Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale

Memoirs, chapter 50

Translated by Michel Austin

© 2001-2014 Michel Austin

Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale

Memoirs chapter 50

    In 1840, when the month of July was approaching, the French government decided to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 revolution with a grand ceremony. The more or less heroic remains of the victims of the three famous days were to be translated to the monument which had just been built for them on the Place de la Bastille. M. de Rémusat was at the time Minister of the Interior, and by a great stroke of luck he is, like M. de Gasparin, devoted to music. He conceived the idea of commissioning from me, for the ceremony of the translation of the victims, a symphony; I was to be given complete freedom to decide on its form and manner of performance. I was promised 10 000 francs for the work, a sum which was to cover the expenses for copying the parts and paying the performers.

    I thought that for a work of this kind the simplest plan would also be the best, and that a large band of wind and brass instruments was the only suitable orchestra for a symphony that was intended (at least at its first performance) to be heard in the open air. I wanted to recall first the battles of the three celebrated days, amidst the mourning sounds of a march that would be both awesome and grief-stricken, and which would be played as the procession advanced. Then would come a kind of funeral oration or farewell addressed to the glorious dead, at the moment when their bodies are lowered into the monumental tomb. To conclude there would be a hymn of glory, the apotheosis, when after the sealing of the tomb all that would be left for the assembled people to see would be the high column crowned by a winged figure of Liberty rising to heaven, like the souls of those who died for it.

    The funeral march was nearly complete when a rumour went around that the July ceremonies would not be taking place. "Well, I thought, this is a repeat of the story of the Requiem! No point in going any further; I know these people." So I abruptly stopped work. But a few days later, as I was strolling around in Paris, I happened to come across the Interior Minister. When he saw me, M. de Rémusat asked his coach to stop and beckoned to me to come near. He wanted to know how the symphony was progressing. I told him bluntly why I had stopped working, and added that I remembered all the agony caused to me by the ceremony in honour of Marshal Damrémont and the Requiem.

    – But the rumour that has upset you is completely false, he told me, nothing has changed; the inauguration of the Bastille column, the translation of the victims of July, everything will be taking place, and I am counting on you. Please complete your work as soon as possible.

    My suspicions were all too well-grounded, but this assurance from M. de Rémusat dispelled my worries, and I immediately went back to the task. The march and funeral oration were completed, and I had found the theme for the apotheosis, but I was held up for a rather long time by the fanfare. I wanted it to rise gradually from the depths of the orchestra up to the high note where the theme of the apotheosis breaks out. I wrote more versions than I can remember, none of which satisfied me; some were too commonplace, others too constricted in form, or lacked solemnity, or sonority, or were not well graded. What I had in mind was a fanfare played by archangels, simple but noble, full of panache and martial in character, an immense and radiant call which would rise and announce in triumph to earth and heaven the opening of the Empyrean gates. I settled finally, and not without trepidation, on the now familiar fanfare, and the rest was soon completed. Some time later [in 1842], after making as is my habit various corrections and improvements, I added to the symphony string parts and a chorus, which though not obligatory nevertheless add considerably to the effect.

    I hired for the ceremony a military band of two hundred players; this time too Habeneck would have been prepared to conduct them, but I prudently kept this for myself. I had not forgotten his trick with the snuff-box [an allusion to the first performance of the Requiem on 5 December 1837; see Memoirs chapter 46].

    I had the fortunate idea of inviting a large audience to the dress rehearsal of the symphony, for it would not have been possible to appreciate the work on the day of the ceremony. Despite the power of such a large band of wind and brass instruments we could not be heard very well during the procession. Except for what was performed as we went along the Boulevard Poissonière, where the tall trees which still existed then acted as reflectors for the sound, all the rest was lost.

    On the large Place de la Bastille matters were even worse; hardly anything could be made out from a distance of ten feet.

    To finish me off, the battalions of the National Guard, tired of standing under arms to the end of the ceremony under a blazing sun, started to march off to the sound of some fifty drums, which continued to beat relentlessly during the whole performance of the apotheosis, which consequently was completely drowned out. That is how music is always treated in France at festivals and on public occasions, where the idea is that it should be there but only for the show.

    But I was aware of this, and the dress rehearsal in the Salle Vivienne was my real performance. So effective was it that the manager of the concerts given there engaged me for four evening performances, where the new symphony had pride of place, and which made a handsome profit.

    As he came out of one of these performances, Habeneck with whom I had again fallen out for some reason I forget, exclaimed: "This b…. does really have great ideas." A week later he was probably saying the opposite. This time I had no arguments with the ministry. M. de Rémusat behaved like a gentleman, and the 10 000 francs were promptly paid to me. After settling the bill for the players and the copyist, I had 2800 francs left. That is not much, but the minister was pleased, and the general public demonstrated to me at every performance of my new work that it had the capacity to achieve greater popularity than all its predecessors and could even stir audiences to extravagant enthusiasm. One evening, at the Salle Vivienne, after the apotheosis, some young men had the idea of seizing the chairs and smashing them on the ground with shouts of applause. The manager immediately gave orders that on subsequent evenings this novel way of applauding should not be allowed to spread.

    Concerning a much later performance of this symphony in the hall of the Conservatoire, with the two orchestras but no chorus [19 November 1843], Spontini wrote to me a long and curious letter. I was foolish enough to give it to a collector of autographs, and I regret I cannot reproduce a copy of it here. All I know is that it started with the words: "Still under the impact of your stirring music, etc., etc." [this letter is still extant: see Correspondance générale no. 866]

    Despite his friendship for me, this was the only time he praised my compositions. He would always come to hear them but without ever talking to me. But I am wrong – this happened to him on another occasion after a great performance of my Requiem in the church of Saint-Eustache [20 August 1846]. He told me on that occasion:

    " – You are wrong to criticise the practice of sending the prize-winners of the Institut to Rome; without Michelangelo’s Last Judgment you could not have conceived such a Requiem."

    He was strangely mistaken on this point, for this celebrated fresco in the Sistine Chapel was a total disappointment to me. All I can see in it is a scene of torture in hell, but nothing resembling the final gathering of humanity. In any case, I know little about painting and do not respond to works of conventional beauty.

Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale (commentary and score)

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© 2001-2014 Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.