Chapter 4: The Concerts,
Both famous nineteenth-century images of the Sunday concerts, one outside the Conservatoire in the rue Bergère, one inside the Salle des Concerts, evoke particulars of the atmosphere (following p. 378)> In the exterior view a crowd is arriving before the outer portal of the Conservatoire. A carriage drawn by white horses has paused to deliver an aristocratic amateur de musique. It is a bright winter day: of those pressing forward on foot, the women wear fur stoles and muffs, with the men in greatcoats and top hats. A foot-patrolman stands before the carriage, with two mounted officers looking onmembers of the staff required by the Préfecture de Police for public spectacles. In the foreground, a couple and their child, perhaps on their Sunday promenade, pause to observe the excitement. A photograph of perhaps 1874 (see website) shows almost exactly the same scene from a different angle.
The excitement continues within. Fashionably dressed women struggle to reach their seats in the narrow balcony; indeed the majority of the recognizable figures are women. We have a good view of the loges and the way the best of them give directly onto the performance force. The grand chandeliers invite ones gaze. The room is packed.
The artist gives a decent approximation of the distribution of orchestra and chorus, with the sharply rising bleachers for the winds and a not-quite-accurate row of doublebasses at the top. The hemicycle can be seen encircling the group. The chorus women are seated at the front of the stage; at dead center of the aggregation, a conductor leads with his bow and a violin soloist stands alongside to the left. This engraving comes from 1843, and thus must suggest the concert of 29 January 1843, the only one that season with a male violinistSivori. In that case the conductor is not Habeneck but Tilmant, who substituted that day.
The disposition of the orchestra in choirs follows Habenecks preference and is on the whole not dissimilar from modern configurations with antiphonal violins. The seating plan published by Elwart shows the chorus on the forestage separating violins I and II to the left and right. Violas complete the box. On the tiers are cellos and double basses to the right, woodwinds and brasses to the left, with trombone, ophicleide, timpani, and battery at the top, along with a lone stand of contrabasses. Later there were alterations, of course, but the photograph of Gaubert and the Société made in the 1930s (following p. 378) shows essentially the same layout, though with five risers, not four, for the winds and brass, and the cello section now opposite the violins.
One of the intriguing components of Elwarts seating plan is the way the front two stands of low strings each consist of a cellist and a doublebassist, an arrangement also suggested by Berlioz in his orchestration treatise and, for that matter, by the British tourists. This could only have worked for the first couple of decades, where the prevailing repertoire could be notated on a single cello-and-bass part. (Beethoven and Schubert begin to treat the lines separately. Berlioz continues the emancipation” of the bass line, ordering separate parts for cellos and doublebasses from the late 1830s, and in some respects it is surprising that he recommends the Sociétés practice.) Having the principal desk of cellos so far from the conductor, and the whole of the cello-and-bass section behind the violas, seems musically problematic, however, and it was the one detail of historic” practice that Roger Norrington felt compelled to abandon in his Berlioz experiences” of the 1970s.
The other unusual feature of the disposition of performers was, of course, to have the chorus surrounding the conductorand with the basses separating the opposing violin sectionsin front of the orchestra. The singers would wait offstage until their portion of the program, then occupy benches much like those of the parterre level, with the strongest voices on the forward bench of each section. Particular attention was paid to the appearance of the women, who being in the direct line of public view, were to expected to wear full-length supple gowns (robes de Mousseline) and gloves. In April 1840 there was an incident over two women who ignored (or, they said by way of apology, had not understood) the call for somber dress for the Good Friday concert, appearing instead in long overcoats (spencers). Concern with the deportment of the chorus, not only in matters of dress but also with regard to tasteful taking and leaving of the stage and the seldom-observed rule of silence in the wings, was a frequent feature of committee meetings.
Those who have tried the chorus-in-front arrangement for such works as Beethovens Ninth and Berliozs Roméo et JulietteBerlioz specifically advocates it in both the Observations” that precede the score and the Grand Traité dInstrumentationnaturally admire the rich choral presence. But the need for the forward-most women and tenors to turn away from the audience in order to see the conductor cannot have seemed graceful, and the use of the chorusmaster to mirror the conductors gestures was positively cumbersome.