Listen to the Saxophone in Ambroise Thomas’s 1889 ballet, La Tempête

In 1889 Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a centennial celebration of the French Revolution. This was a showcase of the latest engineering marvels—the Eiffel Tower, technological advances—the telephone, and a showcase of the best of French culture. The Paris Opéra was slated to premiere Saint-Saëns’s newest opera, Ascanio, but the opera was not ready for performance. With Saint-Saëns’s absence, the only new work that premiered at the Paris Opéra was Ambroise Thomas’s ballet La Tempête.

The lack of a major opera premiere at the Paris Opéra was a major scandal at the time. Ascanio, a grand opéra by Saint-Saëns, was a nationalist work that would showcase France as the cultural leader of Europe. With Wagner’s recent death, France was ready to take over operatic world. Unfortunately, when Ascanio fell through, it left the Paris Opéra with one of Paris’s most conservative composers, Ambroise Thomas, who was at the end of his composing and teaching career at the Paris Conservatorie. Thomas with the help of his long time collaborator Jules Barbier recreated Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the stage.

No recordings of the ballet exist, so I arranged one of the movements that feature the alto saxophone. The saxophone trades the melody with the viola. This is a good example of Thomas’s writing at the end of his career. The phrase structure is a simple antecedent and consequent between the saxophone and piano (viola in the full score). The structure of the movement is a simple ABAB form. This is the anthesis of Wagner, a complete rejection of late Romantic conventions.

The reviews for the ballet were mixed. Some felt it looked to recreate the “ballet-pantomime of the past in all its bourgeois manners.”-Alphonse Leduc. “The venerable Ambroise Thomas should never have consented to compose a ballet so late in his career, when he no longer had any ideas left.”-Eugen Weber. “What had Shakespeare ever done to deserve such treatment?”-La Matin, June 27, 1889.

Other reviews were positive. Ernest Reyer commented how the work cannot be appreciated by those corrupted by Wagner, Thomas created an exquisite score full of new ideas. Louis de Fourcaud praised it for it’s French qualities of elegance, clarity, and simplicity.

The Exposition’s attempt to find the French answer to Wagner failed. Despite the forced praise, La Tempête failed to make an impact outside of the Exposition. It quickly left the repertoire of the Paris Opéra, and no other company has revived the work. The ballet remains forgotten. The lasting musical influences of the Exposition Universelle were not staged by the major opera houses of Paris, but in the performances of Javanese music in the Dutch Colonial section. A young Claude Debussy spent hours studying gamelan music. This absorption of these musical traditions ended up influencing Debussy’s writing and expanded his harmonic vocabulary.

The music of the Exposition Universelle is a fascinating look at the world in late 1800s. All of this information comes from the book, Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World Fair by Annegret Fauser. The section on Ambroise Thomas is in Chapter 2, “Opera, Ballet, and the Politics of French Identity,” pg. 59-102. To find out more about Debussy, you can read about him in Chapter 4, “French Encounters with the Far East.” Appendix 2 is filled with the schedule of all of the operas performed during the Exposition, many of which include the saxophone. Among the operas performed at the Paris Opéra that include the saxophone are Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, Émile Paladilhe’s Patrie!, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII, and Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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