Monday, July 16, 2012

Napoleon and music

Here's some bits from Vincent Cronin's superb biography of Napoleon:
French music, he once complained to Etienne Méhul, had no grace, no melody. Méhul, piqued, shut himself up in his room, composed an Italian-style opera, entitled it L'Irato and, passing it off as a work by an unknown Italian, had it performed. Napoleon went to the first night, liked the melodies, clapped and kept remarking to Méhul, who sat beside him, 'Nothing can touch Italian music.' The last notes died, the singers made their customary three bows, and the name of the composer was announced: Etienne Méhul. Napoleon was taken completely by surprise, but later he said to Méhul, 'By all means trick me again.'
To his favourite singer, Girolamo Crescenti, Napoleon gave the Iron Crown. As the Crown was usually reserved for bravery on the battlefield, critics began to murmur, until silenced by Giuseppina Grassini's quip: 'Crescenti's been wonded' - he was a castrato.
We're told that Napoleon went to about 10 performances of Italian opera in a year, 8 of comic opera, and 2 or 3 of French opera. "His favourite instrument was the human voice and his favourite music that of Giovanni Paisiello, who has been called the Correggio of music. Of the aria 'Già il sol' in Paisiello's pastoral, Nina, he said that he could listen to it every evening of his life".
Hmm. If you want to live vicariously as Emperor of France by listening to that aria, you'll have a little trouble finding it - according to ArkivMusic there's just a couple of CD recordings of the complete opera and one DVD, and not a single stand-alone recording of 'Già il sol'. This despite not just Napoleon's opinion but what the 1980 Grove says of the opera: "a work important because of the exceptional acclaim it received during its composer's lifetime and because it is a locus classicus of 18th-century sentimental comedy in music". As for the aria in question, it appears to be one of the "tunes of almost naive simplicity" that crop up in Nina.
The Empire was a great period for opera. Lesueur, the son of a Norman peasant, gave his Ossian ou les Bardes in 1804, and three years later Le Truimphe de Trajan... Another important opera was Spontini's La Vestale... The Academy of Music disapproved of the opera and it was only because Josephine liked it so much that Napoleon had it performed. It proved a big success and in the next few years had 200 performances. The subject of yet another opera, Spontini's Fernand Cortez, was suggested by Napoleon. it brought on stage, for the first time, fourteen horsemen; a journalist suggested that a sign be affixed to the theatre door: 'Opera performed here on foot and on horseback.'
Well, La Vestale lives on, not least because of a Maria Callas recording. You can also hear Renata Tebaldi in (if not as) Fernand Cortez. But Jean-François Le Sueur seems to have gone the way of most sons of Norman peasants, though you can hear what Arkivmusic lists as his "Marche du Sacre de Napoléon ler" on a couple of recordings.
Roman generals, conquistadores, Celtic chiefs - armed to the teeth, they trooped on to the Empire stage. But if opera came to resemble battle, battle owed more than a little to opera. It is a remarkable fact that when French troops marched against the enemy they did so to the sound of operatic music. 'Veillons au salut de l'Empire', which under the Empire replaced 'La Marseillaise', came from an opera by Dalayrac. Another favourite with the troops, 'Où peut on être mieux qu'au sein de sa famille?' came from the famous duo in Grétry's Lucile, while 'La victoire est à nous' came from the same composer's La Caravane du Caire.
How famous is that famous duo? Well, good luck finding a recording of it. But Vieuxtemps used it in his Violin concerto no.5, which has the nickname "Grétry" as a result.
Oh well, at least the Rights of Man have lasted longer than early 19th-century French music...