Napoleon and the Arts


HAVING a continent to manage, Napoleon could not spare much time for music. It is hard to picture him sitting still and mute through one of the concerts at the Théâtre-Feydeau; nevertheless we hear of concerts given in the Tuileries, and we are assured that he took some pleasure in the intimate recitals arranged by Josephine in her apartments.1 In any case Sébastien Érard and Ignaz Pleyel were making fine pianos, and every home in le beau monde had one. Many a hostess arranged a private musicale, at which, said the Goncourts, her guests listened heroically,2 preferring spirited conversation. The Germans feasted on music without words; the French lived on words without music.

Napoleon liked opera better than concerts; he had little ear or voice for song, but it was part of the royal décor that the ruler should attend the opera occasionally, to meditate and be seen. He regretted that “Paris lacked … an opera house worthy of its high claims” as the capital of civilization;3 it had to wait for his nephew and Charles Garnier to raise (1861–75) the sparkling gem that crowns the Avenue de l’Opéra. Even so, hundreds of operas were composed and produced during his rule. La Dame blanche of François-Adrien Boieldieu, master of comic opera, received a thousand performances in forty years.4 Napoleon’s Italian nature favored Italian operas, with their melodious arias and dramatic plots. Enthusiastic over Giovanni Paisiello’s compositions, he invited him to come and direct the Paris Opéra and the Conservatory of Music. Paisiello came (1802), aged sixty-five; but the only opera he composed in Paris, Proserpina (1803), suffered a lukewarm reception; he withdrew into Masses and motets, and in 1804 he returned to Italy, where he served a more congenial audience in the Naples of Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat.

Napoleon was more fortunate with Gasparo Spontini, who came in 1803, and earned the Emperor’s support by treating historical subjects in such wise as to shed glory on the new Empire. His most famous opera, La Vestale, had difficulty in finding a company to stage it; Josephine interceded; it was produced; its “bizarre” and “noisy” theatrical emphasis combined with its love story to make it one of the most enduring successes in operatic record. When Napoleon was overthrown, Spontini composed music to celebrate the Bourbon Restoration.

Cherubini, who had dominated Parisian opera during the Revolution, continued to dominate it under Napoleon; however, the Emperor preferred lighthearted ariatic music to Cherubini’s more stately presentations, and left him noticeably unrewarded. The composer accepted an invitation to Vienna (July, 1805), but Napoleon captured that city in November. Cherubini was not quite pleased when he was called upon to conduct music for the soirees given by Napoleon in the Palace of Schönbrunn. He returned to France, and found hospitality in the château of the Prince de Chimay, who had made Mme. Tallien respectable with marriage. On returning from Elba, Napoleon, amid all his distractions, took time to make Cherubini a chevalier of the Legion of Honor; but it was only under Louis XVIII that the somber Italian received due recognition and a comfortable income. From 1821 to 1841, as director of the Paris Conservatory of Music, he influenced an entire generation of French composers. He died in 1842, aged eighty-two, almost forgotten in the careless kaleidoscope of time.

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