Spotlight on the Theatre de Champs-Elysées

A Disconcerting Rite

May 29th, treat 1913. After the triumph of “L’Oiseau de Feu” (Firebird) in 1910, it was natural to assume that the talented dancers of the Ballets Russes would once again fill the theater and register another outstanding success. The “Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) drew the attention and favors of great art patrons such as the Rothschilds and Vanderbilts, and numerous members of the Parisian elite were present, from Ravel to Proust, from Isadora Duncan to André Gide. The stamping steps of the dancers, dressed in costumes by the painter Roerich, disconcerted the public as much as Stravinsky’s music. The theater’s director, Gabriel Astruc, tried to talk over the howls of the crowd saying: “Listen first, you can boo after.” He described the end of the performance in this way: “After the final note, a storm swept over the performance hall…(writer) Blaise Cendrars distributed a rain of insults, and ended up with a theater seat around his neck.” Legend has it that the disheartened Diaghilev fled to the Bois de Boulogne to weep while reciting Pouchkine poems.

A Punchy “Parade”

May 18, 1917. It was in the midst of war, and one didn’t go to the theater to pick a fight. Nonetheless, that’s what happened. The piece that was showing was called “Parade”. The original idea of Jean Cocteau was to create a ballet that would be like a fairground parade. He succeeded in convincing the artistic elite to join him in this adventure, including Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, with choreographer Leonide Massine, composer Erik Satie, and, not least of all, Pablo Picasso. The poet Apollinaire created the program in which the word “surréalisme” appeared for the first time. Not long after the curtain went up, a near riot broke out. The music was incomprehensible, with noises of revolvers and typewriters, there was no plot and the stage curtain, created by Picasso, represented a “scandalous” return to classic painting. The heated reactions were slow to dissipate: Satie was accused of defamation by a musical critic, and Cocteau
ended up at the local police station.


Another version of the “Creation”

October 25, 1923. It was a strange “Creation of the World” that the posters lining the Avenue Montaigne announced for the Fall of this year. Not the creation related in the Bible, but another version inspired by African myths. The ballet had been financed by Rolf de Maré, a Swedish patron of the arts who was a sort of Scandinavian Diaghilev. He associated a talented author, Blaise Cendrars, a stage decorator who was already a famous painter, Fernand Léger, and an avant-garde composer, Darius Milhaud. In fact, it was the latter’s music that was considered by some to be profoundly shocking because of its jazzy rhythms. At the time, it was viewed as heretical to introduce such influences in “serious” music, even if it was already common for Western artists, Picasso and others, to find inspiration in the traditions of the dark continent. In music, it was just a little too early for the rhythms of Louis Armstrong and his peers.


Joséphine Baker, the black tornado

October 2, 1925. She was nearly nude, with only a belt of green feathers around her waist. She danced to a syncopated rhythm with a dazzling smile that seemed even more dazzling against her black skin. As scandals go, this was certainly one, but only for
prudes. For others, this first “Revue Nègre” presented at the Music Hall of the ChampsÉlysées and announced by the now-famous Paul Colin poster, was a revelation. Even the writer Paul Morand, rarely inclined to be over-enthusiastic, fell under the charm of a certain “black magic.” At only 18 years old, the beautiful Josephine Baker was the principal attraction of this revue. But if her “swing” went over so well, it was also thanks
to the talent of the musicians accompanying her, including a certain saxophonist named Sidney Bechet. Immediately adopted by the Parisian public, these two stars of the “Revue Nègre” would both take up permanent residence in France.


Joséphine Baker, 1906-1975

Boulez, the Shock of Serial Music

May 4, 1952. One might think that after so much avant-gardism in one place, the scandalous dimension of any work of art presented here would have only relative impact. But, apparently not! The opening night of “Structura La”, a short work of barely three minutes by Pierre Boulez, would once again provoke a storm of reaction from the public. Composed for two pianos and interpreted by Boulez himself and Olivier Messiaen, this manifest of serial music brought to mind the great musical moments of the early twentieth century. The rather arduous creation, a composition meriting several auditions to be fully understood, created a wave of debates and passionate discussions among the spectators, and a fist fight quickly ensued. At the Theater of the Champs-Élysées, it seems that the month of May is an ideal time for unforgettable debuts.


Olivier Messiaen, 1908-1992, Pierre Boulez, 1925

Down with taped cacophony!

December 2, 1954. Under the direction of Hermann Scherchen, the theater witnessed the première of “Déserts” by Edgar Varèse, a composer little known by the general public, even though he was already in his seventies. A native Frenchman, born in Burgundy in 1883, he had lived for some time in the United States. In just one evening, his name became famous. The scandal that shook the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées brings to mind other great moments such as the “Sacre du Printemps.” It was not the fifteen instruments of the orchestra that exasperated the public, but another sonorous source that accompanied them: an audio tape diffusing factory noises. For Varèse, trained as an electro-acoustical engineer, integrating such sounds with musical notes was an innovative and logical idea. For the public, unaware that they were witnessing one of the first examples of concrete music (with one of today’s principal representatives, Pierre Henry, at the podium that day), it was insupportable.