Paris was the place to be in the second quarter of the 19th century if you wanted to be at the center of the world of arts. There were Jacques Louis David and Eugene Delacroix painting the way from the Revolution through the Napoleonic years, into the times of Charles X and Louis Phillipe. There were Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas and Stendhal and Musset and George Sand, Balzac and Baudelaire, proclaiming old and new freedoms in poetry and prose.
For musicians, composers and performers alike, there was fame and vast fortune - if you were in vogue. For Meyerbeer, Paris was a gold mine, as it was for Rossini and Donizetti, for Halevy and Chopin.For Richard Wagner, however, it was the road to a debtor's prison, a road he had to travel while writing out trumpet potpourris from popular operas by other composers
The musical Paris that will be recalled duting the festival that opens in the Kennedy Center May 15 was made brilliant by the presence of superstars such as Chopin, Liszt and Paganni, while the most wildly heralded composers of the time included not only Rossin, Donizetti and Bellini but so me who are today unduly forgotten, as in the cases of Halevy and Auber.
It was a historic mark of those times, which were no less turbulent politically than artistically, that Auber's best opera, "maseniello," became the signal for a revolutionary uprising in Brussels in August of 1830 when the singing of an intenor, Adolphe Nourrit, fanned that led to their successful revolt against the Dutch.
It was just over a year later that the 21-year-old Chopin, newly arrived in Paris Which was to remain his home for the rest of his life), wrote about Nourrit and the other great stars of the Parisian operatic firmament he found so exciting. To his old teacher, Joseph Elsner in Warsaw, he wrote: "there are three corchestras: at the Academie, the Theatre Italien and the Theatre Feydeau. They are excellent. Rossini is the director of his opera house, where the staging is the best in Europe. Lablache, Rubini, Pasta (who has only just left), Malibran, Devrient-Schroder, Santini, etc., delight the fashionable world three times a week. Nourrit, Levasseur, Derivis, Mme. Cinti-Damoreau and Mlle. Dorus are adding lustre to the Grand Opera . . . Today, without question, the finest cantatrice in Europe is not Pasta, but Malibran (Garcia) - she is wonderful! , , ,"
Chopin's list of great operatic names omitted one that was soon to become famous, but not for singing in Paris. Jenny Lind went to Paris in 1841, not to sing but to study singing with Manuel Garcia, the father of Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Lind, having made her debu three years before, had almost ruined her voice through improper use. Gracis was able to build a solid techinique for her so that she could go on to become the most famous star of her day.
Paris and Parisians heard her rarely, and only at private affairs. Berlioz, hearing her in Germany, wrote of her "incisive metallic timbre, great power, and incredible flexibility that lends itself equally to mezza-voice effects, to impassioned expressiveness, and to the most delicate embellishments," Chopin, who heard her in London, said, "She sings confidently, with a pure tone; her piano is as continuous and even as a hair."
But with the famous gallery Chopin had listed in his first letters home Paris had enough great singers for opera and concert not to miss even a Lind.
Four of them were singing in the Theatre Italien the 1835 night Bellini's "I Puritani" had its premiere: their names were Grisi. Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache, and so fantastic was their success in the new work that they became known as the "Puritani Quarter."
Singing, however, was for from the only source of the fireworks that continually exploded in Parisian musical circles. While music lover today have no trouble in rating Chopin and Liszt as the greatest pianists of their time, the names of Sigismund Thalberg, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz and Johann Pixis had their adherents in those days.
Think then of the raptures, the ecstasies, the upheaving bosoms and swooning admirers that must have found it all simply too much to bear that evening in 1837, when there was a grand charity concert at which all six of these players appeared. Not only did each one play, but each played his own variation on the popular march from Bellini's "puritani." If you want to hear the results, (though, to be sure, not from those pianists), it is available on RCA 2895, under the title of Hexameron, by Pixis, played by Raymond Lewenthal.
Equally typical, if far quieter, were the last public concerts played by Chopin with his friends Pauline Viardot singing and cellist August Franchhome assisting. His final public condert, given in the Salle Pleyel, was in February 1848.
Today's musical public has little idea of the trivia that floded the concert halls of those days. Trumphet transcriptions - poor Wagner! - were only one manifestation. Liszt made piano arrangements of all nine Beethoven symphonies, having the grace, at least when it came to the ninth, to demand two pianos instead of one. At an orchestral concert, following the playing of the final Witches Sabbath movement of the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony, he sat down at the piano and played through the entire movement, with an effect some said outdid the full orchestra!
It was the era in which Paganini stretched the techinical resources of the violin to limits not previously imagined. Chopin widened the piano's horizons to regions never before glimpsed, Berlioz enlarged the orchestra, and liszt created pianistic visions and harmonic concepts earlier generations had not known.
It was a time to be in paris.