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Napoleon and music

Napoleon is generally said to have had little taste for music. However, to his credit, he organised a prosperous, eclectic artistic life in Paris. Between 1800 and 1815, the French capital saw the opening of the Théâtre-Italien (1801), the creation of the Chapelle Consulaire and then the Chapelle Impériale (1802), the institution of the Prix de Rome for composition (1803), and the promulgation of numerous decrees aimed at subsidising and protecting the main theatres of the capital from overly frenetic competition (notably in 1807). Napoleon’s personal tastes leaned towards Italian music. He brought to Paris Giovanni Paisiello, whom he appointed master of his chapel, the singer Angelica Catalani, and later the castrato Crescentini, who delighted evening audiences at the Tuileries. He approved of Joséphine de Beauharnais’s interest in the composer Gaspare Spontini, who scored a huge success with La Vestale and then Fernand Cortez. But Napoleon was no less friendly to the composer Méhul and had a high regard for the professionalism of Jean-François Le Sueur. Above all, he understood perfectly well that music, and in particular opera, was a prime vehicle for political propaganda. Beyond certain personal passions (including for Ossianism, which undoubtedly led Le Sueur to write Ossian and Méhul to compose Uthal), he endeavoured to have edifying conquests represented on stage (in the image of his own), as in Méhul’s Adrien, Persuis’s Le Triomphe de Trajan or Cherubini’s Les Abencérages, and admitted – albeit reluctantly – that biblical subjects could also be used at the Opéra to moralise the crowds: Le Sueur’s La Mort d’Adam, Kreutzer’s La Mort d’Abel, Kalkbrenner’s Saül and La Prise de Jéricho, etc.

    Image - 1
  • La Vestale (Jouy / Spontini)
  • Works - 7
  • Adrien (Hoffman / Méhul)
  • Amazones ou La Fondation de Thèbes, Les (Jouy / Méhul)
  • Mass in A flat major, attributed to Méhul (F. X. Kleinheinz)
  • Mass for Napoleon’s coronation (Giovanni Paisiello)
  • Mort d'Abel, La (Hoffman / Kreutzer)
  • Ossian ou Les Bardes (Dercy & Deschamps / Le Sueur)
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    Persons - 4
  • LE SUEUR, Jean-François (1760-1837)
  • MÉHUL, Étienne-Nicolas (1763-1817)
  • PAISIELLO, Giovanni (1740-1816)
  • SPONTINI, Gaspare (1774-1851)
  • Study - 1
  • Chaillou, David – The fantastic genre at the Paris Opéra under Napoleon I