François-Adrien Boieldieu: The French Mozart
François-Adrien Boieldieu was born the same day as English novelist Jane Austen, on 16 December 1775. Boieldieu’s father was secretary to Archbishop Larochefoucauld and his mother kept a millinery shop. Unfortunately, unlike Austen’s parents, Boieldieu’s parents were unhappily married, and his father filed for a divorce and married a second time.
Possibly because of his parent’s unhappy marriage, Boieldieu became interested in music. He received his first musical education from Rouen’s cathedral choirmaster, Urbain Cordonnier. Boieldieu then exchanged his parent’s home for that of Rouen’s local organist, Broche. Unfortunately, he was a drunkard and occasionally threatened Boieldieu with physical violence, but his bad behavior did not deter Boieldieu’s love of music or his desire to compose.
Boieldieu’s hometown of Rouen was one of the few French towns during the Reign of Terror that appreciated the importance of a music. For instance, in 1793 a series of concerts were held featuring the celebrated violinist Pierre Rode and the tenor Pierre-Jean Garat. It was also during this time that Boieldieu composed his earliest works (“La fille coupable” in 1793 and then “Rosalie et Mirza” in 1795, which was the same year that Madame Tussaud, the famous wax sculptor, married François Tussaud.
Boieldieu’s first musical attempts brought him recognition and success in Rouen. He was hopefully that the same success would be achieved in Paris. According to Modern Music and Musicians in 1918:
“Many of Boieldieu’s charming ballads and chansons owe their origin to this period, and added considerably to the local reputation of the young composer. Ambition and the consciousness of power caused him to be dissatisfied with the narrow power of his native city … To Paris therefore Boieldieu went … with an introduction from Garat the singer to [Louis Emmanuel] Jadin … at whose house he found a hospitable reception, and he became acquainted with the leading composers of the day.”
Unfortunately, times were tough for Boieldieu in Paris. The Opera Comique was not inclined to perform works of an unknown author and he therefore passed much of this time working as a music teacher. However, he did make acquaintances that soon translated into him developing a good musical reputation and he went on to become a highly regarded opera composer referred to as “the French Mozart.”
Everything came together for François-Adrien Boieldieu in 1798. That is when he created a drama in 3 acts called “Zoraime et Zulnaure.” It was performed at the Theatre Feydeau founded in 1789.* In addition to Boieldieu’s great theatre success it was reported:
“At the same time his instrumental works, ― a concerto for the pianoforte, sonatas, 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8, four duets for the harp and pianoforte, concerto for the harp, and three trios for harp, pianoforte and violoncello ― led to his admission into the number of the professors of the pianoforte at the conservatory Beniowsky, and le Calife de Bagdad.”
It was these successes that “fixed forever high the reputation of the composer [Boieldieu].” Nonetheless, despite his great success in France, in June of 1803 he left for St. Petersburg, Russia. Various reasons have been stated as to why he departed. Some biographers claim he left because of his bad marriage with Clotilde Augustine Mafleurai, a French dancer, whom he married in 1802 and had one son with named Adrien Louis Víctor. Supposedly Boledieu was so unhappy he took “sudden flight.” However, another explanation counters that theory:
“Russia at that time was an El Dorado to French artists, and several of Boieldieu’s friend had already found lucrative employment in the Emperor’s service. Boieldieu left Paris without any engagement or even invitation from the Russian court, and only on his reaching the Russian frontier was he agreeably surprised by his appointment as conductor of the Imperial Opera, with a liberal salary.”
Based on such information Boiledieu’s departure was likely due to a variety of factors. “It is very improbable that he should have abandoned his chances of further success in France, together with his professorship at the Conservatoire, without some cause sufficient to make change at any price desirable.” Such a statement is confirmed by the fact that he had high hopes that he might achieve fame in Russia similar to his counterparts. Moreover, although his marriage was unhappy, his departure was announced in a musical journal well before he left France, making the statement that he took “sudden flight” untrue.
During the eight years that François-Adrien Boieldieu was in Russia he was contracted to compose three operas a year that were to be based on libretti that the czar was personally selecting. Unfortunately, the czar didn’t follow through and so Boildieu relied on old things in the library. He thus produced only ten new works, among them was “Rien de trop,” “Aline, reine de Golconde,” and “Athalie.”
When François-Adrien Boieldieu returned to Paris in 1811, he found France had changed greatly. Many things were different because of Napoleon Bonaparte. For instance, there was the Napoleonic Code, which went into effect in 1804. Napoleon’s coronation had also happened that same year on 2 December. The next year, Napoleon annulled the French Republican calendar and ordered his brother Jerome to divorce his new American wife, Elizabeth Patterson. The Milan Decree, which forbade European countries from trading with the United Kingdom, was issued by Napoleon in 1807 and in 1810 Napoleon not only divorced the Empress Josephine he took a new wife when he married the Austrian princess Marie Louise in a Catholic ceremony.
Besides a new and different France ruled by Napoleon, François-Adrien Boieldieu also discovered that he now faced only one real rival in Paris. His name was Nicolas Isouard and he was a French (Maltese-born) composer. In addition, Boieldieu became cognizant that he had a long list of loyal admirers. It was obvious because when an improved version of his “Rein de Trop” was performed, he was lauded, “which [then] increased to a storm of enthusiasm when in 1812, one of [his] most charming operas, ‘Jean de Paris,’ saw the light.” In fact, that opera was one of two masterpieces that Boieldieu’s claim to immortality came to rest upon.
The other work many people considered to be one Boieldieu’s greatest is “La Dame Blanche.” It was a major success and became a standby of the 19th century operatic repertory in France and Germany having been performed at the Opéra-Comique more than 1,000 times by 1862. This opera’s great success was noted by the Modern Music and Musicians when it stated that it “might indeed be considered as the artistic continuation of the chanson, in the same sense as Weber’s ‘Der Freischutz’ has been called a dramatized Volkslied.” In addition, Dwight’s Journal of Music of 1861 noted:
“[La Dame Blanche] belongs to that type of the Comic opera which can never grow old … Simple its modulations, with no forced harmonies, and full of real melody, this score retains the grand style of its author, who remains always himself, in the midst of the general movement impressed upon the music of that time by the influence of Rossini. But in this work Boieldieu’s power culminated; he dreaded the idea of producing inferior work.”
Freemasonry had been popular in France since the eighteenth century and François-Adrien Boieldieu became a convert to freemasonry just like the Duke of Chartres and the Princesse de Lamballe did in the 1700s. In Boieldieu’s case he was initiated at the Parisian lodge Les Arts et l’Amitié (Arts and Friendship) belonging to the Grand Orient of France. In addition, he became a member of the lodge “Palestine” in St. Petersburg around 1810 and was also an honorary member of the St. Petersburg lodge “Les Amis Réunis” (Friends Re-united).
In 1826, Mafleurai, from whom Boieldieu had long been estranged, died. He then married his long-time mistress, Jenny Phillis-Bertin. She was the prima donna in his Aline, reine de Golconde that was playing in the spring of 1804 at the French Opéra. At the time she was recently widowed and with Boieldieu so unhappily married, they soon found solace in one another arms and began a torrid long-term affair.
In 1829, François-Adrien Boieldieu composed his last opera. That same year he began to suffer from constant hoarseness. It eventually resulted in an inability to speak. He was ultimately diagnosed as having cancer of the larynx.
As a French composer, Boieldieu’s chief financial source was the Opéra-Comique, but with its bankruptcy and the revolution of 1830, he began to suffer money problems. Fortunately, he was saved from poverty by Adolphe Thiers, a French statesman and historian, the second elected President of France, and the first President of the French Third Republic. Theirs awarded Boieldieu a state pension of 6,000 francs.
Boieldieu’s last public appearance occurred when his pupil, Adolphe Adam, presented “Le chalet,” which premiered on 25 September 1834. Boieldieu died about six weeks later, on 13 November 1834. He passed away at his country house in Varennes-Jarcy shortly after he returned from a “watering-place” that he had visited in the hopes of recovering his health. Boieldieu’s body was taken from his country home in Varennes-Jarcy to his apartment in Paris, which he had acquired in 1825.
On the day of the funeral, when the funeral procession left his home, located on 10 Boulevard Montmartre, crowds strewn the pathway and people watched the procession snake along the boulevards and over the Pont de la Concorde to the Hôtel des Invalides. It took about an hour for the mournful procession to reach its destination with the Morning Post reporting:
“The cortège was very imposing. A military band preceded the hearse, which was very handsome, and open on all sides, like a canopy. Among the bearers of the pall were Auber and Nourrit, as representing the composers and singers of France. Immediately following were all the professional and other friends of the deceased. … After these came a long line of mourning coaches, followed by another military band, some files of infantry, who marched with their muskets pointed downwards. … A superb catafalque was erected in the chapel. It was in a pyramidical form, and profusely adorned with velvet and silver. Fifty wax lights were burning around it, together with two censers displaying blue and green flames. In this monument the coffin was placed during the ceremony.”
According to the Morning Post, many people were eager to attend the services and pay tribute to this great composer:
“[The] gates of the Invalides … [were] besieged by a large crowd. … The admission, being only by tickets, was very slow, in consequence of which the confusion increased every minute, till at about eleven the immense pressure of the accumulating throng burst the gates open, and the court-yard was taken by storm, despite … utmost efforts … hundred rushed forward together, so that it was found necessary to shut the doors of the chapel till order was in some degree restored. Every corner was ultimately occupied, and the galleries were filled with Ladies, a great proportion of whom were English.”
The Opéra-Comique also to honor Boieldieu, and they therefore performed two of his operas. They were “Les Voitures Versees” and the popular 3-act “La Dame Blanche.” Both were presented in Paris on the evening of 15 October to thunderous applause:
“These Operas were never more exquisitely performed, nor more enthusiastically received. The singers wore crape round their arms throughout the performance. At the conclusion the bust of Boiledieu was placed in the centre of the stage, and Pouchard and Henri, with Mesdame Caimir and Pradner, the leading artists, in deep mourning, sang in success songs of adieu, founded on various of his romances. His image was then crowned with garlands, at which ceremony all the singers attended, and the audience simultaneously rose. … A similar ceremony took place … at the Theatre at Rouen.”
On 13 November 1834 the heart of François-Adrien Boieldieu was interred in Rouen in a tomb paid for by that city. As to his body, it was entombed in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris just like Peter Abelard, Hubertine Auclert, Sophie Blanchard, George Cuvier, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Gérard de Nerval, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, Jean-Lambert Tallien, and François-Joseph Talma.
*The Theatre Feydeau was initially called the Theatre Monsieur because it was founded through the patronage of the Comte de Provence, later known as Louis XVIII.
For a list of Boieldieu’s operas, click here.
-  L. C. Elson, ed., Modern Music and Musicians 2 (New York: The University Society, 1918), p. 438–39.
-  Dwight’s Journal of Music, “Sketches of French Musical History,” May 4, 1861, 5, p. 33.
-  Ibid.
-  L. C. Elson, ed., p. 439.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 440.
-  Ibid.
-  Dwight’s Journal of Music, p. 33.
-  Morning Post, “Funeral of Boieldieu,” October 17, 1834, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Morning Post, “Tribute to the Memory of Boieldieu,” October 18, 1834, p. 3.
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