Francis Adrien Boieldieu’s Life

1775-1834

Francois_Adrien_BoieldieuThe latter part of the eighteenth century furnished a great number of celebrated men, among whom is the immortal Boieldieu, justly considered the prince of light music in France.

Francois Adrien Boieldieu, the favorite of all the French composers of opera, was born at Rouen, Dec. 15, 1775. His father was secretary in the archbishop’s office ; and the young Francois received his first notions of the art of music at the Metropolitan Church, where he sang as choirboy. The head master was a severe,—yes, a violent man. It is said that the little Boieldieu, having soiled one of his master’s books, ran away, to obviate the punishment which awaited him. He was caught on his way to Paris, and brought back.

At the age of sixteen he played well upon the piano, and attempted composition. He was so fond of the dramatic art, that he spent all that he could save for the theatres at Rouen, where he heard the operas then in vogue. More than once, -when his money failed, he had recourse to stratagem; as, for instance, getting into the hall by stealth, and concealing himself under a bench, that he might hear the rehearsals. Hearing the works of others incited him to renewed efforts in composition; and it was not long before he wrote a comic opera, which was performed at Rouen.

The Revolution had made such sad havoc with the churches, and the property of the clergy, that Boieldieu’s family were ruined. But our young artist of nineteen, rich in hope and courage, saw the future under the colors which concealed the present. He had thirty francs in his pocket, and a score under his arm, when he set out for the capital, with his head full of charming and brilliant air-castles which were soon to be blown away. The companies of the comic opera refused the work of an unknown artist; and poor Boieldieu soon learned from experience that it was no easy matter for a young man from the provinces to bring himself before the public. While waiting for something to turn up, he set himself to tuning pianos, and in this way came to the house of Erard, where the elite of artists were in the habit of meeting. Boieldieu soon felt his need. of more knowledge, and made good use of such opportunities as presented themselves for his improvement, and he found sympathizers, and received good advice. The celebrated Garat sang several of his romances, at first in Erard’s saloons, and then elsewhere, thus gradually leading the way to the stage. The poet Fievee furnished the young artist with a libretto for an opera in one act, “La Dot de Suzette,” which he composed in 1795- Its success encouraged the youthful aspirant to continue; and in 1796 he wrote “La Famille Suisse,” 1797, “Monbreuille et Merville,” and ” L’Heureuse Nouvelle, ” in 1879, ” Zoraime et Zulnare,” ” Les M~pi-ises espagnoles, ” in 1800, ” Baniowski.”

“The Caliph of Bagdad,” which he brought out in 1801, was far more successful than all the other operas which he had previously written. It had more than seven hundred representations in Paris alone, and spread the name of the composer far and wide. In 1802 he wrote the lovely score of ” Ma Tante Aurora.” But the amiable artist of distinguished manners and fine person, possessing all the qualities which render a man agreeable in society, admired and applauded in public for his musical gifts, was very much to be pitied in his private life. His wife, the opera-dancer Mafleuroy, whom he married in 1802, rendered him so unhappy that he found it impossible to live with her. A separation took place, and Boieldieu decided to leave Paris. He set out for Russia in company with his friends Rode and Lamarre. Immediately upon his arrival, the Czar Alexander made him master of the Imperial Chapel, which brought him honor but no profit. However, the emperor engaged him to write three operas a year, on such subjects as `he himself might choose. But dramatic literature had made very little progress in Russia; and the composer was limited to setting to music some pieces which had been performed in Paris.

During the seven years the artist remained in St. Petersburg, the only works he wrote worth mentioning are, ” Abderkan,” “Calypso,” “Les Voitures Versdes,” “Aline,” and ” Rien de Trop.” Although laden with favors by the Emperor Alexander, and dear to the elite of Russian society, Boielidieu was nevertheless entirely out of his natural element. And, if his talents were highly recognized by the court and nobility, he was not free from the surveillance of the police, always suspicious of foreigners, and more particularly of the French during the war of Napoleon against the Czar. The artist was neither a politician, nor a meddler in politics ‘, yet’ he unwittingly drew suspicion upon himself by preparing a package, of manuscripts to be sent to a friend in Paris. An employee opened the package, according  to custom, and to his astonishment read the words ” si, mi, sol,” upon the first paper. This was evidence sufficient for the detective, who clearly understood the words ” si, mi, sol,” to mean ” six mille soldats” (six thousand soldiers). Boieldieu was a spy, and he had caught him. It is but just to say that the mistake was easily explained, and the serious affair terminated in bursts of laughter.

Early in 1811 Boieldieu returned to Paris where he composed the opera, ” Jean de Paris,” which he put upon the stage in 1812. It was and is very much admired for its charming fresh music. This opera was soon followed by ” Le Nouveau Seigneur de Village,” also a delightful composition. Then he took part with others in writing occasional operas, and in 1816 he wrote “La Fete du Village Voisin.”

The death of Mehul in 1817 left a vacant place in the section of fine arts at the Institute. Boieldieu was called to fill the chair of him whom he had for a long time considered as one of his masters, and whose rival he had become. In 1818 his opera “Le Chaperon Rouge” had brilliant success. After this he retired for a few years to his country residence, Jarcy, on account of his health, doing very little with music except looking over the compositions brought to him from the Conservatory, but in 1825 he came out from his resting-place, bringing with him ” La Dame Blanche,” 1 a masterpiece which crowned his reputation. Such is the charm of this work, that for forty years it has held its place in the first rank of French comic operas. In 1829 he brought out his last opera, ” Les Deux Nuits.”

The health of Boieldieu was failing. He had the habit of singing while composing, which tired him very much , then, the duties incumbent on a teacher, the interminable conversations at the theatre, the rehearsals, — all these combined had injured his organs of respiration. He needed rest, but was not wise enough to take it in season.

Finally he was obliged to relinquish his duties as professor at the Conservatory. He obtained the usual pension, though he had not served the time required by the regulations. Charles X. made a liberal addition from his private purse; and Boieldieu had no real financial difficulties until the Revolution of 1830, when he lost the pension of the Conservatory, as well as that of his royal benefactor. At the same time there was a change in the government of the comic opera; and he was deprived of the income which had been allowed him in gratitude for the masterpieces with which he had enriched its repertoire. The anxieties caused by such reverses of fortune preyed upon his already feeble health. He went to Pisa, but received no benefit from the journey. On his return to Paris, the minister of the interior granted him a pension of three thousand francs. Then he thought he would go to the watering-places of the Pyrenees, but was unable to get farther than Bordeaux. Feeling that his end was approaching, he begged to be carried to his country-house in Jarcy, near Grosois, in the Department of Seine et Oise. He died Oct. 8, 1834- His obsequies were celebrated in the Church of the Invalides. Cherubini’s Requiem had been .prepared for the occasion; but the ecclesiastical authorities opposed its execution, because it required female voices.

After the death of his first wife, in 1826, Boieldieu married again, and enjoyed much domestic happiness in his second union. His son Adrien, by his first wife, born in Paris, Nov. 3, 1816, was a talented musician. He wrote romances and operas, the most successful of which was ” La Bouquet de 1’lnfante,” brought out in 1847.

The loss of the composer was great to the musical world especially, for he was one whom all esteemed and admired. No one knew better than he how to discover obscure talent, and to aid in bringing it to light. Herold never forgot his kindness in time of need; and Catel was indebted to his exertions for the Cross of Honor bestowed upon him. Boieldieu was free from jealousy. In a letter that he wrote ‘to the author of “Zampa,” he displayed his love of justice, and hatred to any thing which savored of detraction. A disposition like his could never harbor any thing like envy. With his brother composers he was always on the most friendly terms.