Les Troyens, November-December 1863
Conductor and orchestra
The Paris press
Berlioz on the performances of 1863: discrepancies
Sketches of the stage sets for Les Troyens
Selected letters of Berlioz
This page is also available in French
See also the pages Théâtre-Lyrique and Cartoons from Le Journal amusant
Berlioz’s five-act opera Les Troyens was his largest and most ambitious work, and is considered by many to be his masterpiece. It represented the pinnacle of his creative abilities, and the convergence of all the major influences, both literary and musical, that had shaped his artistic personality. Of all his great works it was also the one that took longest to mature. Its roots go back to Berlioz’s childhood: he relates in his Mémoires how his father introduced him to the poetry of Virgil, and how moved he was in particular by the story of the death of Dido, queen of Carthage, as told in the fourth book of the Aeneid (chapter 2). Long before La Fontaine, ‘the Latin poet spoke to me of the epic passions that I was instinctively apprehending; he found the way to my heart and kindled my nascent imagination’. Virgil was the first literary love of his life, and citations or allusions to him are to be found throughout his writings, in his correspondence, his articles of musical criticism, and his autobiographical works. In the very first chapter of his Mémoires, Berlioz relates humorously that ‘during the months preceding my birth, my mother, unlike Virgil’s, did not dream that she was about to give birth to a laurel branch’. Berlioz’s first name was of course that of the Trojan hero Hector. Virgil’s poetry, and the Aeneid in particular, were never far from his mind. ‘I have spent my life in the company of these demi-gods; I know them so well that I imagine they know me’, he wrote to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2380, 20 June 1859). His trip to Italy in 1831-1832 gave him an opportunity to visit the lands associated with the final stages of the Aeneid, the arrival of the Trojans in Italy which (according to legend) was the prelude to the foundation of Rome. He relates in chapter 37 of the Mémoires how, during his stay in Italy, he would at times improvise on the subject of the Aeneid to the accompaniment of his guitar. He also tells in detail of his visit to the small island of Nisida which was loaded with Virgilian associations (chapter 41; cf. CG nos. 244, 500).
Yet it was to be many years before the idea of a large musical work based on Virgil’s Aeneid took shape in his mind. This invites comparison with other, more recent literary influences on Berlioz. Berlioz discovered Shakespeare in 1827; this was followed within a few years with the composition of works inspired by him (the overture to The Tempest, in 1830; the overture Le Roi Lear, in 1831; and other works later). The following year (1828) Berlioz discovered Goethe’s Faust, which prompted him to write almost at once his Huit scènes de Faust, the germ of the later Damnation de Faust. The difference of course is that for Berlioz, Shakespeare and Goethe were new and sudden revelations, whereas Virgil had been lying in his mind since his childhood, long before he was equipped to undertake large-scale musical compositions. On Berlioz’s own evidence it was not till the early 1850s that he conceived the idea of a large opera based on Virgil (Mémoires chapter 59, written in 1854):
For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera for which I would write both the words and the music, as I have just done for my sacred trilogy L’Enfance du Christ. I am resisting the temptation of carrying out this project, and I hope I will resist to the end.
Berlioz does not at this point identify the work, though a footnote he added later (in 1858), as well as the sequel of the story, show that it was to be based on Virgil’s Aeneid. He resisted the temptation, he says, because the tastes of the Parisian public were at variance with his, because he would not be able to find a suitable singer for the main role, and because he could not expect to be given a free hand at the Paris Opéra to utilise its resources.
The sequel to the story is well known and is outlined in the Postface of the Mémoires: on a visit to Weimar in February 1856 he mentioned to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein his project ‘of a great opera, designed on Shakespearean lines, for which Books Two and Four of the Aeneid would provide the subject-matter’, and she overcame his doubts and convinced him to start work. Back in France he deliberately wrote the poem (or libretto) first, and then the music (with one exception, the duet between Dido and Aeneas in Act IV, which he could not resist writing at once). The Mémoires, it might be noted, do not give a detailed account of the composition of the work and its individual pieces (unlike for La Damnation de Faust), but a considerable amount of detail is provided by the composer’s correspondence, notably the letters written to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein but also those to other friends; these make it possible to follow closely the growth and evolution of the work over the next few years (see for example CG nos. 2168, 2238). A selection of letters from April 1856 to March 1858 is given in David Cairns’ Berlioz vol. II (pp. 603-27). It should be said that the work was not in fact complete in March 1858, though Berlioz thought so at first (see for example CG nos. 2283, 2285, 2287); he continued to work on the score for years to come, adding, subtracting or modifying both poem and music up to the time of the performances of 1863.
The original inspiration for Les Troyens went back to Virgil, but the work owed as much to Shakespeare, the other major literary influence on Berlioz. As he wrote to Adolphe Samuel, ‘The score was dictated at once by Virgil and by Shakespeare; have I understood my two masters correctly?..’ (CG no. 2341; 1 January 1859). One example of this convergence of influences was the duet between Dido and Aeneas mentioned above: the words for it were adapted from The Merchant of Venice (CG nos. 2136, 2137, 2145). The wording of the letter just cited is interesting: Berlioz writes that ‘the score was dictated’ by two literary figures, Virgil and Shakespeare, and not by composers. Writing to Toussaint Bennet concerning the love duet he is quite explicit: ‘Shakespeare is the true author of the words and of the music. It is strange that he, the poet of the North, should have intervened in the masterpiece of the Roman poet. Virgil had forgotten to write this scene. What singers these two men are!!!!…’ (CG no. 2137; 11 June 1856). He does not mention in this context any musical influence on Les Troyens. A citation from another letter supplies the missing element. In a letter to his sister Adèle Berlioz writes (CG no. 2283; 11 March 1858):
[…] I assure you, dear sister, that the music of Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful […]. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: ‘Here in truth is my son.’ Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty. […]
To this mention of Gluck might be added another name: that of the great singer Caroline Branchu who had so impressed the young Berlioz with her performances at the Paris Opéra in the 1820s. One can easily imagine that Berlioz had her in mind when writing the two great women roles of Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens.
Les Troyens was conceived and written with the Paris Opéra in mind, the only theatre in France with the resources to do justice to a work of the size and scope of Berlioz’s epic. The difficulty was that at the Opéra Berlioz had long been persona non grata, and the new director appointed on 1 July 1856, Alphonse Royer, simply did not understand his music. As a result Berlioz was forced to rely in the end on a smaller theatre with more limited resources, the Théâtre-Lyrique, but where the director, Léon Carvalho, was enthusiastic about Les Troyens and had been pressing Berlioz since September 1859 to accept his advances. Berlioz eventually accepted in February 1863. A contract between the Théâtre-Lyrique and Berlioz is extant, written in the hand of Louis Berlioz, the composer’s son, and therefore probably a copy of the original (for the text see CG VI pp. 549-50). Though the contract is undated it explicitly refers to the performances of Les Troyens in 1863 and is therefore distinct from the earlier contract signed in January 1860 (CG nos. 2462, 2472) which Berlioz cancelled the following year. The new contract stipulated that the five-act work would be performed complete as written by Berlioz. Its terms were therefore breached from the start: Berlioz was quickly obliged to settle for a truncated version of the original work, shorn of the first two of its five acts, renamed Les Troyens à Carthage, and preceded by a newly composed Prologue; the first two acts became a separate opera, named La Prise de Troie (CG nos. 2733, 2749, 2799). This enforced compromise blighted the subsequent history of the opera, which was only restored to its original unity a century later. The complicated story of how it took years for Berlioz to bring his work to the stage has been traced in detail on the page on the Théâtre-Lyrique, and will not be repeated here.
The work ran for a total of 21 performances (or 22 if the general rehearsal on 2 November is counted as a performance, as it is by Berlioz in CG no. 2814); this was by far the longest continuous run of performances of any of Berlioz’s works in his lifetime. For comparison Benvenuto Cellini ran for only 3 consecutive performances in September 1838, after which Duprez the leading tenor refused to sing the part of Cellini any more; a fourth performance with the tenor Dupont in January 1839 was the last one of the complete work. Act I on its own received a further 3 performances in February and March, after which the work was withdrawn, never to be performed again in Paris in the composer’s lifetime. By contrast Les Troyens was performed regularly week after week, on 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 16, 18, 20, 23, 25, 27 and 30 November, and 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18 and 20 December. In addition to the numerous rehearsals during the summer and autumn, Berlioz attended the general rehearsal on 2 November and the first 3 performances (CG nos. 2776, 2779, 2786, 2788, 2789). After this he was taken ill with severe bronchitis and was unable to attend any more performances for more than 3 weeks (CG nos. 2796, 2797, 2799, 2806). The first performance he seems to have attended after his illness was that on 7 December (CG no. 2810), and he presumably attended subsequently every remaining performance, though it is curious that the last performance he refers to once the series was over is that of 18 December and not the very last one on 20 December (CG no. 2814). This run of performances earned Berlioz significant royalties as author of both the libretto and the music (CG no. 2789). They enabled him to fulfil a long-cherished dream, that of giving up altogether writing feuilletons after thirty years as a music critic. His last feuilleton was on 8 October 1863, while rehearsals for Les Troyens were in progress; these were obviously in his mind at the time of writing, although of course he does not mention them. The feuilleton reviewed favourably another production at the Théâtre-Lyrique of a new work (Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles); it also had a word of praise for two of the singers who were to be involved in Les Troyens, the tenor Monjauze (Aeneas) and the bass-baritone Petit (Narbal). At the very end of the feuilleton Berlioz had a final parting shot at the Opéra which had disdained his work: ‘As for the Opéra […] it is wrong to reproach it for not staging any new work: it has handed in its resignation’.
Berlioz, as is well known, disliked hearing his music conducted by anyone except himself (CG nos. 1543, 1631). But when it came to operas performed in Paris that was unavoidable: it was a peculiar rule in France at the time that composers were not allowed to conduct their own works in opera houses. When it came to the performance of Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, Berlioz could attend the rehearsals and give advice, but could not conduct himself: hence his frustration with the conductor Habeneck who was unable to take the music at the correct speeds (Mémoires chapter 48). This experience was probably one of the considerations that long discouraged Berlioz from starting to compose Les Troyens. As he wrote to J.-E. Duchesne, whereas in Germany he could be fully in charge of the first performances of Béatrice et Bénédict in Baden-Baden in 1862, ‘it will be an ordeal for me not to be able to conduct the performances of Les Troyens’ (CG no. 2726). The conductor in charge at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863 was Louis-Michel-Adolphe Deloffre (1817-1876); he was well known to Berlioz, who mentions him several times in his feuilletons in the Journal des Débats. Deloffre started his career as a violinist, and played in John Ella’s Musical Union in London (Débats, 31 May 1851); he is then found in 1853 in the orchestra of the Théâtre-Lyrique (17 March 1853), and in 1854 became its regular conductor (11 October 1854). In his public comments on Deloffre Berlioz was generally complimentary, though his letters might tell a different story. For example on the first performance of Weber’s Oberon Berlioz writes: ‘High praise should be given to the chorus trained by M. Bousquet, and to the orchestra conducted by M. Deloffre’ (6 March 1857); but a few days later he writes to his sister Adèle: ‘I have seen the opera three times, and I had to attend the general rehearsal to give some guidance to the conductor [Deloffre] who was out of his depth’ (CG no. 2214; 12 March 1857).
As well as coaching the singers privately, Berlioz attended all the rehearsals for Les Troyens over a period of weeks; he no doubt gave plentiful advice but found the experience exhausting (CG nos. 2762, 2769, 2772, 2773, 2776). It is very striking that whereas in his letters and in the Mémoires Berlioz comments on almost every aspect of the performances of Les Troyens (singers, chorus, orchestra, stage-sets, the production as a whole), he is completely silent on the conductor, whose name and very existence are never mentioned. Nor does he ever comment in his letters on the tempi at which his music was played, a question he was otherwise very sensitive to (he had a general preference for brisk tempi). It is as though Berlioz had made a conscious decision never to raise the subject at all in public or even in his private letters; this self-imposed silence is itself eloquent. The orchestra for its part he seems to have found no more than adequate: ‘The orchestra plays with confidence, though I could have done with the orchestra of the Opéra; the wind instruments lack virtuosity’ (CG no. 2799). He also commends the entire personnel of the theatre: ‘At the Théâtre-Lyrique I have found, from the director down to the humblest orchestral player, nothing but devotion and goodwill’ (CG no. 2808). In mid-July Berlioz had remonstrated with Carvalho about the design of the stage-sets (CG no. 2753), but in the end he expressed, at least in his letters, general satisfaction with the production and stage-sets; these were the work of Charles Cambon, one of the leading stage-designers of the time (CG nos. 2762, 2772, 2776; see below on the Mémoires). One might add that Berlioz was spared a problem that did not exist in the 19th century: the emergence of the producer as an independent participant in operatic performances, who is liable to superimpose his own interpretation of a work on that of the composer.
The crucial difficulty for Berlioz had long been that of the singers, or at least the principal roles on whom the success or failure of the performance ultimately depended. When in the early 1850s he began to contemplate writing a large opera based on Virgil’s Aeneid, what held him back was above all the thought that he could not find a suitable singer for the title role. The reference in the Mémoires to the problem ‘of finding an intelligent and dedicated woman capable of interpreting the main role’ is interesting: at this stage there clearly was to be only one central figure in the opera, namely Dido, the tragic figure he remembered from his childhood readings. He had not yet built up the role of Cassandra (an incidental figure in Virgil’s Aeneid) to become the counterpart in Acts I-II to Dido in Acts III-V; once Cassandra had emerged as a central figure in her own right in Acts I-II the problem of suitable singers was doubled.
Down to 1858 Berlioz does not seem to have had any specific names in mind for these, or indeed any of the other roles (CG nos. 2181, 2338). From 1859 onwards two names came into consideration for the leading roles of Cassandra and Dido, those of Pauline Viardot and Anne Charton-Demeur. Both of them were among the finest singers of their time, and Berlioz had known and admired them for years. Pauline Viardot is frequently mentioned in Berlioz’s feuilletons from 1841 onwards; she sang for him on a number of occasions, in London in 1848 and 1855, in concerts of the Société Philharmonique in 1850 and 1851, and at Baden-Baden in 1856. Berlioz first heard Mme Charton-Demeur in London in 1851 and was much impressed by her (CG no. 1428); her name is frequently mentioned in his feuilletons from that date onwards. She sang for Berlioz in excerpts from Roméo et Juliette in Baden-Baden in August 1858 (CG no. 2307); Berlioz announced her forthcoming appearance there in a feuilleton where he described her as ‘gifted with a distinguished, rich and original talent’ (20 July 1858).
Although Berlioz started publicising Les Troyens from 1856 onwards through readings of the poem, it was not till 1859 that he organised for the first time public hearings of excerpts from the music. On 6 August of that year Cassandra’s aria and the duet with Choroebus (Act I), and the duet of Dido and Aeneas (Act IV), were performed with piano accompaniment in the small Salle Beethoven. The men’s parts were sung by Jules Lefort, and the women’s by Mme Charton-Demeur; Berlioz was very moved by her singing (CG no. 2390). This incited him to repeat the same excerpts later that month (29 August) at his annual concert in Baden-Baden and with full orchestra, but this time with Pauline Viardot in the women’s roles. He was very pleased with the result and started thinking of Pauline Viardot as a suitable Cassandra, while for Viardot herself the music was a revelation (CG nos. 2390, 2393, 2395, 2396, 2398, 2416). The story had a quick sequel. It so happened that the following month Viardot was starting to prepare the title role in Gluck’s Orphée at the Théâtre-Lyrique, a production in which Berlioz himself was deeply involved, and at the same time the director Carvalho became himself enthusiastic about Les Troyens and offered to stage the work at his theatre. For a period of several months until the middle of 1860 Berlioz and Pauline Viardot became very close and corresponded frequently on the subject of Les Troyens; Viardot studied the score closely and offered numerous suggestions, and came to think of the leading women roles, or one of them, as destined to her. This was an assumption that Berlioz himself shared in the later months of 1859, as shown by his letters (CG nos. 2404, 2406, 2407, 2421, 2436). But then in July 1860 their correspondence stopped abruptly, and when it was resumed 11 months later there was a noticeable coolness in Berlioz’s tone in writing to her (CG no. 2554). The reasons for this interruption and change of tone are a matter of conjecture (cf. CG VI p. 161 n. 1). When writing to her or to other correspondents Berlioz no longer made any mention of a possible role for her in Les Troyens. According to Berlioz Viardot was hurt at what she felt was a snub (CG nos. 2759, 2799). Berlioz justified his decision to exclude her on artistic grounds: she refused to ‘acknowledge the ravages of time’, in other words to come to terms with the deterioration in her voice. Yet in a feuilleton of 26 March 1861 Berlioz had reviewed enthusiastically her singing of excerpts from Gluck’s Alceste at the Conservatoire, and this did not suggest any diminution in her powers. Whether other motives were involved, for example of a personal kind, is impossible to say.
Be that as it may there was now only one singer that Berlioz would consider: Mme Charton-Demeur (see her portrait below). ‘There is no other singer in Paris who could think of taking her place’ (CG no. 2669). ‘I must absolutely have Mme Charton-Demeur, the only singer who can sing and who has the voice for the role I intend for her’ (CG no. 2726). Berlioz had been delighted with her singing of the role of Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict in Baden-Baden on 9 and 11 August 1862 (CG nos. 2643, 2645, 2646, 2651), and was no less delighted when she repeated the performances on 14 and 18 August 1863 (CG no. 2762; Journal des Débats, 3 September 1863). The choice proved to be an ideal one. In all his numerous comments on the performances of Les Troyens in 1863, in his letters and in the Postface of the Mémoires, there are hardly any hints of criticism. When a cast was being assembled early in 1863 Berlioz was critical of her demands for a high salary which held up negotiations from March to May (CG no. 2726), but he eventually gave in (CG no. 2733) and conceded later that Mme Charton-Demeur was in fact making a sacrifice in accepting a fee below what she could earn elsewhere (CG nos. 2810, 2814, 2815, 2857; Mémoires, Postface). During rehearsals in July Berlioz noted a mannerism on her part of letting her pitch drop when singing certain passages very softly, but this was evidently quickly corrected (CG no. 2759). In the Mémoires (Postface) he mentions that the final scene between Dido and Aeneas in Act V had to be cut, as it drained Mme Charton’s voice of the energy she needed to sing her final scenes (Mme Branchu, by contrast, possessed according to Berlioz a voice of enormous dynamic range and versatility that was equal to any demands). In every other respect Mme Charton-Demeur was a worthy creator of a great role. In addition to her superb voice she had two qualities which Berlioz particularly appreciated. Unusually for a diva, she was docile, prepared to listen and anxious to learn, and never demanded any changes to her part, thus setting an example to all the other members of the cast (CG no. 2769). Thanks to his coaching Berlioz could claim that he had turned her into a true tragic actress. She was also thoroughly professional and consistent: throughout the more than twenty performances of the work she maintained the same very high standard and indeed never ceased to improve (CG nos. 2779, 2786, 2789, 2799). As a result of the performances of Les Troyens Berlioz remained friendly with Mme Charton-Demeur and her husband to the end (CG nos. 2835, 3335). She befriended Berlioz in the last months of his life, and sang at the anniversary concert in March 1870 to commemorate the death of Berlioz the previous year (Ernest Reyer in Journal des Débats, 22 February and 31 March 1870).
Second in importance to the part of Dido was that of Aeneas, which was sung by Jules-Sébastien Monjauze (1824-1877; see his portrait below). Berlioz mentions him several times in his feuilletons from 1856 onwards; in October 1860 Monjauze became the leading tenor at the Théâtre-Lyrique, and on this occasion Berlioz praised his voice and singing (Debats, 20 October 1860). In his singing of the part of Aeneas during the rehearsals Berlioz was favourably impressed (CG nos. 2772, 2776). When it came to the actual performances Monjauze was liable to be uneven and lacked the consistency of Mme Charton-Demeur (CG no. 2799), though even in some of the later performances Berlioz found he kept on improving (CG no. 2810). A letter of 10 November sums it up best: ‘Monjauze is a somewhat uneven pius Aeneas, but he has the right voice, and there is no one in Paris who could sing this role like him, though he is far from singing it flawlessly’ (CG no. 2789).
The remaining parts were sung by Marie Dubois (Anna), Mlle Estagel (Ascanius), Petit (Narbal), Péront (Pantheus), de Quercy (Iopas), Cabel (Hylas), Guyot and Teste (the two soldiers), and the part of the Rhapsode was spoken by Joanni. Berlioz comments specifically on only a few of these. Marie Dubois (see her portrait below) gave him initially cause for concern at the rehearsals: she had a fine voice but lacked any musical sense (CG no. 2749), but Berlioz’s coaching was evidently effective (CG no. 2762) and in the end he found her an elegant Anna soror with a fine voice (CG no. 2789). He was delighted with the Ascanius of Mlle Estagel whom he found charming (CG nos. 2789, 2799). The only other singer he seems to comment on specifically (in the Mémoires, Postface) is the young Cabel: he sang the part of Hylas well, but it was cut in later performances while Berlioz was unable to attend. Of the singers in general Berlioz commends them for not asking him to make any changes to their parts (CG no. 2769).
From the start of his composing career Berlioz was very sensitive to the reactions in the Paris press to the performances of his works: writing to his family and friends after the first hearing of his youthful Messe solennelle at Saint-Roch in July 1825 Berlioz was anxious to point to the favourable comments he had received in the newspapers (CG nos. 47, 48). This interest continued throughout his career down to the performances of Les Troyens in November-December 1863, the last occasion on which a major work of his was premièred in Paris. Both his contemporary letters and the posthumous Mémoires (Postface) illustrate this, especially the former. Within three days of the first performance Berlioz started noting in detail the reactions of the press, collecting papers and articles as they appeared, and by the time the series of performances was coming to an end his son Louis had amassed a pile of no less than 64 papers in which the work was noticed or reviewed (CG nos. 2786, 2788, 2789, 2796, 2797, 2799, 2806, 2810). Extant also are several letters of thanks to individual critics who had been particular warm and perceptive in their praise (CG nos. 2789bis — to Joseph d’Ortigue; 2794 — to Auguste de Gasperini; 2803 — to Léon Kreutzer).
A selection of these reviews is reproduced on this site; it represents only a small part of what was written, but gives an idea of the range of views expressed, from the very favourable and perceptive, to the openly hostile and downright uncomprehending. Fortunately the latter represented, according to Berlioz, only a small minority. We regret having been unable to find a copy of the review in l’Union by Berlioz’s friend and champion of long-standing Léon Kreutzer, which pleased Berlioz particularly (CG no. 2803). Among the hostile reviews are those of Albert de Lasalle (in Le Monde Illustré) and especially Benoît Jouvin (in Le Figaro). The opposite view is represented (briefly) by Charles Yriarte (also in Le Monde Illustré), much more fully by Joseph d’Ortigue (in the Journal des Débats) and, perhaps best of all, a review in two parts by Auguste de Gasperini (in Le Ménestrel), remarkable notably for its seriousness and insight (Gasperini attended 4 performances and studied the score closely before commenting in detail on the music). For example Gasperini dwelled at length on the symphonic interlude Chasse royale et orage, which had been cut after the first performance, pronounced it an inspired piece and hoped that it would be reinstated. Of the work as a whole, he wrote prophetically, ‘It is a considerable work, one of the glories of the century, and will not perish’.
It may be noted incidentally that, for all his attention and sensitivity to the reactions of the press, both positive and negative, Berlioz does not mention, whether in any of the letters cited here or in the Postface of the Mémoires, the work of the cartoonists. The Paris cartoonists had long seized on Berlioz as suitable material for their creative wit, and the performances of Les Troyens provided them with fresh inspiration. Examples of their work in relation to Les Troyens, from an issue of Le Journal Amusant in our collection which is almost entirely devoted to the work, are reproduced on this site. But to judge from his letters concerning Les Troyens Berlioz does not seem to have taken offence at their work, as though it reflected a different spirit from that of writers such as Jouvin, whose criticisms of Berlioz were seemingly motivated by pure malevolence.
As mentioned in the page on the Théâtre-Lyrique, Berlioz’s presentation of Carvalho in the Postface of the Mémoires does less than justice to him, and does not fully square with Berlioz’s other writings (his letters and his articles in the Journal des Débats). Carvalho’s work in general at the Théâtre-Lyrique between 1856 and 1863 has been examined in that page; at issue here is his production of Les Troyens in November-December 1863.
Most of the evidence cited so far in this section comes from the contemporary letters of Berlioz written between May and December 1863. For most of the year up to late November, the impression given by them is largely positive. During the period of the rehearsals Mme Charton-Demeur in the title role is unfailingly magnificent (CG nos. 2738, 2741, 2745, 2759, 2772). Monjauze, the tenor in the role of Aeneas, is himself superb (CG nos. 2772, 2776). Berlioz also expects the stage-sets and costumes to be superb (CG no. 2772). When it comes to the general rehearsal and the first 3 performances Berlioz is equally enthusiastic: apart from a jarring minority of critics, the work makes a profound impression on audience and critics alike, and the early performances go from strength to strength (CG nos. 2776, 2779, 2786, 2788).
At this point Berlioz was taken ill for more than 3 weeks and unable to attend any performances, but his general view remains positive up to and including the letter CG no. 2799 (19 November). A note of worry creeps in in CG no. 2806 (26 November): he is unable to see for himself what is happening at the theatre. Then there is a gap of more than two weeks till CG no. 2808 of 13 December, which for the first time strikes a jarring note. Berlioz will never again write for an opera house, he says, because he has no control there, though he explicitly exempts the Théâtre-Lyrique from his general condemnation of opera houses: ‘At the Théâtre-Lyrique I have found, from the director down to the humblest orchestral player, nothing but devotion and goodwill’. But he then adds a cryptic comment: ‘And yet… And all the same… It still makes me sick’. The next letter, CG no. 2810 (?14 December), betrays no reservations: the latest performance he attended was superb, the two leading singers are getting better and better, and Berlioz regrets that the run of performances will soon be coming to an end.
Up to this point the letters had not expressed any reservations about the action of Carvalho personally. From May onwards Berlioz constantly praises his enthusiasm, which the director communicates to the entire personnel of the theatre (CG nos. 2726, 2738, 2741, 2745). Carvalho has produced the whole work with extraordinary lavishness (CG no. 2776). He is very proud of his daring and success, and the production as a whole is splendid (CG no. 2789). Relevant also is the evidence of the feuilletons Berlioz wrote at the time. When at last the Théâtre-Lyrique was granted a state subsidy (CG no. 2741), Berlioz took the opportunity to praise its director: ‘The indefatigable zeal and devotion of M. Carvalho, who directs this theatre, deserved this award’ (Journal des Débats, 14 May and 23 July 1863).
The letter CG no. 2814 (23 December), written when the performances had come to an end, introduces a new note. Hitherto the question of the cuts made to the work had not been prominent in the correspondence. In the long letter to the princess of 19 November Berlioz merely states briefly that he had been obliged to cut several pieces for various reasons, but does not elaborate (CG no. 2799). Cuts had in fact started to be made to the work at an early stage: the Chasse royale et orage was omitted already at the second performance, as Berlioz relates at length in the Mémoires, though the letter commenting on the second performance does not actually mention this (CG no. 2786). But with the letter CG no. 2814 and for the first time in the correspondence, the cuts made to Les Troyens now become an issue. After the event the question of cuts now bulked large in Berlioz’s mind; he now turns against Carvalho and charges him with having insisted on numerous cuts and making ‘horrible changes to the staging’, but often without having the courage to ask him directly. The theme is picked up at length in the Mémoires which dwell in great detail on the constant interference of Carvalho, who insisted on offering unwanted advice on questions of staging and the tempi of the music; the Mémoires list all the cuts made, and characterise the action of the director with the sarcastic expression ‘corrections and improvements’ which Berlioz had pointedly applied in an earlier chapter of the Mémoires (chapter 44) to the changes made by Fétis to the symphonies of Beethoven… The reader is left with the impression of a botched production that was almost sabotaged by the director, a view which does not square with the evidence of most of Berlioz’s own letters (contrast his letter to the Grand-Duke of Weimar [CG no. 2857] with the account in the Mémoires). It seems that in the end Berlioz had conflicting views of Carvalho which he never managed to reconcile. The reader may be left to judge for himself.
We display on this page a remarkable set of hand-painted engravings by A. Casse dating from 1863. They are based on sketches of stage sets intended for performances of Les Troyens in 1863 (in the event the first two acts were not performed). It should be pointed out that the stage sets eventually made for the actual performances of 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique did not necessarily follow these sketches closely, as is shown by a comparison of the sketch for the final scene of the opera with the actual sets used (as illustrated in Le Monde illustré below). For one thing, the stage of the Théâtre-Lyrique was much smaller than what the artist A. Casse had in mind, and this necessarily affected the whole production and made the stage look rather congested (CG no. 2799).
The original copies of these engravings are held at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh (Hopkinson Collection). They were published in the 1989 edition of one of M. Christian Wasselin’s books, Berlioz, les Deux Ailes de l’âme (Paris, 1989; new ed. December 2002). We would like to express are gratitude to M. Wasselin for granting us permission to reproduce these engravings from his book.
Whatever the shortcomings of the production at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Les Troyens had been performed week after week for nearly two months and had attracted appreciative audiences. ‘The work is now known, and that is what matters’ (CG no. 2810). ‘These 22 performances have generated in the musical world an enthusiasm which I would have liked to let you witness’ (CG no. 2814). Excerpts from the work, and notably the now famous Septet, received occasional performances in Paris in 1864, 1865 and 1866. The performance of 1866 created quite a stir (CG nos. 3110, 3115, 3117; Le Ménestrel 11 March and 25 March 1866). The performances of 1863 lingered in the memory of those who had witnessed them, and these included several of the leading champions of Berlioz after his death, Oscar Comettant, Georges de Massougnes, Ernest Reyer and Adolphe Jullien. For Georges Massougnes, Berlioz was in the first instance ‘the author of Les Troyens’.
‘O my noble Cassandra, my heroic virgin, I must resign myself, I shall never hear you!’ exclaims Berlioz in his Mémoires. It should be mentioned for the record that Carvalho had actually offered to Berlioz to stage la Prise de Troie at his theatre after les Troyens à Carthage, though Berlioz rejected the offer out of hand (CG no. 2799; this is not mentioned in the Mémoires). In the circumstances Berlioz’s refusal can easily be understood, and with the absence of Mme Charton-Demeur and the exclusion of Pauline Viardot, there was no suitable singer available for the role of Cassandra.
The fate of Les Troyens in Paris after the composer’s death is traced in detail in the page Berlioz’s operas in France, 1869-1914, to which the reader is referred for more details. After the death of Berlioz music from Les Troyens was occasionally performed in Paris, and this generated enough interest to prompt the two rival concert societies of Jules Pasdeloup and Édouard Colonne to give for the first time concert performances of the complete first two acts of the work, La Prise de Troie, in November and December 1879. But another twenty years were to elapse before the opera was put on stage in Paris: it was only in 1899 that La Prise de Troie was at last performed at the Paris Opéra (see the reviews by Arthur Pougin and Adolphe Jullien in 1899 and 1900). As for the last three acts, Les Troyens à Carthage, they were revived on stage in Paris in June 1892, for the first time since the original production of 1863, but the 1892 production sufferred from the same cuts as its predecessor and once again the theatre, the Opéra-Comique, was not large enough to accommodate the work properly (see the review by Julien Tiersot). The director of the Opéra-Comique, it should be added, happened to be the same Léon Carvalho who had been director of the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863…
As to restoring the original work to its unity as a single opera in five acts and not two separate operas, the idea was occasionally discussed in France in this period, but without any result. It was left to the German conductor Felix Mottl to be the first to present the work complete and as a unity in Karlsruhe in December 1890 (see notably the reviews by Albéric Magnard and Adolphe Jullien). Because of the small size of the theatre in Karlsruhe Mottl had to split the performance over two consecutive evenings, but he was insistent that the work was a unity, and on two occasions at least, in Mannheim in 1899 and Munich in 1908, he gave the complete work on a single day.
As for Paris, it had to wait till 2003, the year of the bicentary of Berlioz’s birth, to see the complete Les Troyens performed on one single evening, as originally planned by the composer. The performance, conducted by John-Eliot Gardiner, took place at the Châtelet theatre, on the opposite side of the Place du Châtelet and facing the former Théâtre-Lyrique, where Les Troyens had first started its chequered career 140 years earlier. Berlioz would probably not have been surprised at the long delay.
CG = Correspondance
NL = Nouvelles lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporains (2016)
See also the selection of letters of 1856-1863 in the page on the Théâtre-Lyrique
To J.-E. Duchesne (CG no. 2726; 20 May)
[...] Yes, I have yielded to the entreaties of Carvalho, after putting up for two years with the disdain, the foolish indifference and the disloyalty of the managers of the Opéra. Carvalho is full of fire, he will do everything in his power; but I can see him trembling before the expenses required by such a work. At the moment we are held up by the demands of Mme Charton-Demeur whom I must absolutely have; she is the only singer who can sing and who has the voice for the role I intend for her. She wants 6,000 fr a month and can only be given 4,000. Singers are mad! [...]
I hope that this little work [Béatrice et Bénédict] will be to your liking. With that one at least I am free to conduct the performances muyself, because it is being performed in Germany. It will be an ordeal for me not to be able to conduct the performances of Les Troyens... [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2733; 4 June)
[...] And now at last Carvalho and I are harnessed to this enormous machine of Les Troyens. Three days ago I read the piece to the assembled personnel of the Théâtre-Lyrique, and the rehearsals of the chorus will be starting. The negotiations with Mme Charton-Demeur have reached a conclusion; she has been signed up to play the role of Dido.
This is causing a great commotion in the musical world of Paris. We hope to be ready for the beginning of December. But I have had to agree to allow the performance of only the last three acts, which will be divided into five and preceeded by a prologue which I have just composed. The theatre is neither rich nor large enough to stage la Prise de Troie. [...]
To Richard Pohl (CG no. 2738; 11 June)
[...] I am busy at the moment writing a prologue for Les Troyens; I will tell you why I need to do it. The whole theatre is full of activity, including the copyists, painters, stage-hands and actors. The Director is communicating his fire to all his personnel.
A few days ago I heard Mme Charton sing her role to me, and I was violently moved. I believe she will be superb in her part. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2741; 27 June)
[...] Here I am immersed again in the preparations for both Béatrice and Les Troyens. Mme Charton-Demeur has developed a passion for her role of Dido, to the point of losing sleep. May the gods sustain and inspire her. Di morientis Elissae! [The gods of dying Elissa (Dido)]. But I never cease to repeat to her: do not be afraid of any of my daring ideas, and do not cry! Despite the advice of Boileau, to emerge from tears you must not weep. [...]
P.S. MY DIRECTOR, Carvalho, has at last obtained for the Théâtre-Lyrique a subsidy of 100,000 francs. He can now move forward without any fear; his painters, decorators and choristers are at work, and his enthusiasm for Les Troyens is growing. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2745; 1 July)
[...] At the end of this month I will be going back to Baden-Baden to conduct the repeat performances of Béatrice which will be given on 10 and 12 August, then I will hurry to come back to resume the rehearsals for Les Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique. The director is full of fire and enthusiasm, which he has communicated to the whole theatre. Mme Charton-Demeur has been signed up and I rehearse the role with her twice a week. She is losing sleep over it... I can well imagine, it is the greatest role that has ever been offered to an artist, and one most designed to flatter a woman. I believe she will excel in it. I have just to make sure she does not cry, and get her to master her emotion. Her voice is magnificent, she has the understanding that comes from a second impression; she is very docile and reproduces very well everything I suggest to her and anything she might not guess herself. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2749; 8 July)
[...] After this Carvalho and I will go to visit Flaubert, the author of Salammbô, to consult him about the Carthaginian costumes.
Do not make me have any further regrets... I had to resign myself. There is no Cassandra anymore. La Prise de Troie will not be performed; the first two acts are omitted for the time being. I have had to replace them with a prologue and the action only starts in Carthage. The Théâtre-Lyrique is neither large nor wealthy enough, and the work would last too long. Besides, I was unable to find a Cassandra.
In its present mutilated condition, the work, together with its prologue and still divided into five acts, will last from eight o’clock to midnight, because of the complicated stage sets for the African forest and the final tableau, the funeral pyre and the apotheosis of the Roman Capitol. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2759; 28 July)
[...] Mme Charton will be a superb Dido. She delivers the whole of the final act wonderfully; in some passages, such as
« Esclave, elle l’emporte en l’éternelle nuit ! »
she tears at your heart-strings.
But when she wants to sing some passages pianissimo she allows the pitch of some of her notes to fall, and I have to remonstrate with her to stop her seeking effects of this kind, which are too dangerous for her voice.
I have turned two friends into enemies (Mme Viardot and Mme Stoltz); both were aspirinbg to the throne of Carthage. Fuit Troja... [Troy once stood] Singers cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the irreparable ravages of time. [...]
To his uncle Félix Marmion (CG no. 2762; 23 August)
[...] We are awaiting the reopening of the Théâtre-Lyrique to be able to resume the rehearsals for Les Troyens. But the stage sets are progressing and will soon be finished. Dido knows her part, the singer of Anna soror knows hers, and the men will soon know theirs. In sum we will not be ready to start till the end of November. [...]
To Richard Pohl (CG no. 2769; 8 October)
[...] The rehearsals are going very fast, we will be ready around the middle of November. I have good reason to believe that all will go well. The actors are very responsive and are doing their best, without asking me as they usually do to make changes. It is true that they known I will not make any.
The orchestra has still not seen anything and the chorus is not very advanced, but the roles are thoroughly known. [...]
To his son Louis Berlioz (CG no. 2772; 24 October)
[...] I am harassed with rehearsals; so at last you will be present at this fearful performance! When I say fearful I mean it in a good sense; all is going well, except for a few vocal slips on the part of the choristers. The stage sets and costumes will be superb. Mme Charton and Monjauze are superb. Farewell, come quickly but put your affairs in good order.
The first performance will take place between 15 and 20 November. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2773; 25 October)
I have just received your letter, and I have time to tell you that the rehearsals of Les Troyens have scored an overwhelming success. Yesterday I walked out of the theatre in such a state of shock that I had difficulty speaking and walking.
I am capable of not writing to you on the evening of the performance; I will have lost my head. [...]
To his brother in law Camille Pal (CG no. 2776; 2 November)
[...] The general rehearsal of Les Troyens is taking place this evening with costumes and stage sets, nothing is missing, the first performance will be the day after tomorrow. Carvalho has staged the work with extraordinary lavishness; together with the whole personnel of the theatre he is in a state of the greatest enthusiasm, and I scored a very great success at the rehearsals. Monjauze and Mme Charton (Aeneas and Dido) will be superb.
Let us therefore hope. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2779; 5 November)
A magnificent success; deep emotion of the public, endless applause and just one whistle when my name was mentioned at the end. The audience was bowled over by the Septet and the Love Duet, and the Septet was encored. Mme Charton was superb; she is a true queen; she was transformed, no one knew that she possessed this dramatic talent. I am dizzy after all these embraces. I missed your hand. [...]
To Richard Pohl (CG no. 2786; 7 November)
The second performance of Les Troyens took place yesterday and was even more brilliant than the first; it stirred emotions which I am unable to describe to you, though on the other hand it is said that it reduced some individuals to a state of unbelievable rage. Two of these lunatics hurl insults at me this morning in Le Figaro and Le Nain Jaune. Mme Charton is a superb Dido; you probably do not believe her capable of such a degree of dramatic elevation. The Septet was encored amidst huge applause, the Love Duet reduced a good part of the audience to tears. It was the evening for embraces, musicians, men of letters, artists, critics, all followed each other in the corridor during the intervals to congratulate me. I had been warned of a cabal, but it did not dare to show itself. Apart from the two little papers I mentioned to you, all the others are warmly favourable. More important ones will appear on Sunday and Monday. [...]
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2788; 10 November)
I will send you later a bundle of newspapers which talk about Les Troyens; I am studying them. The vast majority bestow intoxicating praise on the author.
The third performance took place yesterday, with more ensemble and impact than the previous ones. The Septet was again encored, and part of the audience asked again for the Love Duet, but the piece is too extensive to be repeated. The last act, Dido’s aria « Adieu fière cité » and the chorus of priests of Pluton, which one of my critics calls the De profundis from Tartarus, caused an immense impression. Mme Charton’s performance had wonderful pathos. Like the queen of Carthage, I am only beginning to recover my poise and serenity. All these worries, these fears, had broken me. I have no voice left, I am barely able to say a few audible words. [...]
To his uncle Félix Marmion (CG no. 2789; 10 November)
[...] The third performance of Les Troyens was given yesterday before a full house and a packed audience; the impact was even greater than that of the previous performances; the work is now going to be performed regularly three times a week.
This cannot fail to earn me some rather significant sums of money. [...] The whole press (with the exception of two papers who load me with insults and two others which are off the mark) praises the work over and over again.
Carvalho is very proud of his daring and success; Mme Charton-Demeur remains unaffected and calm in the midst of her immense success. I have made her into a tragic actor, she has the gift of assimilation, she understands the advice she gets and executes it well. Montjauze is a somewhat uneven pius Eneas, but he has the right voice, and there is no one in Paris who could sing this role like him, though he is far from singing it flawlessly. I have a charming puer Ascanius and an elegant Anna Soror who has a fine contralto voice. The staging as a whole is splendid. [...]
To his niece Joséphine Suat (CG no. 2796; 15 November)
I am ill in bed with a bronchitis which was brought on by the rehearsals; that is why I did not reply earlier to your charming letter. And then all these other letters, these visits, these congratulations, have all rather made me to lose my head... Everything is going better and better; the fifth performance, which Louis and my friends came to tell me about at midnight, was superb. Large takings, a full house, immense enthusiasm, tears, applause, nothing was missing.
I have here nearly 30 newspapers which all (with the exception of three barking dogs who pour insults on me) raise the work and the author to the sky. There is one which contains two articles, one for and the other against (see le Monde illustré).
You must admit it is hard not to be able to go out and attend these fine performances. But I must get better. [...]
To Richard Pohl (CG no. 2797; 18 November — see the note below)
[...] I am ill with a violent bronchitis which has kept me in bed for a week; consequently I have been unable to attend the last four performances of Les Troyens. I will not be able either to go to this evening’s performance. These performances are taking place regularly three times a week. There are always one or two idiots who vent their fury in the corridors in a comic way. Yesterday my son overheard two of them exclaiming furiously during an interval: « We cannot allow this kind of music ! ».
Have you seen in last Sunday’s Le Ménestrel the wonderful article by Gasperini? and those by d’Ortigue, Fiorentino, St Valéry, St Victor, Pascal, Escudier, Baudillon, etc, etc, etc. These articles have amply compensated me for the newspapers with insults. Damcke has written several for the Berlin Gazette musicale. [...]
Note. Berlioz attended the first 3 performances on 4, 6 and 9 November. By 18 November, the date of the letter, he can only have missed 3 performances and not 4, those of 11, 13 and 16 November. — ‘Yesterday my son overheard’: this must refer to the performance of 16 November; there was none on 17 November.
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2799; 19 November)
[...] Robinson Crusoe’s great canoe is launched! And it is you who five years go [in 1856], made me choose the tree and instilled in me the courage to dig it. But I am ill and have been in bed for the last ten days; the stress of the rehearsals has brought about a violent bronchitis which only rest can calm and cure. Consequently I have been unable to attend the last four performances [11, 13, 16, 18 November]. I have just been told that yesterday’s was splendid, and that the whole of the third act had sitrred extraordinary enthusiasm. Nothing equals the fury of my opponents. Yesterday two young men were exclaiming furiously in the corridors of the theatre: « We cannot, we must not allow this kind of music ! ». Do you not find this word allow charming? On the other hand, as two ladies were walking out after the fifth act one was saying to the other: « Yes, I grant you, it is beautiful, very beautiful, I do not say the opposite, but one must know how to contain oneself. Your tears are drawing attention to yourself, and that is not proper. »
More than thirty papers have published superb articles, ardent and enthusiastic; four or five others have heaped on me invective of the the most banal kind and the maddest of insults. I have had to put up with this unpleasant shower. But no matter what I do, it hurts and causes me secret pain which I am ashamed of. And then, I must confess, even those things which are most natural in my position, but which offend the artist in me, cause me hurt. I suffer agonies at seeing myself carved up by my publisher, and to learn that my score turns up in his shop window in pieces, like meat at a butcher’s, and that you can even buy a few pence worth of lungs to feed the porters’ cats... Ah! commerce and art loathe each other furiously.
As you know, I had to divide the work in two parts, of which the first, La Prise de Troie, forms an opera in three acts, and the second, Les Troyens à Carthage, is the one that has been staged. The first three acts have had to be replaced by an explanatory prologue, a mixture of music and spoken verse. This has a grandiose and novel aspect. The instrumental Lamento, the invisible chorus, the evocation of the memories of the catastrophe of Troy, all this is very striking. The staging is in general rather fine, but the theatre is not large enough, though at times there are almost 150 figures on stage. Monjauze (Aeneas) is in general fine and compelling, at least every alternate day. Mme Charton is unfailingly superb; she is flawless as a singer, but has become a true tragic actress, thanks to her submissiveness and her desire to scale the heights of the subject; she has sublime moments. [...]
I have the most charming puer Ascanius that can be seen, and when his father embraces him and covers him with his shield, the illusion is complete. I have had to cut several pieces for various reasons, but would you believe that in an opera of this scale I have not been asked TO CHANGE A SINGLE NOTE? The orchestra plays with confidence, but I could have done with the orchestra of the Opéra; the wind instruments lack virtuosity. As for performing now La Prise de Troie, an opera in 3 acts, as I was saying to you, although Carvalho is keen to do it, I will not agree. Parisians have too little feeling for epic works, they would say: enough of Trojans! The style of this part of the poem is in any case more severe than the other; Cassandra, besides, is greater than Dido, and I will not have Mme Charton, who will not be staying in Paris next year. [...]
And you were not here, and Liszt was not here... [...]
To his brother in law Marc Suat (CG no. 2806; 26 November)
I am still unwell, the bronchitis is obstinate. It is now 17 days since I have left my bed. Louis goes every two days and tells me on his return about the events of the evening. But you can imagine that it is not the same as though I was attending in person, and I am often worried about not being able to judge for myself. [...]
My wardrobe is full of very enthusiastic papers; the four insulting critics have grown tired and no longer say anything. The Grand-Duke of Weimar had a letter sent to me by his personal secretary to congratulate me [CG no. 2798]. His letter has been published everywhere. What a charming thought on his part. [...]
To General Alexei Lvov (CG no. 2808; 13 December)
[...] It was very thoughtful of you to send your congratulations about Les Troyens. I have indeed been obliged to stay in bed for twenty-two days, as a result of the torment endured during the rehearsals. [...]
I thank you for the offer you kindly make of a subject for an opera, but I cannot accept it, as it is my firm intention not to write any more. I still have three scores of operas which the Parisians do not know, and I will never find favourable circumstances to let them hear them properly. Les Troyens was completed four years ago and only the second part, Les Troyens à Carthage, has just been performed. Still to be performed is La Prise de Troie. I will never write anything for a theatre where my instructions are not blindly obeyed, without comment, where I would be the absolute master. And that will probably not happen.
Lyric theatres, as I have said somewhere [Journal des Débats, 21 March 1854], are music’s places of ill-repute, and the chaste muse that is dragged there can only shudder as she enters. To put it in another way: lyric theatres are to music sicut amori lupanar [as a brothel is to love].
And the imbeciles and idiots who proliferate there, and the firemen and the lamplighters, and the candle under-snuffers, and the women dressers who give advice to the authors and influence the director!...
Farewell, dear master, may God preserve you from contact with this race! What I am writing to you about theatres in general is strictly confidential, all the more so as at the Théâtre-Lyrique I have found, from the director down to the humblest orchestral player, nothing but devotion and goodwill.
And all the same...
It still makes me sick.
To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2810; 14 December [?] — on the problem of date see the note below)
Thank you, dear friend, for your concern; I am still coughing to the point of spasms and vomiting, but nevertheless I do go out, and I attended the last three performances of our opera. I did not write to you because I had too many things to say. I am not sending you any newspapers, my son amused himself collecting articles that are admiring or favourable, and now has a collection of 64. I received yesterday a wonderful letter from a lady (I think she is Greek), countess Callimachi; it reduced me to tears...
Last night’s performance was superb. Mme Charton and Monjauze are really getting better and better from one day to the next. What a pity that there are only five performances left! Mme Charton is leaving us at the end of the month; she made a considerable sacrifice by accepting the contract at the Théâtre-Lyrique for the staging of Les Troyens, and yet she is getting 6000 frs a month... There is no other Dido in France; we must resign ourselves. But also the work is now known, and that is what matters. [...]
Note. This letter, which was written on a morning just before noon, bears the date 14 December in Berlioz’s hand. The date is accepted without comment in CG VI p. 539, but it creates difficulties. (1) ‘Last night’s performance’: the most recent performance was on 11 December, and there was none on the 13th. (2) There were only 4 and not 5 performances left after 11 December, those on 14, 16, 18 and 20 December. If the letter is dated 12 and not 14 December, the first difficuilty is removed, though not the second. Either way, there seem to be one or two mistakes in what Berlioz wrote.
To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (CG no. 2814; 23 December)
[...] I hasten to answer you, and I start by asking you for a favour. You will have seen on the title page of the vocal score of Les Troyens these two words: Divo Virgilio. It is as though I had written this sacramental utterance: Sub invocatione Divi Virgilii. I am now going to have the full score printed of the two parts of the lyric poem (La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage) which without you would not exist; allow me to dedicate the work to you. If you agree, I will be doubly grateful. Divus Virgilius will not stand in the way of the dedication, and I will thus be under a twofold patronage. This publication cannot be completed for another year. The publisher [Choudens] is a muddler, and I have to keep a very close eye on him, otherwise he would cause endless trouble if I cut him any slack.
The performances have now come to an end, and Mme Charton is leaving us; she had already sacrificed a considerable amount of money by agreeing to receive only 6000 frs a month... she is going to resume her Verdi roles at the Théâtre-Italien. She has been, as indeed have all the other actors, completely submissive during the rehearsals, and neither her nor the others asked me to change a single note. But the director, though protesting that he only wanted to carry out my intentions, inflicted torture on me which I will no longer tolerate, by asking me to cut pieces and to make horrible changes to the staging. In the final analysis nine pieces were suppressed. When he did not have the courage to ask me for a mutilation he would do so through the intermediary of friends, one of them verbally, the other in writing, he was scared of his shadow. Scared! as though anything great can be achieved without boldness and steady nerves! But he was risking his money, and this consideration made me yield. No, I will never do anything worthwhile in a theatre without being the absolute master there. I have to be obeyed without comment, and the resistance of a will other than mine makes me suiffer the agony of death, it paralyses and stupefies me.
All the same, these 22 performances have generated in the musical world an enthusiasm which I would have loved to let you see. Never before have I witnessed such displays of emotion. Only the fury of my enemies can stand comparison.
How many beautiful letters have I received! How many people have I seen moved to tears! And myself, last Friday [18 December], an evening that was splendid in every respect, I admit I was overwhelmed by some passages in Dido’s last aria: « Adieu fière cité ! » and especially by the end which the singer delivers wonderfully: « Je ne vous verrai plus, ma carrière est finie ! »
I say this to give you heart, Princess, and make you believe that the work is worthy of you. [...]
To his niece Joséphine Suat (CG no. 2815; 24 December)
[...] And yet the performances of Les Troyens are now at an end; Mme Charton-Demeur is leaving us, I no longer have any Dido. I have to accept this. I know that by being satisfied with 6000 francs a month she was making a considerable sacrifice for my sake; she is offered much more elsewhere, and I have nothing to say.
[...] Yet the number of letters I have to answer is reducing; I have received wonderful ones. The day before yesterday a lady I do not know wrote me two charming pages to accompany a bronze vase full of splendid flowers [CG no. 2813]. These expressions of enthusiasm touch me deeply. Be that as it may, neither you, nor your father, nor my uncle, nor anyone from my family, Louis excepted, will have seen my work. Friends came from Marseille, Geneva, London,and Berlin, but nieces none. [...]
In addition to the images shown below the reader should also consult the section above on the sketches of the stage-sets for the performances of 1863 and the separate page of cartoons from Le Journal amusant of 28 November 1863, which provides cartoon portraits of almost all the singers involved in the production.
Mme Charton-Demeur sang the role of Dido, Queen of Carthage. This picture comes from the internet site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Monjauze sang the role of the Trojan hero Æneas. This picture comes from the internet site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Marie Dubois sang the role of Anna, sister of Dido. This picture comes from the internet site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
This represents the final scene of the opera, where Dido takes her own life. It comes from Le Monde illustré of 14 November 1863, p. 305, a copy of which is in our collection.
Related pages on this site:
Hugh Macdonald, Les
Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique
Libretto of Les Troyens
Orchestral excerpts of Les Troyens
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997. This page created on 29 February 2004; new version considerably enlarged on 1 January 2018.
Copyright notice: The texts, photos, images and musical scores on all pages of this site are covered by UK Law and International Law. All rights of publication or reproduction of this material in any form, including Web page use, are reserved. Their use without our explicit permission is illegal.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.
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