Air and graces: Napoleon and vocal music

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Throughout his life Napoleon was a confirmed music lover. Like all his contemporaries, he was a passionate visitor to the opera, seeing 163 different operas and attending 319 performances.(1) As early as the Lyons prize essay (1791), he is recorded singing its praises. “For every age and in every situation,” he enthused, “music consoles, pleases, disturbs delightfully… We should not therefore proscribe music: it is the man of feeling's tender companion, it inspires his emotions. It increases the number of his enjoyments, and as he savours all the minute details of the charming melody, he is more deeply affected by the delights of the emotion…” Four years later he was to write in a similarly lyric vein to his beloved of the time, Désirée Clary on 10 September 1794 as follows: “Music is the soul of love, the sweetness of life, the consolation (the ms incorrectly gives “consolidation”) for sorrow and the companion of innocence.” (2)
However in addition to the personal pleasure he derived, he was also convinced that music (like religion) could also be useful to the statesman. At the end of the First Italian campaign (in 1797) in a letter to the five inspectors of the Paris Conservatoire, the star composers of the day, Méhul, Le Sueur, Gossec, Cherubini and Sarrette, he remarked: “Of all the fine arts, music is the one which has the most influence on the emotions, and it is this influence which the legislator must encourage most warmly. A piece of “moral” music, one by the hand of a master, cannot fail to touch the heart and has much more influence than a good, “moral” piece of writing, which moves the mind but has no effect on our behaviour”. (3)

Practical musicianship

But the ability to sing or play music was one gift which Nature had not given Napoleon. The Duchesse d'Abrantès, madame Durand, Marie-Louise's principal lady in waiting, Marchand and Betsy Balcombe all attest to the emperor's not being able to sing – his voice was famously raucous and out-of-tune, and his whistling was anything but musical. Betsy Balcombe in her Recollections wrote (4): “In fact, Napoleon's voice was most unmusical, nor do I think he had any ear for music; for neither on this occasion, nor in any of his subsequent attempts at singing, could I ever discover what tune it was he was executing. He was, nevertheless, a good judge of music, if any Englishwoman may say so, after his sweeping denunciation of our claims to that science, probably from having constantly listened to the best performers. He expressed a great dislike to French music, which, he said, was almost as bad as the English, and that the Italians were the only people who could produce an opera.”
That being said, in his youth he clearly spent some time learning a little of the mechanics of music. In a letter of 12 February 1795 to Désirée Clary he went into great (if a little confused) detail on the subject of music theory (5):
“I shall send you a note tomorrow telling you what music you have to buy if you want to speed up your improvement. I shall get you a subscription to a keyboard journal printed in Paris, so that every decade [the Revolutionary ten-day week, ed.] you will receive a music book containing the most recent airs. I do not know if your piano teacher is as good as I hoped. He probably has you sing, and he must also have started getting you to learn your notes.
Accustom yourself to singing scales from any note. This will take a bit of practice and you will need to get into the habit of listening to and controlling your voice. For example, you sing on your own c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c, which is the scale we normally use. If you begin on d and sing d, e, f, g, a, b, c, d, do you know what usually happens? That you do indeed say d, but you give it the same value as c, in other words, a tone difference. After that comes [e] f, a semi-tone, and [g] a, a tone. After that, you have to sing e, f, g, a, b, c, d, e, in other words, to pass from the first sound of the voice to the second via the interval of a semi-tone. You will in the end sing b, c, d, e, f, g, a, b, which is the scale of the ancients. Ask your teacher about what I'm telling you here. In short, all you have to do is to accustom yourself to following the forte piano.”

Music appreciation

On the other hand, it is clear that Napoleon loved the “noise” that music made. In his most developed piece of creative writing, the novella, Clisson and Eugenie, he could imagine no greater comparison for the beauty of character than that of Italian music, in particular that of Paisiello. As he wrote: “Amélie had the same effect as a piece of French music. […] Eugénie was like a piece by Paisiello which transports and uplifts souls born to hear it, whilst the common sort remains unaffected”. And indeed, certain observers noted that Napoleon was not a poor critic. The German Johann Frederick Reichhardt recounted the following anecdote regarding the First Consul: (6) he had ordered (out of the blue on 1 February, 1803) that the principals of the Opera should come out to the Palace of Saint-Cloud to perform the first act of Paisiello's Proserpine, which he had commissioned and was eager to get to know. Noting that Bonaparte opened the concert by warning the sopranos not to “shriek like you usually do”, Reichardt recounted that: “Bonaparte sat facing the singers, astride a chair, his arms folded over the chair back, his head resting on his arms, silent and motionless during the performance. You would have said that he was asleep. Once the act was over, he stood up and addressed Paisiello with a series of remarks concerning the mistakes in the prosody, words badly cut by the music, repeated pointlessly, breaks cutting the dramatic interest in the vocal line. At a loss faced with this bold criticism, poor Paisiello didn't know how to defend himself. […] Bonaparte revealed on this occasion more knowledge of music and poetry that one would have suspected in a man generally considered to be indifferent to the fine arts.”

Napoleon especially loved Italian vocal music, particularly when sung by beautiful woman. His affair with the Milanese singer La Grassini was in this sense a double-whammy for him! He also made the Neapolitan, Paisiello, his official musician. As he wrote in a bulletin to the Armée d'Italie, in the days preceding the battle of Marengo (5 June, 1800): “Italian singing has a charm which is always new”. And French composers were expected to compose in the Italian style if they were to find favour. Though the following anecdote (told by Mme Ducrest, adoptive child of Josephine's) (7), is thought to be apocryphal, it does however reveal some of the tensions felt by the French composers at Napoleon's court. The French composer Méhul was told that his music was too ‘baroque' (incidentally, a fault which Napoleon found in the German singing of Mozart's Don Giovanni,(8) although he did find the music ‘fort bonne'!). His words to Méhul were “Academic, always academic, that's the sort of music you give us. Grace, melody, gaiety are precisely the things which you French, and indeed German composers, can't give us”. Stung by this remark, Mehul dreamt up a plan to write an Italianate opera with the librettist Marsollier. Composed in secret and given the Italian title, L'Irato, the opera was put on and Napoleon was invited to hear it, with Méhul by his side. Napoleon was of course delighted by the brightness of the ‘Italian music' and even when the trickery was revealed to him laughed and said “You can catch me out that way any time, and I will delight in the glory that goes to you and the pleasure which comes to me”.


So we may agree with the words of the Frédéric Masson, the historian of Napoleon the man, that music had a special place in Napoleon's heart. “It was of all the arts the only one for which he had a specific and personal penchant. As for the others, he encouraged them for political reasons, or because he had a passion for grandeur and enjoyed the idea of immortality. Music on the other hand was for him a real pleasure; he loved it for itself and for the sensations which it gave him. It calmed his nerves, it put a halo round his dreams, it soothed his melancholy and warmed his heart”.


(1) L. Henry Lecomte, Napoléon et le Monde dramatique, pp. 494-96
(2) Napoléon Bonaparte, Correspondance générale, vol. 1, Paris: Fayard, 2004, letter 244.
(3) Napoléon Bonaparte, Correspondance générale, vol. 1, Paris: Fayard, 2004, letter 1821.
(4) Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon during the first three years of his captivity on the island of St Helena: including the time of his residence at her father's house, “The Briars”, Mrs Abell (late Miss Elizabeth Balcombe), London: John Murray, 1845, Chapter 3.
(5) Napoléon Bonaparte, Correspondance générale, vol. 1, Paris: Fayard, 2004, letter 285.
(6) Un hiver à Paris sous le Consulat, p. 338.
(7) Mémoires sur l'impératrice Joséphine, Paris: Fayard (s.d.), p. 67, claiming that the story came from Méhul himself.
(8) Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publié par ordre de l'empereur Napoléon III, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1858-69, letter no. 9,331.
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