Talking Point with Peter Hicks > The Musical Triumphs of Napoleon

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
Share it

For the Fondation Napoléon, the bicentennial twenty years (2000-2021) really got going properly in 2004 with a major international conference, the first ever exhibition of the collection, but most of all (and I would say this wouldn’t I?) the concert commemorating Napoleon’s consecration and coronation on 2 December. Though we did not perform absolutely all the pieces played on that day in 1804 (a three-hour concert might have tested everyone’s patience…), those that we did play, by the composers Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, Jean-François Lesueur, and above all Giovanni Paisiello, were dramatic and glorious. As the final, three-orchestra movement of Paisiello’s coronation mass, the “Domine, fac salvum imperatorem Napoleonum”, was still ringing in our ears, they flung open the doors of the packed church of “La Madeleine” to reveal the Dome at Les Invalides, glowing in the darkness. Unforgettable!

Talking Point with Peter Hicks > The Musical Triumphs of Napoleon
Peter Hicks ©Fondation Napoléon / Rebecca Young

Six years later (2010), this time much closer to the imperial tomb, at the Cathedral of St Louis des Invalides, the concert was in remembrance of the 1810 wedding of Napoleon with Marie-Louise d’Habsburg-Lorraine. Once again, the orchestra the Académie symphonique de Paris (Jérôme Treille) and the Musicanti choir were on stage with the, by now obligatory, soprano soloist, Véronique Chevallier. Lesueur’s wedding cantata, “Tollite Hostias” and “Veni, sponsa, coronaberis”, provided the central part of this concert, alongside the unforgettable (literally) “Chant triomphal” (Napoléon est de retour), the latter  performed for the first time in two hundred years.

Another eight years (2018) and we celebrated the Fondation’s 30th birthday with another glorious concert at St Louis des Invalides, with the same orchestra but this time with the choir, Voix Impériales. As was by now the tradition, some of the music performed had been transcribed from manuscripts in Paris archives and was performed very probably for the first time since the events for which they were originally written. Of note were: Méhul’s “Chant du retour de la Grande Armée en 1807” written to accompany the return of the Grande Armée to Paris after Friedland; Charles-Simon Catel’s 1809 commemoration of Napoleon’s coronation; and André Grétry’s once famous “Quatuor de Lucile”, better known as “Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille”, one of the Emperor’s favourite tunes.

In October 2021, the closing bicentenary concert (again at the Cathedral of St Louis) was a musical evocation of the Emperor’s career, starting with the representation of Chaos from Haydn’s “Creation”. In December 1800, on the rue St Nicaise, Napoleon narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on the way to the French première of the work. By a fitting coincidence, the First Consul’s coming to power would bring order to the chaos of the Revolutionary period. The next pieces to be played included works by Lesueur and Paisiello evoking the coronation, notably the French musician’s brilliant “Marche du Sacre” and the exquisite “Gloria” from the Neapolitan composer’s mass. The highlights of the second half were the first performance in two hundred years of the “Dirge” specially composed for Napoleon’s funeral on St Helena on 9 May 1821. This world premier was followed by pieces evoking the dark years between the Empires – Madame L.’s remarkably evocative salon song on the Emperor’s tomb for solo soprano with harp and vocal trio accompaniment and an extract from the Mozart Requiem, which was performed in the same building for the Retour des Cendres [Return of Napoleon’s mortal remains from St Helena to Paris] in December 1840. Similarly unforgettable was Joachim Leroux’s masterly arrangement for full orchestra of Gabriel Fauré’s hauntingly beautiful “Chant funéraire”, specially composed in 1921 for the centenary of Napoleon’s death. We brought the bicentenary period to a rousing close with Méhul’s “Napoléon est de retour” and “Chant du Départ”.

Any take-homes from all this? That whilst the remembrance of Napoleon continues to inspire and stimulate, the music of the period excites and provokes us with greater immediacy, presenting to our ears as it does – often for the first time in two hundred years – the pomp and circumstance of the meteoric era that was the Napoleonic period!

Peter Hicks (October 2021)

Peter Hicks is a musician, historian and International Affairs Manager at the Fondation Napoléon.

Watch some extracts from the 2021 concert at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides.

Share it