Politics on stage: Historical study of the 'oeuvres de circonstances' performed at the Opéra de Paris from 1810-1815 by David Chaillou

Doctoral thesis in contemporary history
Supervisor: Jean Tulard
Université de Paris IV

The chosen time period corresponds with the last years of the Empire, the marriage of Napoleon to Marie-Louise of Austria (13 December 1810) and the return of Louis XVIII in 1815. On the one hand, these years were full of institutional change, and on the other they were when the Empire took full control over operatic performance in France. How far was this musical propaganda to follow the decline of the emperor, his return and his final exile ? What happens to musical propaganda when power changes hands ?

The best viewpoint is the Paris Opéra, a key centre of Paris life during the Empire and the beginning of the Restoration. Any musician who desired fame had to have his music performed there. What is more, the Opéra was under the personal supervision of the emperor. 'No opéra may be performed without my express command', he announced in 1810 to the theatre manager. And this specific link with the opera meant that every piece performed had a political resonance and was overtly to a greater or lesser extent glorification of the party in power. The Opéra de Paris could be described as the place where history was performed on stage.

In addition to the purely theatrical aspect, there was also the presence of the sovereign at the performance. Napoleon marketed his image. Every important event had its reflection on the stage of the Académie Impériale. For Marie-Louise's first appearance at the Opéra, the programme was carefully adapted for the event. The arrivals and the departure of the emperor were prepared and accompanied with specific music which interrupted the performance. The performance had moved to the auditorium, the emperor had become the hero.

The works performed were either composed in honour of specific events (for example, Le Triomphe du mois de mars ou le Berceau d'Achille, opera, allegorical tableau and music by Kreutzer was performed in honour of the birth of the King of Rome, 27 March 1811) or exalted the regime indirectly or allegorically (for example, Pelage ou le Roi de la Paix, music by Spontini, libretto by Jouy, performed on 23 August 1814 on the return of the Bourbons).

Thus by offering a comparison of times past with times present, the theatre could be used as a powerful propaganda weapon.

The regime consciously used music to influence public opinion. The rehearsal of spectacles by the directeur of the Académie under orders from the Superintendant for music thus took on great significance.

The study of the works which were performed offers a new picture of the periods which they illustrate. The choice of themes and the reoccurence of certain elements reveal the nature of the regimes and how they wished to be seen by the public. In this respect, the themes and elements which are carefully avoided are of not insignificant importance (Spain in 1812, for example). Defeat and power are thus sublimated in the pomp and ceremony of the spectacle.

David Chaillou has a DEA in contemporary history, gives supervisions at the university of Paris IV and is writing his thesis under the supervision of Prof Jean Tulard.

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