A TOUCH OF FRANCE: The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées: the venue that launched a masterpiece

The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées: the venue
that launched a masterpiece
by D. Marsh, France

David MARSH, BSc PhD
Servier International
DTC Medical Publications Division
50 rue Carnot
92284 Suresnes Cedex

The wealthy and fashionable set took umbrage that May evening in Paris. Catcalls and whistles filled the theater, derisive laughter, cries of “Ta gueule!” (“Shut your trap!”). A frightful ruckus. The Countess de Pourtalès, the doyenne of Parisian society, flourished her fan and shouted: “This is the first time in sixty years that anybody has dared make fun of me!” The pandemonium drowned out the music. Backstage, perched atop a chair, the ballet- master shouted instructions unheard by the dancers. The composer fled the auditorium and watched from the wings. “I have never again been that angry.” Thus was Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring launched upon an unsuspecting world one hundred years ago, at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the brainchild of Gabriel Astruc, journalist, theater manager, and impresario. His ‘new temple of art’ nigh on bankrupted Astruc, but years later he wrote: “I do not regret my folly, for from my ruin sprang The Rite of Spring.”

Medicographia. 2013;35:485-493 (see French abstract on page 493)

Gabriel Astruc flicked open the lid of his pocket watch. Just twenty-four hours till the fulfillment of the dream that had occupied his thoughts night and day for the past seven years: the opening of the—of his—Théâtre des Champs Élysées. An achievement worthy of this, his fiftieth year. As he turned into the Avenue Montaigne, the leaden sky over Paris was clearing and the rain fell lighter. The theater’s frontage gleamed in the gaslit street, its rectilinear design broken only by a white marble bas-relief of ‘Apollo and the Muses,’ hinting at music and dance within.

Standing there that late March evening in 1913, thinking through the last details of the grand opening the next day, little could Gabriel Astruc have guessed that a riotous assembly in his theater would soon change the world of classical music forever. And write his ‘new temple of art’ into the pages of history.

Clio, the Muse of History, has looked kindly upon the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. And upon its creator, Gabriel Astruc. Our story begins in the early years of the 20th century. Director of a Parisian music society, journalist and playwright, impresario, Astruc found Paris wanting. Where was its Royal Opera House (London, 1858), its Festspielhaus (Bayreuth, 1876), its Prinzregententheater (Munich, 1901)? Of the French capital’s 43 theaters, only the Opera, the Théâtre du Châtelet, La Gaîté, and, at a pinch, the Opéra-Comique, were equipped for full scale concerts or operatic productions. And they were hidebound, saw modernity as a threat, and shunned innovation. Astruc vowed to build a theater forward-looking in its architecture and bold in its choice of music.

Things began well. In 1906, Paris City Hall promised Astruc a site on the Champs-Élysées (whence the theater’s name), where once an old circus had stood, and the architectural studies began. But three years later, the plans now well advanced, City Hall reneged on its promise following an anti-Semitic campaign (Astruc was Jewish) orchestrated by Charles Maurras, the principal ideologist of Action Française, an extreme right-wing political movement.

Gabriel Astruc

Between 1905
and 1912,
Gabriel Astruc
brought to
Paris many
leading figures
of classical
music, including
Nellie Melba,
Enrico Caruso,
Richard Strauss,
the Ballets
Russes, and
Arturo Toscanini,
before founding
the Théâtre
des ChampsÉlysées.
© Studio Lipnitzki/

Every year some 300 000 people come to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris for concerts and recitals in the main auditorium,
plays at the Comédie, and exhibitions in the Studio. © Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris was Gabriel Astruc’s
“new temple of art.” © Roland Schlager/APA/Corbis.

Art nouveau wrought iron volutes adorn the red-carpeted stairs
of the
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. All rights reserved.

A new conception of the performing arts

City Hall’s shameful back down was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for it triggered the ‘shift westwards’ of the capital’s cultural center of gravity, for which Astruc claimed kudos. A plot of land was found on the Avenue Montaigne (named for Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century essayist). Formerly called ‘Widows’ Alley,’ until the mid-19th century this street conjured images of horse-drawn carriages bearing the bereaved, forbidden by society to appear in public during mourning. Thereafter it transmuted into an avenue lit by streetlamps, an atmosphere suggestive of a nightlife lived openly and not in the shadows.

To drum up investment for his theater project, Astruc appointed Gabriel Thomas to oversee a limited liability company. Thomas, a former stock marketer, discerning art lover, auditor and later CEO of the Musée Grévin (waxwork museum) in Paris, raised 3 500 000 francs, equivalent today to about 11.5 million euros (15 million US dollars). Among the investors were the Rothschild banking family, Sir Ernest Cassel (British merchant banker), and John Pierpoint Morgan (American financier), who brought gravitas and financial clout to the venture. Their backing was rewarded by privileges such as personal admission to the theater and its stage, and a box for dress rehearsals. Shareholders were no longer bystanders, but took part in the life of the theater and its creative process. Set apart from other music venues, the theater on Avenue Montaigne embodied a new conception of the performing arts: the quest for entertainment had yielded to the wish to appreciate singular and original works. Revelers looking for an evening’s amusement gave way to men and women seeking a deeper more lasting experience. The very design—perfect visibility from every seat, comfort, feeling of well-being—showed that the theater was no longer a place of fleeting impressions, of transience, but rather one of contemplation, where audiences were encouraged to linger, to reflect, to seek inspiration.

The first season

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées opened its doors on 31 March 1913 for the ‘first inaugural gala’ and the first of six performances of Hector Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini, based on the life of the eponymous Florentine polymath of the High Renaissance. It had premiered at the Opéra de Paris in 1838, with just four performances, but had not been heard since. Astruc had been at pains to revive this vocally demanding work deemed unplayable by some musicians and unloved by the public. Writing years later, a tad immodest but rightly so, Astruc described his delight at the response of the critics who “praised to the skies the daring manager who had rehabilitated the memory of Berlioz.”

Costume design by Leon Bakst (1866-1924) for The Young
Girl (danced by Tamara Karsavina) in Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet
The Firebird, choreography by Michel Fokine. © Getty Images.

Astruc again showed his devotion to his country’s music a few days later. “Mr G. Astruc was anxious,” reported the newspaper Le Figaro, “that this concert should include only masterpieces of French music. Emmanuel Chabrier, Edouard Lalo, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d’Indy, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, such were the names on the program. […] Each of these masters was represented by one of his most significant works. […] But to its symbolic and, if you will, commemorative value, the concert at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées added a rare attraction, since each composer conducted his own work. And the departed were given voice by the experienced and talented Mr Inghelbrecht, who no longer has anything to prove.”

Maestro Inghelbrecht opened the concert with Chabrier’s Ode à la musique followed by Lalo’s Scherzo symphonique, before handing the baton to Saint-Saëns who conducted his symphonic poem Phaéton. Fauré directed his La Naissance de Vénus for soloists, choir, and orchestra, d’Indy and Dukas conducted their music, Debussy led the orchestra in a performance of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and Saint- Saëns then returned to the stage to close the concert with excerpts from his cantata La Lyre et la harpe.

The 1913 season continued with a series of concerts of Beethoven’s nine symphonies conducted by Felix Weingartner and the premiere of Fauré’s opera Pénélope on 10 May. And then, on Thursday 29 May, came the much-awaited premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s new ballet.

The Rite of Spring

As musical expectancy rose, so did the mercury. The temperature soared to 30°C, a record for the month of May in Paris, which stands to this day. A fine test indeed of the audience’s cool and of the theater’s newfangled system of ventilation. The latter passed muster, but the former was lost as harsh rhythms and dissonant sounds from Pagan Russia filled the hall and foot-stomping dancers trampled on two centuries of ballet tradition.

Not everyone was caught unawares. The critic of L’Écho de Paris had foreseen as much when he attended the final rehearsals, fearing that the public would react badly if they felt they were being mocked. Some clearly did. The smart set were there to pay homage to orchestral and balletic convention, not to be scandalized, to have people cocking a snook, to be a laughingstock. They wasted no time in making their feelings known. The conductor that evening, Pierre Monteux, recalled that “Everything available was tossed in our direction.” The ‘Bohemians,’ on the other hand, the writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau asserted, were there to hail the avant-garde, “to acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new, because of their hatred of the boxes” (ie, the smart set).

In this centennial year of both the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and The Rite of Spring, it is hard to credit the uproar sparked by a work which has become a staple of the repertoires of all the leading orchestras and which the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein called “the most important piece of music of the 20th century.”

Astruc’s first season was a triumph; it was also his last. Financially overextended, he was ejected from the theater and the sets and costumes were impounded. For the following stopgap season Covent Garden and the Boston Opera Company presented operas, and then the theater fell silent at the outbreak of the Great War. Theater life resumed in 1919 with a short season presented by Anna Pavlova’s ballet company, followed later by innovative performances and premieres, like the Swedish Ballets’ production of Francis Picabia’s ‘instantaneist’ ballet Relâche, with “two acts and one cinematographic intermission, and the tail of Francis Picabia’s dog,” and music by Erik Satie. Astruc meanwhile took his business nous and organizational skills to radio and advertising, worked as a theater manager for Philippe de Rothschild, and helped Marcel Proust proofread the first edition of Du Côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), a favor that Proust returned by offering Astruc advice when he was writing his memoir, Le Pavillon des fantômes.

One-tenth scale model (2.4 x 0.5 m)
by Maurice Denis of the dome of the
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay)/
Gérard Blot/ADAGP.

Modern times

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was the first modern building in France to be listed as a historic monument, in 1957. Later, threatened by real estate plans, it was bought by the Deposits and Consignments Fund, a governmental institution, which renovated the theater in the 1980s and agreed to the construction of a rooftop panoramic restaurant. Structurally, the theater could bear no additional weight, so the restaurant—Maison Blanche—was suspended above it, like a bridge.

Although it alters the building’s three-dimensional space, the restaurant is invisible from the Avenue Montaigne and is more part of the roof scape of Paris than of the street-level architecture.

The theater continues to stage operas, symphonic and chamber concerts, recitals, dance, and pop events, and is home to the Orchestre National de France and the Orchestre Lamoureux. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris play here often, and guest orchestras come from Vienna, Munich, London, Amsterdam, Saint Petersburg, New York, and beyond. •••

Detail from the frescoes by Maurice Denis< which encircle the base of the dome of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. © All rights reserved.

From the outset Gabriel Astruc and his architects conceived of a single complex with three theaters: the main auditorium for concerts, ballet, and opera, with 1920 seats in a space that could in fact accommodate 3000, to heighten comfort, and two smaller theaters, the Comédie (1200 seats) for drama and the Studio (800) for exhibitions.

The roll-call over the years of playwrights and performers at the Comédie includes Paul Claudel, singer and actress Mistinguett, once the highest paid female entertainer in the world, Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud, George Bernard Shaw (Arms and the Man), Louis Jouvet, and Jean Giraudoux (three plays premiered). More recently, Yasmina Reza’s play Art premiered here, winning two Molière awards.

Set design by Nicolas Roerich (1874-1947) for Alexander Borodin’s opera
Prince Igor, 1909. © The Bridgeman Art Library.

Centenary season

In the Spring of 2013, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrated its centenary by reliving some of the great events that marked its first one hundred years, notably a performance of The Rite of Spring with Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography, reconstructed by the music historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. The centenary season also included concert versions of the operas Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz and Pénélope by Fauré, and a homage to another major event in the theater’s history—the first Paris appearance in October 1925 of Josephine Baker, the American ‘Queen of the Wild Dance,’ in La Revue Nègre, with a jazz band from New York. The watchword of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées over the last hundred years has been continuity. A spectator from the 1920s or the 1950s would not feel out of place if he were to return to a concert this very evening. Continuity, plus diversity and modernity. Three heartfelt principles of the man who one hundred years ago on a rain swept night stood on the Avenue Montaigne before his dream made real, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The man whose single-mindedness and acumen made everything possible. Gabriel Astruc. ■

Further reading
– Abram J. La magie du béton armé. In: Auguste et Gustave Perret. Le Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. 2nd ed. Paris, France: Jean-Michel Place éditions; 2004: 8-42.
– Astruc G. Le Pavillon des fantômes. Paris, France: Grasset; 1929.
– Benjamin G. How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music. The Guardian. Wednesday 29 May 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/ may/29/stravinsky-rite-of-spring
– Brockway W, Weinstock H. Men of Music. New York, USA: Simon and Schuster; 1966.
– Huesca R. Le théâtre des Champs-Élysées à l’heure des ballets russes. Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire. 1999;63:3-15. http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/ home/prescript/article/xxs_0294-1759_1999_num_63_1_3850
– Monteux, DG. It’s All in the Music: The Life and Work of Pierre Monteux. New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1965.
– Schonberg HC. The Lives of the Great Composers. 3rd ed. New York, USA: WW Norton & Company; 1997.
– Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Saison 2012-2013. Centenaire du Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.