Berlioz and the Parisian prudes

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, September 10, 2019

We tend to think of Paris as the most sophisticated and worldly of European capitals – a city whose residents are unlikely to be shocked by anything they see or hear.

Ah, but that’s not always the case, as poor Hector Berlioz discovered on today’s date in 1838, when his new opera “Benvenuto Cellini” premiered at the Paris Opéra. One line in the libretto about the cocks crowing at dawn was considered, as Berlioz put it, “belonging to a vocabulary inconsistent with our present prudishness” and provoked shocked disapproval. And that was just the start of a controversy that raged over both the morality and the music of this new opera.

Following the dismal opening night, Berlioz wrote to his father: “It’s impossible to describe all the underhanded maneuvers, intrigues, conspiracies, disputes, battles, and insults my work has given rise to… The French have a positive mania for arguing about music without having the first idea – or even any feeling – about it!”

From the fiasco of the opera’s premiere, however, Berlioz did retrieve some measure of success. His famous contemporaries Paganini and Liszt both admired the work — and said so — and one flashy orchestral interlude from “Benvenuto Cellini” did prove a lasting success when Berlioz recast it as a concert work: his “Roman Carnival Overture.”