Chapter 3: The Hall,
From the street the main approach to the auditoriumwhether one arrived by horse-drawn conveyance or by foot; whether via the portal and passageway from the rue du faubourg Poissonnière and into the courtyard of the Conservatoire or through a great gate that led from the rue Bergère into a formal gardenbegan beneath a colonnade, or peristyle, designed to protect the public from inclement weather (see site plan, following p. 378). The box office, or Bureau de Location, was at ones back, in the building that extended from the far end of the gallery to the rue Bergère. Originally adorned with statues of the muses after antiquities at the Louvre, the colonnade became over the years something of a hall of fame, with memorial busts of Cherubini and Habeneck, a marble plaque listing the conductors of the Société des Concerts, and another honoring the societys victims of war. Some of the pavement, in squares of black and white marble, still exists.
The grand staircase rising from the colonnade to the main foyer was dominated on the left and right by Giuseppe Serangelis wall-sized paintings representing The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld and Sophocles Confounding His Sons Before the Areopagus (by reading dipus)thus saluting music and drama, the two arts to which the hall was dedicated. Over the doorway at the landing hung a famous bas-relief of Minerva distributing crowns to the laureates of the Conservatoire, in reference to the annual prize-giving ceremony that took place in the hall. The staircase then split into two and reversed, rising to the long room over the colonnade that was intended to be the reading room of the Bibliothèque du Conservatoire, a provision not fully realized until 1860. While the elevation of the various architectural elements is difficult to envisage from prose descriptions, an 1821 cutaway (see website) clarifies the overall layout. Among its details are the statues in the colonnade, one of the large paintings, and the décor of the walls and hemicycle.
The door from the main landing gave into the great foyer, with corridors to the left and right leading to the first-tier boxes and, just in front, the door to the royal boxthe loge dhonneur. (Subsidiary stairwells allowed access to the balcony and boxes, as well as the possibility of escape during an emergency. Access to the parterre was through corridors to either side of the main stairs.) Each Sunday the foyer would be mobbed as the public arrived and negotiated last-minute arrangements for seating, and hardly a season went by without a least one serious altercation there.
The loge dhonneur was reserved for the king or his representatives in exchange for an annual remuneration of some 1,500 or 2,000 francs. The royal gratification was greatly prized, not so much for its amounthardly more than the same places might have fetched in conventional subscriptionsas for the way it indicated national recognition on a par with that accorded the Opéra and leading theater companies. In later years the precedent was often cited as evidence that the Société des Concerts had always been the official orchestra of France. While the record does not seem to specify a visit by the king himself, members of the royal family were often present, and a high-ranking official would nearly always attend the opening concert of a new season. On such occasions the government garnished the royal box with food and drink and appropriate insignia.
Later in the season the box was often unoccupied, though occasionally a diplomat or visiting head of state would be offered its use. So long as the annual compensation arrived in due course, this conspicuous emptiness was regarded philosophically. In years that the money failed to come, the committee would doggedly pursue ministerial officials to secure it: while not a munificent sum, it was critical to balancing a budget reckoned to the centime, and its loss for a season would be a formidable setback. Occasionally there would be a threat to release the seats to the box office, and it may have been the quiet practice, in the absence of honored guests, to allow members of the general public to occupy seats in the royal box at the last minute.
Disposal of the loge dhonneur was of particular concern when the government underwent radical change. In 1851, as Louis-Napoleon edged the nation toward a second empire, it was vacant more often than not. In truth the future Napoleon III was a musical neer-do-well, said to be tone deaf, and is remembered in music history primarily for his failures of judgment in patronage. Originally he had been disposed to accept with pleasure the loge that the Société wishes to place at my disposal, and pleased to be able to encourage an institution where art so prospers.” In 1852, however, he tersely refused it. In late December of that year Auber, as president of the Société des Concerts, was sent to the office of the prince-president to see whether changed circumstances"that is, his forthcoming investiture as emperormight lead him again to the Salle des Concerts. With the question still unresolved in 1853, during the beginning-of-year housekeeping, Auber left a formal communication with the administrative committee imploring it to take no action on the royal box: he himself would attend to such nuances under the new government. Later national leaders were more enthusiastic in their use of the loge dhonneur, notably Maréchal and Mme Mac-Mahon (187379). The blind king of Hanover was accorded the box on 3 November 1874; in 1871 the emperor of Brazil was not, and ambassadorial requests for its use were routinely declined.