicated me. [...]
To Auguste Morel (CG no. 2421; 26 October)
[...] Royer wrote to me the other day a very odd kind of letter, to which I replied with a very odd kind of frankness. Yesterday he started again under the pretext of asking me for an autograph: I sent the autograph with six words. So many buffoons!
Greetings to Lecourt.
The day before yesterday there was a great evening party at Mme Viardot’s; she sang for me several scenes from Les Troyens, among them that from the fifth act where Dido makes her farewell to life. I had never heard this and was overwhelmed. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2436; 21 November)
[...] The director of the Théâtre-Lyrique would like to stage Les Troyens for the opening of his new theatre, if the construction is completed next year. But one has to find Aeneas and Cassandra and Anna. For all her enthusiasm and prodigious talent Mme Viardot cannot do everything.
All my friends are urging me to accept the Théâtre-Lyrique... But will it be capable of such an effort? I have a dedicated supporter who is offering to lend 50,000 francs to Carvalho to help him in this enterprise.
So constant patience, and also caution. [...]
To his brother in law Marc Suat (CG no. 2452; 24 December)
[...] Yes, Les Troyens will perhaps be performed in a year’s time. I was notified yesterday that the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique is going to draw up the contract in which he will commit himself not to open his new theatre with anything but my work.
It is now a matter of completing the construction of the theatre as quickly as possible, and obtaining enough land from the city of Paris to make sure the new Théâtre-Lyrique is a little larger than the one which still exists. Without this condition it would be impossible for us to deploy there my huge musical machine.
In the meantime I busy myself polishing and repolishing my score; I have just written the dance movements which had been left aside. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2462; 11 January)
[...] I am going to sign a contract with Carvalho one of these days. He is undertaking to stage my opera Les Troyens in his new Théâtre-Lyrique, which the city of Paris is going to build for him.. [...]
To Adolphe Samuel (CG no. 2472; 29 January)
[...] I have signed a contract with Carvalho, in which he undertakes to stage my opera Les Troyens in his new theatre as soon as it is built. This means I have another two years to wait. In the meantime I am touching up the details of my score, I am making the style simpler and clearer... [...]
To Auguste Morel (CG no. 2494; no. 4 April)
[...] Carvalho is no longer director of the Théâtre-Lyrique. His successor is young Réty, who does not have the experience of theatres necessary for such a position. Nobody can make any sense of this. [...]
To his brother in law Marc Suat (CG no. 2500; end April)
[...] The change of management at the Théâtre-Lyrique does not so far make any difference to the state of my affairs; the new director is very well disposed towards me and will honour the commitments of his predecessor. But the outlook is so very confused, there are so many uncertainties to face... and I do not have any physical and moral energy left. [...]
To his son Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2516; 23 October)
[...] Nothing new for Les Troyens, except that the Théâtre-Lyrique is getting ever closer to ruin, while its new theatre is being built. I wish the catastrophe had already taken place; this would mean a new management, less accident-prone and clumsy than the present one. [...]
To Camille Pal (CG no. 2519; early November)
[...] Les Troyens are still waiting, their new theatre is slowly rising... The newspapers frequently mention the subject, particularly since it has become known that one of my supporters [Alexandre] had gone to see the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique and tell him that in order to help him stage the work in a worthy manner, he would lend him 50,000 francs whenever he wanted. The story is going around, but while waiting for the new theatre the director is still on the verge of failure, he is unable to cover his costs and is at a loss what to do. Everything is in the clouds. [...]
To Peter Cornelius (CG no. 2522; 27 November)
[...] As to your wish to hear Les Troyens, I do not know when it can be fulfilled. It is true that the new theatre is being completed, but the management which is supposed to take charge is ruining itself, or rather is already ruined. Who will I be dealing with next year? All this is very obscure. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2524; 29 November)
[...] Concerning that great canoe which Robinson is unable to launch, let me tell you that the theatre where my work is due to be performed is being completed; but will I find the singers I need? That is the question. One of my friends went to see the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique (it is assumed that he will still be in charge next year) and told him that he was making 50,000 francs available on demand to help him stage adequately Les Troyens. That is a great deal, but it is not all. So many things are required for such a musical epic! [...]
To his son Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2526 with vol. VIII; 2 January)
[...] The Théâtre-Lyrique is still in rather bad shape. It is starting to withhold their salaries from the musicians. Réty is unlikely to hold on, and I wish Carvalho would come back. He would at least be more capable of staging Les Troyens than poor Réty; with a director such as Réty the rehearsals for the opera seem to me impossible. [...]
To Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2534; 14 February)
[...] This opera [Béatrice et Bénédict] will therefore be performed in Baden-Baden on the new theatre; but the fate of Les Troyens remains uncertain. I had a long conversation on this subject a week ago with the Minister of State [Count Walewski]; I told him about all the dirty tricks they have played on me. He asked me to get to know the poem, which I delivered to him the next day, and since then I have not had any news. There is growing public indignation at seeing me kept out of the Opéra while the protection of the lady ambassador of Austria is securing an easy entry for Wagner [his Tannhaüser]. [...]
To Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2551ter [NL p. 564-6]; 25 May)
[...] The business of Les Troyens is on the point of being concluded with the Opéra. I have had two conversations with Royer and he seems to be very favourably disposed.
He was insisting that the opera comprises 22 roles, and I had to prove to him with the manuscript in my hand that there are only 9; all the rest are choristers and walking-on parts. [...]
To Pauline Viardot (CG no. 2554; June)
[...] I have no personal reasons for being opposed [to the Opéra’s staging of Gluck’s Alceste], and I am surprised that you could have believed it. I am even only too happy that you have been signed up for the Opéra, which took place a few days after Royer had informed me that Les Troyens had been accepted. You see, I am resigned to be considered a madman and fanatic, but I love music more than I do my music, and all the outrages perpetrated against illustrious men of genius hurt me infinitely more than those that might be inflicted on myself. [...]
To Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2555, with added text in NL p. 566; 2 June)
[...] The decision has been made to admit Les Troyens at the Opéra. But Gounod and Gevaert come first ahead of me; this will take two years. Gounod pulled strings and walked over the body of Gevaert, who was due to be performed first. And neither of them is ready, whereas my work could begin rehearsals tomorrow. And Gounod cannot be performed earlier than March 1862.
My refusal to take part in the staging of Alceste is causing quite a stir and annoys many people.
They should stop playing games and wasting time and money to insult a masterpiece by Gluck, and would be better advised to stage Les Troyens straight away. [...]
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2557; ca. 10 June)
[...] I have often thought of you of late in connection with this great devil of a work that you made me write. It is now at last admitted to the Opéra, I have settled matters amicably with the Théâtre-Lyrique which would have collapsed under the burden. I now need to remain patient for another two years, because MM. Gounod and Gewaert come ahead in the queue for performances, and their operas are not completed. [...]
In the meantime the vocal score is being engraved, though not for publication as you seem to believe. It will be ready for publication, that is all. The poem has undergone a number of useful changes since I read it to you. The newspapers are making a great fuss about the work, and also about a hearing of a few scenes (with the music) which took place in M. Bertin’s salon. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2565; 6 July)
[...] Yes, Les Troyens are accepted at the Opéra by the Director, but the staging now depends on the Minister of State. Now Count Walewski, for all his past goodwill and graciousness towards me, is at the moment very displeased, because I refused to direct the rehearsals of Alceste at the Opéra. [...] I will only attend a few rehearsals and will give instructions to the producer, to prove to the minister that I am not being obstructive; the director believes that this token of goodwill will be enough to mollify Count Walewski’s displeasure. [...]
The problem and disadvantage with all these delays is that the work is acquiring in advance a reputation which might compromise its success. I have read the poem almost everywhere; two months ago excerpts from the score were performed at M. Bertin’s. This was much talked about. This worries me. [...]
I can assure you, dear friend, that the work is written in a good style, it is elevated and simple. I am talking of the musical style. [...]
At present, the question is who among the ladies of the Olympus of song will secure the role of Cassandra or of Dido; as for the roles of Aeneas and Coroebus I am being circumvented by tenors and baritones. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2579; 4 November)
[...] The bussiness of Les Troyens is progressing very gently; I still need to give way to two large operas, one by Gounod and one by Gevaert, without counting smaller two act works. I believe I am back in favour with the Minister, after following carefully and directing all the rehearsals of Alceste which has just scored a great success. All the personnel of the Opéra could see as clearly as daylight that without me they would not have got through. I had to direct the director, and the conductors, and the chorus masters, and the producers, and everything. This has earned me a success of sorts which will be of great use for the future. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2590; 8 February)
[...] The Minister of State is very well disposed towards me; he wrote me a letter of thanks concerning the staging of Alceste, the rehearsals for which I supervised at the Opéra. So he has given instructions to Royer to start rehearsing Les Troyens after an opera by a Belgian named Gevaert which will be performed next September. I could therefore see mine performed in March 1863. [...]
To his niece Joséphine Suat (CG no. 2608; 19 April)
[...] Nothing new for Les Troyens. No decision has yet been made at the Opéra for a new work. Nothing is being started. The fall of La Reine de Saba has so scared the minister that he cannot decide where to turn for help. He does not have any money... [...]
To Joséphine Suat (CG no. 2669; 15 November)
For the time being, that is not true. The director of the Théâtre-Lyrique is in a strange predicament, and try as we may we are unable to find the singers I require. Mme Charton-Demeur is in Havana, and there is no one in Paris who might dream of replacing her. So therefore do not indulge this illusion. [...]
To his uncle Félix Marmion (CG no. 2677; 9 December)
[...] Besides there is nothing new to report; the Opéra insists on not staging any new opera of importance, also as an economy measure, and the standard of performance is becoming more and more deplorable. The Théâtre-Lyrique which had the pretension of staging Les Troyens and then fell back on Béatrice, is unable to do anything and is as incapable of performing my large work as my small one. One should not think about it; music in Paris is in a dreadful condition. [...]
To the director of the Opéra, Émile Perrin (CG no. 2687; 10 January)
Allow me to refresh your memory and draw your attention to a work of which you may have preserved a vague idea; you seemed to show some interest in it at a time when you were free from all the cares that torment a theatre director. I will not increase the number of petitioners who must be pestering you, particularly at this moment. Let me only beg you not to avert your gaze from a work which by its nature is evidently suitable for the Opéra, which would bring an unexpected lustre to its repertoire and dazzle the crowds, if only through the magnificence and variety of its staging, in which your special talent might be deployed.
Would you like to read again the poem of Les Troyens? Unfortunately I am unable to acquaint you with the music, but thre is no doubt in my mind that this score contains a number of pieces that are destined to become popular, in the good sense of the word, within a week of its first performance.
It is free from any musical sophistry, it is admittedly bold, but it is also elevated and simple, and of undeniable clarity. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2694; 3 February)
[...] Tired of waiting for the good will of the minister who cannot make up his mind, I am on the point of abandoning the Opéra to its disdainful inertia, and of signing a contract for Les Troyens with the Director of the new Théâtre-Lyrique. He is pressing me with the greatest urgency. I have given to the management of the Opéra until the 15th of this month to make a decision.
I am promised everything I want at the Théâtre-Lyrique; they would hire Mme Charton (who will be returning from America) for the role of Dido, I will have a large orchestra, a huge chorus and the goodwill of all. I believe, as do my friends, that I must yield. [...]
To James Davison (CG no. 2695; 5 February)
[...] I am on the point of making a decision for my score of Les Troyens. If within a week the Minister does not decide to start rehearsals at the Opéra, I will yield to the entreaties of Carvalho and we try our luck at the Théâtre-Lyrique for the month of December. For three years now I have been treated as a fool at the Opéra, and I want to hear and see this great musical machine before I die. You can imagine that it is not with the existing resources of this theatre that we will bring off such a large enterprise, but we will try to assemble a genuinely imposing team of singers, and Carvalho claims that he will succeed. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2697; 22 February)
[...] I have finally broken with the Opéra for Les Troyens, and I have accepted the offers of the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique. He is busy at the moment signing up musicians to build up my team of singers, my orchestra and my chorus. Rehearsals will begin next May to make it possible to stage the work in December. [...]
To his son Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2855; 3 or 4 May)
[…] Carvalho was struck dumb when I quoted to him the saying of Beethoven: « Well, I am not worried about my music, I feel that I am closer to God than others are ». — Did he say that? — Indeed he did. And what common ground is there between such a man and the others? His works are not destined to make money. Carvalho has occasional impulses towards what is beautiful, but at the back of his mind there is always the thought that he might, on occasion, perfect what is beautiful. He would not be able to prevent himself from correcting Shakespeare and orchestrating Beethoven. It is a new disease that the science of phrenology has not yet identified in the human brain. And with these impulses towards what is beautiful goes a deep dread of the public, a respect for imbeciles, the adoration of the crowd and its approval… Industry and art hate each other and must hate each other mutually. If these poor dabblers were not dabblers, they might possibly be creators, in other words the opposite of what they are. […]
All the modern photographs reproduced on this page were taken by Michel Austin; other pictures have been scanned from newspapers and books in our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
This portrait of Léon Carvalho was originally published in L’Illustration of 1 January 1898. See also other portraits of Carvalho on this site.
This picture has been scanned from John L. Stoddards Lectures, Volume V – Paris La Belle France and Spain, by John L. Stoddard (Balch Brothers, 1898).
Théâtre-Lyrique in 1862
The above engraving was published in L’Univers Illustré, 1862, page 306, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Théâtre du Châtelet on 19th August. The Théâtre Lyrique is on the right of the picture.
The above engraving was published in the December 15 issue of L’Illustration, 1863. The Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial, on the Place du Châtelet by the Seine, was inaugurated in October 1862. The theatre was burnt down in 1871, but rebuilt on the same plan: the theatre one sees nowadays thus closely resembles the building of Berlioz’s time.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin for all the pictures and information on this page. This page created on 19 October 2000; new version considerably enlarged on 1st December 2017.
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