Every grade of music flourished. You could get encores from a street singer for a coin, or you could join a crowd and frighten the bourgeois with “The Carmagnole” or “Ça ira,” or you could shake the frontiers with “The Marseillaise,” of which Rouget de Lisle had written all but the title. In the Concert-Feydeau you could marvel at Dominique Garat, the Caruso of his time, whose voice could evoke tremors in hearts and rafters, and was famous throughout Europe for its range. Amid the Terror of 1793 the Convention inaugurated the Institut National de Musique, and two years later it expanded this into the Conservatoire de Musique, granting it 240,000 livres per year for the free tuition of six hundred students. On the night when Robespierre was shot a Parisian could have heardArmide at the Opéra, or Paul et Virginie at the Opéra-Comique.46
Opera flourished during the Revolution. Besides putting Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s idyl to music in 1794, Jean-François Lesueur (1760–1837) scored another success, in the same year, with Fénelon’s Télémaque; he aroused all France with the noise and terror ofLa Caverne, which received seven hundred performances; he continued to produce during Napoleon’s ascendancy, and lived long enough to teach Berlioz and Gounod. In a much shorter life Étienne Méhul (1763–1817) wrote over forty operas for the Opéra-Comique, while his massive chorales—Hymne à la raison (1793) and Chant du départ (1794)—made him the musical idol of the Revolution.*
The greatest music-maker in the France of the Revolution was Maria Luigi Carlo Salvatore Cherubini. Born in Florence in 1760, “I began to learn music at six, and composition at nine.”48 By the age of sixteen he had composed three Masses, a Magnificat, a Te Deum, an oratorio, and three cantatas. In 1777 Leopold, the benevolent grand duke of Tuscany, granted him an allowance to study with Giuseppe Sarti at Bologna; in four years Cherubini became a master of contrapuntal composition. In 1784 he was invited to London, but he did not do well, and in 1786 he moved to Paris, which, except for short intervals, remained his home till his death in 1842. In his first opera there, Démophon (1788), he abandoned the lighthearted Neapolitan style of subordinating the story and the orchestra to arias, and followed Gluck into “grand opera,” in which the arias were kept secondary to the development of the theme, and to choral and orchestral music. His greatest successes in the Paris of the Revolution were Lodoïska (1791) and Médée(1797). With his still more famous Les Deux Journées (1800) he began a troubled career under Napoleon. We may rejoin him under that shooting star.
There were over thirty theaters in Revolutionary Paris, and nearly all were crowded night after night, even during the Terror. Actors had been freed by the Revolution from the disabilities long since laid upon them by the Church; they could smile at excommunications, and at the exclusion of their cadavers from Christian cemeteries. But they were subjected (1790–95) to a more alert censorship: the Convention required that no comedy should contain any aristocratic hero or sentiments; the theater was made an instrument of government propaganda. Comedy sank to a low level, and new tragedies followed the revolutionary line as well as the classic unities.
As usual the leading actors were more famous than the statesmen, and some, like François-Joseph Talma, were much more loved. His father was a valet who became a dentist, went to London, prospered, and sent his son to France for an education. After graduation François returned to serve as assistant to his father. He learned English, read Shakespeare, saw him performed, and joined a troupe of French actors playing in England. Back in France, he was admitted to the Comédie-Française, and made his debut in 1787 as Séïde in Voltaire’s Mahomet. His well-proportioned figure, his classically chiseled features, his thick black hair and brilliant black eyes, helped him to advance, but his support of the Revolution alienated most of the company, which owed its existence to the favor of the King.
In 1785 Talma saw David’s picture The Oath of the Horatii; he was struck not only by its dramatic power but by its careful fidelity to ancient dress. He resolved to introduce the same veracity into the costumes for his stage appearances. He astonished his confreres when he appeared in tunic and sandals, and with bare arms and legs, to play Proculus in Voltaire’s Brutus.
He became friends with David, and absorbed some of his revolutionary ardor. When he played Marie-Joseph de Chénier’s Charles IX (November 4, 1789) he put such passion into the antimonarchical passages—which pictured the young King as ordering the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve—that he shocked most of his audience, and many of his companions, who still felt some loyalty to Louis XVI. As the Revolution warmed, the conflict between the “Reds” and the “Blacks” in the company and in the audience became so violent—leading to duels—that Talma, Mme. Vestris (the leading tragedienne), and other actors broke away from the royally privileged Comédie-Française, and set up their own company in the Théâtre de la République Française near the Palais-Royal. There Talma improved his art by studying the history, character, and dress of each person and period in his repertoire. He practiced control of his features to accompany every change of feeling or thought; he reduced the declamatory tone of his speeches and the theatrical expression of emotion; eventually he became the acknowledged master of his art.
In 1793 the older company, renamed the Théâtre de la Nation, produced L’Ami des lois, a play salted with satire and ridicule of the Revolutionary leaders. On the night of September 3–4 the whole troupe was arrested. Talma’s company accepted a rigid censorship: the plays of Racine were banned; the comedies of Molière were subjected to cuts and alterations; aristocratic titles—even Monsieur and Madame—were expunged from permitted plays; and a similar purification was demanded in all the theaters of France.49
After the fall of Robespierre the arrested actors were released. On May 31, 1799, as the Revolution neared its end, the old company and the new were united in the Comédie-Française, and made their home in the Théâtre-Français of the Palais-Royal, where it lives and prospers today.