Dr. Emma Kavanagh discusses a disaster of a play, and the incredible woman behind it.
Gary: Today’s special episode is by Emma Kavanagh. Emma is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at the University of Oxford, where she is the inaugural Louis Curran scholar at Linacre College. She holds a BA from the University of Cambridge, and an MA from the University of Nottingham. Emma’s research interests focus on opera and musical culture in France in the long nineteenth century. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis, “Masculinity and the Other in French Belle Époque Opera, 1870-1914”. Emma has a recent chapter published in “The East, The West, The In-Between in Music” from the Münchner Veröffentlichungen zur Musikgeschichte. She has won awards such as the European Regional Prize in the Music, Theatre and Film category at The Global Undergraduate Awards, the University of Nottingham’s Bernard Slee Prize, and a Thomas Lincare Studentship. Today she will talk about 19th century music composer Louise Bertin, her operatic collaboration with Victor Hugo, and the disaster that ensued. This episode includes musical excerpts from the Orchestre National de Montpellier and the Choeur de la Radio Lettone. Please enjoy.
Notre-Dame in Adaptation: Louise Bertin’s La Esmeralda
When you think of the big names in Western Art Music, composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are possibly the first that come to mind. In fact, many of the composers that make up the canon of Western Art Music are male, and it is only relatively recently that female composers have started to get a look-in, both in terms of study and performance.
My name is Emma Kavanagh, and I’m a musicologist and cultural historian of opera and performance in France during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For me, this isn’t just a case of looking at the dots and lines on the page. I’m also fascinated by what opera as a cultural product can tell us about the social and political contexts in which it was created and performed.
Historically it has been rather difficult for women to forge careers as composers. Although many would learn to sing or play an instrument as part of a roster of so-called “ladylike accomplishments”, writing music was generally seen as a masculine pursuit. Those women who did seek to make music their profession often struggled with the lack of opportunities available to them in a distinctly unequal environment.
In recent years, there has been more of an effort to consider music written by women across the centuries. The nineteenth-century composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn have enjoyed particular attention, although there are many other female composers – even some unrelated to famous musical men – who are also worthy of study. There is a widespread assumption that music written by women in the nineteenth century was small in scale, written for the domestic space of the home or, at most, the semi-public space of the salon. But actually, there werewomen contributing to musical life in a much more public arena, writing operas and symphonies that were performed on the main stages of the time.
As an opera historian, I’m fascinated by these women, and what they reveal about female contributions to public musical life in the nineteenth century. Today, I’m telling the story of a rather remarkable nineteenth-century composer who you may not have heard of: Louise Bertin. She lived a fascinating life, managing near-lifelong disability to compose operas in collaboration with huge cultural figures such as Victor Hugo and Hector Berlioz.
Louise-Angélique Bertin was born in 1805 at her family home in Les Roches, not far from Paris. Her father was the editor of the influential newspaper the Journal des Débats, so her family was well-known in cultural circles. This would prove to be a huge advantage for Bertin. She received an excellent education, largely due to the influence of her free-thinking father; as Juliana Starr argues, it was an education “equal to that of any man”.
When Bertin was still a child, an illness left her paralysed from the waist down. It’s not clear from the historical sources precisely what this illness was, but she was still able to walk (albeit with difficulty) using a crutch. At the time, such a disability would mean that marriage was no guarantee for a young woman. But, as Denise Lynn Boneau has suggested, this could well have allowed Bertin to pursue her musical education unhindered by domestic expectations for women of the time.
Bertin received private tuition in musical composition by François-Joseph Fétis and Antoine Reicha, both of whom were well-known composers in their own right and held teaching posts at the Paris Conservatoire. At the time, women were barred from compositional training at the Conservatoire, so Bertin’s musical tuition was quite unusual. Through the influence of her family and these teachers, then, she was able to establish a wide musical network which would come to benefit her musical career.
It was Fétis who helped Bertin stage her first opera, Guy Mannering, for a private performance in 1825. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Bertin had penned the libretto herself, while Fétis directed. This would prompt a flurry of operatic compositions, with performances at some of Paris’s most prestigious venues. In 1827, her opera Le Loup-Garou – or The Werewolf – would be staged at the Opéra-Comique. Then, a few years later in 1831, an opera titled Fausto premiered at the Théâtre Italien. But her next opera, in 1836 – La Esmeralda – would bring her flourishing career to a grinding halt.
La Esmeraldawas based on Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, which had been published a few years before, in 1831. The work’s French title (and indeed, Hugo’s apparent irritation at its English translation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) reveals the novel’s intended emphasis. The novel is, at its core, a treatise on the importance of the conservation of historical buildings: despite the many human failings of the novel’s characters, Notre Dame outlives them all. At the time of Hugo’s writing, the eponymous cathedral was practically falling apart. It had been seized as public property in the aftermath of the Revolution, and had served a variety of different purposes since, including as a warehouse and a temple of The Cult of Reason in the 1790s. In this period, many of Notre Dame’s treasures were plundered and its architecture was destroyed. By the time Napoleon restored it to the Catholic Church in 1801, it was in poor shape. The popularity of Hugo’s novel played a significant role in bringing about the cathedral’s restoration in 1844, although he had mixed feelings about the finished result.
So, when it came to adapting the novel for the stage, a new approach was needed. Keen to capitalise on the novel’s enormous success, a number of composers – including big names like Hector Berlioz and Giacomo Meyerbeer – had approached Hugo for the opportunity to create an opera. But he declined to work with any of them, and instead chose to work with Louise Bertin. Hugo had a longstanding friendship with the Bertin family, which influenced his decision to work with Louise. It was nevertheless a unique endeavour – it would be the only time Hugo would write an opera libretto.
The transformation of Notre-Dame de Paris into La Esmeralda was an extended creative project, lasting several years. The author was certainly liberal in adapting his own work. The verbose passages about the cathedral’s architecture were replaced by broader themes of thwarted love and social justice. Any reference to the villain Claude Frollo being a priest had to be cut to avoid conflict with the censors. Esmeralda herself even survives – no mean feat for a woman in nineteenth century opera.
Yet despite all these adjustments, the work remained contentious, and the run-up to the premiere was marked by tension. Hugo was a controversial figure for a start, and on top of that, anti-establishment sentiment was growing against the Journal des Débats and the Bertin family.
A premiere had been secured at the Académie Royale de Musique – the home of the Paris Opera, which was an incredibly high-profile venue for such a potentially provocative work. Bertin’s illness meant that she found it difficult to oversee the preparations and Hugo was largely absent from rehearsals. Her father hired Hector Berlioz to supervise whenever Bertin was unable – but this would prove to be a costly move.
No expense was spared in the design of the sets and costumes, and four huge opera stars were cast in the leading roles. And yet, when the opera finally premiered, it absolutely bombed.
Accusations flew that Bertin had secured a prestigious venue for her premiere through family connections. More devastating still, though, was the response to her music, particularly the “Air des Cloches” (or “Bell Song”) in the Fourth Act, thought to be one of the opera’s finest passages. In the middle of the first performance, Alexandre Dumas Sr – the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers no less – reportedly sprung to his feet shouting that the Air was not by Bertin at all, claiming “It’s by Berlioz!”
Berlioz was quick to deny this, but pervading doubt about who composed the Air des Cloches ultimately scuppered the run. The opera was withdrawn after only its sixth performance. By that time, the atmosphere in the auditorium was verging on riotous. Poor Cornélie Falcon, who played Esmeralda, fled the stage in distress. Jules Janin reported in the Journal des Débats that the final curtain fell with such haste that “one would have said it was simply obeying these ignoble howls”.
La Esmeralda would be Bertin’s final composition for the stage. After this harrowing experience, she spent the rest of her life – forty-one years – in relative isolation. Contrary to some claims, she did continue to compose in other genres, but few of these works were ever published. She wrote two volumes of poetry, one of which received a prize from the Académie Française. She died in 1877, aged 72.
When assessing the misadventure of La Esmeralda, it is important to consider the many factors at play apart from Bertin’s gender. None of her other operas, after all, seemed to have prompted quite such a violent response from audiences and critics. So, was this hostile reaction down to Hugo’s involvement? His political views were indeed controversial, and Notre-Dame de Paris had been placed on a list of works censored by the Catholic Church two years prior to the opera’s premiere. Or was it rooted in opposition to her family? As well as the accusations of nepotism, the Bertins prompted significant anti-establishment sentiment and resentment at the extent of their power and influence.
The opera’s reception was fraught with these conflicting tensions. While the Bertin’s paper, the Journal des Débats unsurprisingly sang the praises of La Esmeralda, others appeared less impressed. Many critics were sceptical of the family’s role in bringing about the performance. The critic for Le Charivari wrote of Bertin ‘it is precisely because of her political position that she saw the doors of our premier lyric theatre open before her’, and that where others had failed, she had ‘entered the temple on the rue Lepelletier without any obstacle’.
Louis Viardot, writing in Le Siècle, lamented the financial losses to the theatre in putting on the work – he estimated that it amounted to one hundred thousand francs. But he also encouraged his readers to take a more balanced view. Nothing was more natural and excusable, he argued, than the family’s desire ‘to see in their daughter or sister an unrecognized genius, a misunderstood genius’. He was rather complimentary to Bertin herself as pwell, writing that she was:
a woman who asks the noblest occupations of the spirit for consolations for her physical infirmities, and whose talent, however inadequate it may seem to the most discerning, will always be great, rare and perhaps unique among women.
In summary, not bad – for a woman. Contextualising the reception of Bertin’s opera helps us understand the implications of female involvement in public musical life in the nineteenth century. Beyond all the political uproar, the fact remains that Bertin’s very authorship of this opera was thrown into doubt from its first performance. Although Berlioz denied any involvement, these rumours just would not go away. To the audiences of the time, it was inconceivable that a woman might have composed the “Air des Cloches”; such fine music could only have been written by a man.
Many years later, Berlioz lamented the work’s fate in his memoirs. He wrote that Bertin had ‘real musical talent’, and that the opera’s hostile reception was down to what he described as Bertin’s ‘only fault’: to have been born into a powerful family whose politics were unpopular at the time. 
Despite all of the advantages of her upbringing, her education and her family’s position, ultimately Bertin was unable to establish an enduring public musical career. The situation surrounding the reception of La Esmeralda is complex; the politicised pushback against Hugo and resentment of the Bertin family more generally were significant factors in the opera’s failure to thrive. Nevertheless, Bertin’s gender also played a part in sealing its fate. After La Esmeralda, the Paris Opéra certainly seemed in no rush to stage another opera written by a woman; it would be several decades before there was another.
Other than a handful of performances in France in the early 2000s, La Esmeralda has never really found a place on the operatic stage. But to me, this opera is far more valuable than its initial reception or performance history might suggest. Granted, there is a lot of the opera that I personally just enjoy listening to, but it is also a fascinating insight into the aftermath of Hugo’s novel, and the interaction of opera and wider political life. Indeed, La Esmeralda has had a significant influence on subsequent adaptations of Notre-Dame de Paris; it prompted Hugo’s shift in emphasis away from architecture to broader themes of social justice, many of which have carried over into future adaptations of the novel, not least the 1996 animated film from Walt Disney Studios.
Who knows whether the reaction to the opera might have been different had Hugo not been directly involved, or if Berlioz had not been employed to oversee the rehearsals, or if there hadn’t been such resentment against the powerful Bertin family. But in all this furore, we risk losing sight of Louise Bertin herself. She very much merits further study, not only as a composer but also as a significant figure in nineteenth century Parisian cultural life, all while managing a debilitating long-term health condition. She is, in my view, truly remarkable.
I’m going to close this episode with a little excerpt from La Esmeralda. The famous (or, should I say, infamous) “Air des Cloches”. Thank you very much for listening.
 Starr, p.66.
 Boneau, p. 8-9.
 Nash, p.122.
 Janin, quoted in Boneau, 632-635.
 Charivari, 16 November 1836.
 Le Siècle, 16 November 1836.
 Berlioz Memoirs