Boieldieu was born during the Ancien Regime, and learned his skills during the reign of Terror, becoming famous during the Consulate and Empire. He was honoured by the Bourbons before being ruined by the July Revolution in 1830. He was the main French operatic composer during the first quarter of the 19th century, and specialised in comic operas: Zoraime and Zulnar in 1798, the Caliph of Baghdad in 1800, and the White lady in 1823.
Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782-1871)
In 1828, Auber became successful with the opera La Muette de Portici. Historically, this work laid the foundations for historical French Grand Opera. Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera, generally with four or five acts, characterised by large-scale casts and orchestras, lavish decor and spectacular stage effects, with plots based on dramatic historic events. Auber, with the unfailing help of his co-author Scribe – unrivalled in his ability to put together pleasant, interesting librettos – was most successful and prolific in comic opera, from the triumph of Fra Diavolo (1830) onwards. In 1842, he was appointed head of the Paris Music Conservatory and held the post until his death in 1871.
Louis-Joseph-Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833)
Hérold became famous through an opera written with François-Adrien Boieldieu, Charles de France (1816). On May 3, 1831, the premiere of his most famous opera, Zampa, was staged. This was a resounding success in France and Germany, where it is still performed today. After working on La Marquise de Brinvilliers (with others including Boieldieu and Auber) and writing La Médecine sans médecin, in 1832 he delivered what is no doubt his most famous work nowadays, Le Pré-aux-clercs, which had been staged 1000 times by 1871.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
With his Fantastic symphony composed in 1830, he is considered to be one of the best representatives of European romanticism. He composed the symphony after meeting the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he married in 1833. In 1841, he began writing a series of articles for the Revue et gazette musicale; these articles formed the basis of his Grand Treatise on Instrumentation, published in 1843. He travelled abroad many times, where his music received more acclaim than in Paris (Belgium, Germany, Austria, and England). On December 6, 1846, The Damnation of Faust was performed for the first time at the Paris Comic Opera. During the 1850s, thanks to his position in the Weimar court, Liszt popularised Berlioz’s music in Germany, in particular by organising a “Berlioz week” in 1852 during which Benvenuto Cellini (altered for a German audience) was performed, as were Romeo and Juliet and two acts of The Damnation of Faust (dedicated to Liszt, who in turn, in 1854 dedicated his Faust Symphony to Berlioz). These relations with Liszt spurred Berlioz to continue in grand opera with les Troyens in 1858.
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
In 1859, his Faust was performed at the Theatre Lyrique. The opera is based on the play by Goethe, in which Marguerite is seduced by Faust after the latter has sold his soul to the devil. With its superb score, including the famous tune of Mephisto’s Song of The Golden Calf, the legendary Jewel Song Ah! je ris, immortalised by Hergé’s Blanca Castafiore, the soldiers’ chorus and the Walpurgis Night ballet music, it was immensely successful: 70 performances during the first year! In 1867, Gounod published Romeo and Juliet, an opera based on Shakespeare’s play.
Although Gounod is famous essentially for his operas, he also composed two symphonies and religious music (Mors et Vita, 1885), as well as many songs and arrangements for poems by Alfred de Musset and Victor Hugo, such as Venise, ô ma belle rebelle, and D’un cœur qui aime.
Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896)
Ambroise Thomas was triumphantly elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1851, overwhelmingly defeating Berlioz who got just one vote. After uncertain beginnings, he was in his fifties when his opera Mignon (1866), using a libretto based on Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, became a resounding success. From then on, Ambroise Thomas, whose fame had been somewhat limited up to that point, became a prominent composer. By 1894, Mignon had been performed over 1,000 times in the Opéra Comique alone, as well as in every theatre in Europe.
Clément Philibert Léo Delibes (1836-1891)
In 1871, Léo Delibes married Léontine Estelle Mesnage aka Denain, the daughter of “Mademoiselle Denain”, a shareholder in the Comédie Française, who lived in Clichy. He got his inspiration for the operettas Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876) in the gardens of the “Villa de Clichy”, now known as Roger Salengro Park. He was also the author of comic operas such as The King has Spoken and Lakmé. The Clichy Municipal Music Conservatory is now named after him.
Alexandre-César-Léopold Bizet, also known as Georges Bizet (1838-1875),
After three months of relentless work and 1,200 pages of score, his masterpiece “Carmen”, was ready; his superb libretto is by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, also the librettists for the most famous operettas by Jacques Offenbach (La Belle Hélène, La Vie parisienne and La Périchole).On March 3, 1875, he was awarded the Legion of Honour on the day of the premiere of Carmen – which proved to be a disaster. The musicians and singers were mediocre and the scene changes took so long that little by little the audience left. The audience and critics were scandalised by the steamy storyline, which the press condemned the next morning as immoral. Bizet was devastated. He developed a throat infection but decided against all advice to take refuge in his house in Bougival. On May 29, 1875, he bathed in the chilly waters of the Seine and had an acute episode of articular rheumatism the next day. His health worsened and following cardiac complications, he died in the night of June 2-3 of a heart attack – at the age of 36. His opera Carmen, adapted from the short story by Prosper Mérimée, is now one of the most frequently played works in repertoires the world over. In Europe, “Carmen” quickly rose to fame following the death of Bizet. The first great success of this brilliant work was in Vienna in October 1875.