Les Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique


Hugh Macdonald

© 1969-2015 Hugh Macdonald

The Musical Times, September 1969, pp. 919-921

Berlioz composed Les Troyens in the full knowledge that he might never live to see it performed, and of the first two acts this turned out to be the case. After five years of prevarication by the Opéra and the Théâtre-lyrique the work was finally accepted by the smaller and less suitable of these two houses, the Théâtre-lyrique, then under the enterprising direction of one of the Second Empire’s more curious personalities, Léon Carvalho. This was in February 1863, nearly five years after the completion of the score, but it was not until June, a full four months later, that there was any suggestion of dividing the work into two; Berlioz even attempted to engage a Cassandra. But for his insistence that Madame Charton-Demeur should sing the role of Dido he had to pay dearly. On June 4 1863 he wrote:

Carvalho and I are at last harnessed to this enormous machine Les Troyens. Three days ago I read it to the entire company of the theatre and the chorus rehearsals are about to begin. Negotiations with Madame Charton-Demeur have been concluded; she is to play the role of Dido. This has caused a great to-do in Paris musical circles. We hope to be ready at the beginning of December. But I have had to consent to allowing the last three acts only to be performed. They will be divided into five acts preceded by a Prologue which I have just written, the theatre being neither rich nor large enough to mount La Prise de Troie.1

It is certain that the division was reluctantly made, and he used the word ‘mutilated’ to describe the opera’s treatment. Nevertheless the preparations for the production gave him great satisfaction and confidence. Carvalho secured a state subvention of 100,000 francs and threw himself ever more keenly into the production; Madame Charton-Demeur was passionately enthusiastic about her role and Flaubert gave advice on costumes; the publisher Choudens bought the rights of the two parts of Les Troyens and of Benvenuto Cellini for 15,000 francs, and rehearsals went so well that the first night was brought forward about a month, almost without precedent in Paris. Berlioz communicates his high spirits to the Times critic J. W. Davison:

Do come, it’s to be Wednesday 4 November. I had an enormous success at the rehearsal this morning. Tout va.2

To Ferrand he wrote:

I came out of the theatre yesterday so overwhelmed that I could barely speak or walk. It is quite possible that I shall not be able to write to you the evening of the performance; I shall be out of control.3

After the dress rehearsal, which took place on November 2, Madame d’Ortigue mistook Berlioz’s lassitude and emotional exhaustion for despair. In fact the rehearsals and the ultimate realization of his score, however truncated, produced in him an almost boyish sense of excitement, despite the bitterness and disappointment enshrined in the Mémoires’ account of the production. Both the music and the favourable reviews in the press moved him deeply. But over the weeks the excitement lapsed, and by 1864 (when he added yet another section to the Mémoires), only disillusionment was left.

Apart from Madame Charton-Demeur, the cast included Marie Dubois as Anna and Monjauze as Aeneas. The chorus-master was Delibes, then aged 27, and the conductor Deloffre on whose ability no comment whatever is found in Berlioz’s writings or letters, and extremely little in any critical notices of the production. Deloffre had spent 10 years as a violinist in London, where he had met Berlioz in 1851. Adolphe Jullien described him as an experienced but spineless artist who was only mildly sympathetic towards this music.

The day after the premiere Berlioz wrote to Ferrand:

Magnificent success; the audience was deeply moved—tears, endless applause, and just one hiss at the end. The septet and the love duet delighted the whole house; the septet had to be repeated. Madame Charton was superb, a real queen; she surpassed herself, nobody had any idea that she had such dramatic talent. I am quite dizzy from all the congratulations. I missed your hand.4

Two days later he wrote to Pohl:

The second performance of Les Troyens took place yesterday with even greater success than the first. Some of the audience experienced emotions which I cannot begin to describe, while one or two others went into paroxysms of fury— so they tell me ... It was an evening of embraces; musicians, men of letters, artists, and critics filed into the wings during the intervals to congratulate me.5

One of Nicholas Georgiadis’s sketches for the Royal Opera production of ‘Les Troyens’, which opens on September 17

To the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, to whose urging we owe the composition of Les Troyens, he wrote: ‘You were not there, Liszt was not there’.6 But many of his friends had made the effort. Meyerbeer, now over 70, went to 12 performances ‘for my pleasure and instruction’ as he related, and Jullien records that he was always following the libretto. Davison made the trip from London; Auguste Barbier wrote Berlioz a note after the performance aptly phrased: ‘Well roared, lion!’. Above all Louis, Berlioz’s sailor son, had arranged his leave to be able to attend every performance. Earlier he had discovered his father’s music at Baden-Baden and was now anxious to steep himself in it, no doubt a complementary outlet to his father’s idealized craving for distant shores. Between performances he searched out and filed all the press notices he could find. After a fortnight his total was over 30 laudatory, four or five deprecatory, including among the latter such men as Scudo in the Révue des Deux Mondes whom Berlioz had long since ceased to treat seriously. D’Ortigue (Journal des Débats), Gasperini (Le Ménestrel), Fiorentino (La France), Johannes Weber (Le Temps), Durocher (La Gazette Musicale), Damcke (Berliner Musikzeitung), Escudier (La France Musicale), Gustave Bertrand (La Révue Germanique), also Léon Kreutzer, St Valéry, St Victor, Pascal, Baudillon, Texier, Albéric Second, and Félix Clement, all upheld their colleague and treated him with more seriousness and respect than many critics enjoy when they practise the art that they preach.7

D’Ortigue led in the Débats:

Talk about melody! If the duet for Dido and Anna, the motif of Dido’s air in the first act, the sailor’s song, and many other fragments scattered among the last two acts are not melodies, then I know not the meaning of the term. It is not always, of course, melody as understood by a certain school of composition, that is to say bare and obvious; but melody of profound expression, that has inner vibrancy, that penetrates the soul, melody that unites itself with harmony and draws its colour from instrumentation. The septet and the love duet are Virgilian music that sparkles and glows, through it one perceives the azure of the sky, the blueness of the sea, vast horizons and silhouettes of distant mountains ... And what is peculiar to Berlioz, what distinguishes him from all others is that in this succession of beauties he shows himself to be as great a poet as he is musician. Poetry here holds out her hand to music, the two entwine and mingle in a sweet and marvellous embrace.

Bertrand’s extremely sensible article was separately published as a pamphlet. Gasperini declared the opera perfect from beginning to end. Even Scudo, one of Berlioz’s long-standing enemies, had to admit that here was a musician who merited serious consideration:

If he has failed, he has failed magnificently, and his disaster will not lessen the esteem owed to a man who has devoted 10 years of his life to realizing his dream.

This exaggerated notion had also reached the ears of Ludovic Halévy, the composer Halévy’s nephew, who noted in his diary the day after the first performance:

Les Troyens was performed yesterday—that notorious opera which for 10 years now has been called a masterpiece by M. Berlioz’s friends and by M. Berlioz himself, by M. Berlioz himself especially. What noise! The house was full of fanatics, and from the opening bars: “Bravo! Bravo! It’s sublime!” etc.8

It seems to have been assumed that the composition of the opera must have taken as long as the siege of Troy itself. Apart from Scudo, Berlioz’s most virulent detractors were Jouvin in Le Figaro and de Lassalle in Le Monde Illustré. Jouvin spoke of the Royal Hunt and Storm as follows:

Here I give up altogether. If the violent and unpleasant dissonances that pursue each other through the orchestral texture are music, if this charivari which exceeds in absurdity even Jean-Jacques’ pathetic failure in Geneva is art, then I am a barbarian … and proud of it!

If mockery and parody are signs of success then Berlioz might have welcomed the numerous cartoons in Le Charivari and La Vie Parisienne lampooning his passion for Virgil, and in Grevin’s Journal Amusant, when an entire issue was devoted to Les Troyens (November 28). At the Théâtre Déjazet a parody was staged which Daniel Bernard remembered as being ‘a fitting diversion for the savages who ate Captain Cook’.9 Le Nain Jaune joined in with some irresistibly ludicrous comments:

M. Berlioz has entitled the prologue of this sinister farce an “Instrumental Lamento”. I like this plainspeaking, but it doesn’t improve matters. If someone wishing to express his approval of the management inadvertently let one hand strike the other, M. Berlioz would turn round haughtily and acknowledge it. If one thing can excuse this man, it is the pleasure he evidently experiences in listening to his infernal music. For 15 years he has hawked his Troyens, words and music, sets and publicity, by himself. We have now heard this masterpiece. Paris is now at peace. Poor M. Carvalho must be pitied; this little amusement will cost him 100,000 francs. Why did M. Berlioz not conduct the orchestra himself? It would have been a fine sight. He is as thin as his baton, and no one ever knows which of the two is beating time.

Another pamphlet imagined Berlioz being tried in hell by the souls of dead composers, who of course condemn him under Cherubini’s chairmanship; only Lesueur and Bouilly abstain. The score is condemned to be burned.10

After four performances Berlioz took to his bed suffering from exhaustion and bronchitis superimposed on the neuralgia from which he always suffered worst at that time of the year. He missed at least nine of the 22 performances, and by the time he was well enough to get up again, at the beginning of December, his attitude to the production appears to have hardened. Perhaps he was horrified by what he found had happened in his absence, perhaps the enthusiasm of the audience had cooled since the first few nights. His letter of December 13 to Lvov echoes a sentiment that recurs elsewhere in his writings:

Theatres are dens of musical vice, and the chaste muse there defamed cannot but shudder to enter therein. Or again: opera houses are to music sicut amori lupanar.11 [He continues:] Then there are the idiots and imbeciles that swarm there, firemen and stage-hands, under-candle-snuffers and wardrobe assistants, who offer their advice to composers and influence the manager…

Adieu, cher maître; God preserve you from contact with that vile race! What I say to you about theatres in general is absolutely between you and me; all the more since at the Théâtre-lyrique, from the manager to the last orchestral player I have experienced nothing but devotion and good will. And yet … Nevertheless … I am sick of it ...

By the last performance the work had been severely cut. The Royal Hunt and Storm was cut immediately after the first night on Berlioz’s own insistence, as the elaborate staging with magic lantern effects and real waterfalls required a 55-minute interval to prepare. D’Ortigue, in the Débats, perceptively suggested that no scenic representation was needed for so highly evocative a piece, but it was never played again in Berlioz’s lifetime. Ten cuts were listed by Berlioz in his Mémoires and he also mentions other concessions, such as additional bars and reduced orchestration. Little remained of the grandeur and epic scale of his original conception. Yet the evidence of his letters and of Daniel Bernard suggests that Berlioz owed Carvalho a greater debt than the Mémoires allow.

At the final performance at the end of December Berlioz was ‘horribly moved, particularly by Dido’s farewell’—there was little prospect of ever hearing this music again. A few days later the resignation of his last years is heard in a letter to the Princess:

No, I shall never achieve anything worthwhile in the theatre unless I am in complete control … I live in total mental solitude, I do nothing but suffer pain for eight or nine hours a day, without hope of any sort, with no higher aspiration than to fall asleep, and appreciating well the truth of the Chinese proverb: it is better to be sitting than standing, better lying down than sitting, better asleep than awake, and better dead than sleep.12


1. Lettres intimes (Paris 1882), p.250 [Correspondance générale, no.2733]
2. J. W. Davison, From Mendelssohn to Wagner (London 1912), p.274
3.Lettres intimes, p.258 [25 octobre, CG no. 2773]
4. ibid, p.258 [5 novembre, CG no. 2779]
5. Nouvelles Lettres de Berlioz, ed Barzun (New York 1954), p.242 [7 novembre, CG no. 2786]
6. Briefe an die Fiirstin Carolyn Sayn-Wittgenstein, ed La Mara (Leipzig 1903), p.132 [19 novembre, CG no. 2799]
7. The press notices are generously quoted by Alfred Ernst in his L’Oeuvre Dramatique de H. Berlioz (Paris 1884), pp.251-87
8. Nouvelles Lettres, p.242
9. ‘Notice sur Berlioz’ in Correspondance inédite (Paris 1879), p.54
10. E. Thoinan, L’Opéra des Troyens au Père-Lachaise, lettre de feu Nantho, ex-timbalier soliste, ex-membre de la societe des bucinophiles et autres socidtds savantes. E. Thoinan was the pseudonym of Ernest-Victor Roquet.
11. Correspondance indédite, p.303 [CG no. 2808]
12. op cit, p.234 [23 décembre, no. 2814]

* We are most grateful to Hugh Macdonald for granting us permission to publish this article on the site. We have not been able to contact the editor of The Musical Times, which has ceased publication.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 16 March 2015.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.

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