Welcome to the first official installment of “Duly Noted,” our new blog feature where we’ll share fun stories and tidbits about the lives of our composers!
What’s the connection between the waves of civil unrest sweeping through the Middle East over the past few months, and 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam, who wrote Giselle? Well, as any student of history will tell you, art and revolution are often tied together in curious and upredictable ways.
Here’s what happened.
After the phenomenally successful premiere of Giselle in 1841, the Paris Opera hired a new director. The new guy was not such a fan of Adolphe, and Adolphe was definitely not wild about him. (The polite phrasing would be “irreconcilable difference.” A more accurate read might be “big nasty artistic man-diva catfight.”) After their bickering reached such a level that Adolphe was informed (probably none too politely) that the Paris Opera would rather throw itself off a cliff than perform another one of his works, Adolphe stomped out in a huff, and in a textbook “I’ll show THEM!” move, he invested every last cent he had (and some he didn’t, since he borrowed heavily) into a new theatre that would showcase the work of young, up-and-coming artists whose ballets and operas might never have a chance to see the light of day at one of Paris’ more established institutions – thus making him the proud forefather of every dancer, musician, playwright or actor who can’t get their work picked up by an established arts organization so they just start their own company. (He’d LOVE Portland.)
Finally, in 1847, the Théâtre National opened . . . and then immediately closed again.
The 1848 Revolution had taken over France, and the Théâtre was forced to close its doors. Adolphe, who had gone into serious debt to get the theatre launched, lost everything – not only all the money he invested, but the rights to his music – to pay off his debts.
So what’s the connection?
There have been periods throughout history where revolutions spring up all over the place in one particular part of the world, seemingly unconnected but creating massive unrest throughout an entire region. Our friends in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, etc. are living through one such time – uprisings in one country lead to uprisings next door. But even before Twitter, Facebook, the 24-hour news cycle and Internet reporting led to a global, near-instantaneous awareness of current events, this same phenomena occurred. The 1848 Revolution in France was just one of half a dozen revolutions that occurred simultaneously throughout Europe, called the “Spring of Nations” or the “Year of Revolutions.” They all shared some common themes, both with each other and with the current unrest in the Middle East: a populace dissatisfied with their political leaders and searching for a more democratic form of government; a desire for greater freedom of press, assembly and religion; and the right to create their own political boundaries based on shared language, culture and geography. Ironically for poor Adolphe Adam, the driving force behind the revolutions happened to be many of the same people his theatre was created to serve – artists, writers, students, activists, and other young, anti-establishment, creative progressives yearning to break away from repressive institutions. And, as we saw in Egypt, the same is true today.
Luckily for us, Adolphe’s musical legacy far outlasted his revolution-quashed producing dreams. We will revisit his signature work, Giselle, next season.
That is, unless the revolution comes.