The Fantasies Concerts of the Paris Commune


This spring marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, the short-lived workers’ regime that controlled the city for two months in 1871. It was a time of barricades, red flags and, as Delphine Mordey, musicologist writes, extremely elaborate concerts. .

Mordey notes that we tend to associate the Paris Commune with folk music inspired by the uprising. But throughout May, as hope for the Commune’s survival faded, its leaders staged something very different.

Joseph Réné Etienne Narcisse Rousselle, doctor who ran the rebels’ provisional hospitals, has planned a series of concerts at the Tuileries Palace to support the widows and orphans of the Republic. The concerts, which took place between May 6 and May 21, drew a large working class audience, as well as soldiers, bourgeois intellectuals and part of the usual well-to-do crowd that remained in the city.

The shows were eclectic, mixing top performers and cabaret singers, opera numbers and comic poems. As conservatory professor Charles Dancla later explained, the performances were not always entirely voluntary:

How easy it was [to refuse] when the “invitation” was made in a charming and gracious manner by a dozen burly men more or less dressed in various costumes and armed to the teeth, who came to the house to kidnap one to be honored of his presence and his violin bow!

Mordey writes that Dancla and other high society artists have walked a thin line, expressing interest in helping the needy while trying to avoid being pilloried in the anti-communal press.

While the first of the concerts went badly, with too many tickets sold for the available space, those that followed became increasingly ambitious and impressive. The fourth concert, held on May 21, brought together 1,500 musicians.

“Their monumentality did more than guarantee that the audience would escape boredom,” Mordey writes. “For an unstable government, desperately trying to assert its authority, the sheer size of entertainment has also served as a sign of power.”

This was in part a response to anti-communal sentiments that portrayed the Communards as drunken men and vulgar women. Rousselle, the doctor, overturned this idea ostensibly by writing that a “palace soiled by the orgies of the monarchy and the empire was purified by the presence of the people”.

On the other hand, anti-communal observers described members of the audience hissing at the singers, failing to remove their hats and speaking during the performances.

The Communards had planned their most culturally ambitious production, a show at the Paris Opera, the day after the fourth concert, on May 22.

“If the Tuileries concerts had given a taste of bourgeois and aristocratic culture, the Opera and its repertoire were the ultimate symbols of the ruling classes and, as such, could be used to further legitimize the Communards”, writes Mordey.

But as the final concert at the Tuileries took place, the French army swept over the city. The performances planned at the Opera never took place. Instead, the building became a site of mass executions as the military crushed the rebellion.

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Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 22, n ° 1 (MARCH 2010), pp. 1-31

Cambridge University press


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