Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Difficult Life

Gaston Leroux’s Paris Opera House (today the Palais Leroux) in 1875, the year of its inauguration
Gaston Leroux’s Paris Opera House (today the Palais Leroux) in 1875, the year of its inauguration

Before we get to the principal topic of today’s post, we must note an operatic disaster that had nothing to do with singers or the opera being performed on stage.  Rather, it was a disaster that inspired Gaston Leroux to write the novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in 1909.

On May 20, 1896 – 128 years ago today – a counterweight helping to hold up the six-ton chandelier at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House fell into the audience during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera Hellé (composed in 1779).  We don’t know how the opera performance was going, but the counterweight was a big hit: one woman in the audience was killed and a number of other audience members were badly injured.

Installing the six-ton chandelier
Installing the six-ton chandelier

The disaster was covered by a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Matin named Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).  The accident – to say nothing for the Paris Opera House itself and the lake beneath it – made quite an impression on Monsieur Leroux.

About that underground “lake.” Writing in The New York Times on January 24, 2023, Sam Lubell tells us that:

“When digging the foundations [for the Paris Opera House], workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, causing water to flood the site. It was impossible to remove all the water, so crews had to contain it with a massive concrete reservoir with a vaulted ceiling from which water is still pumped today. The so-called lake was dramatized by Gaston Leroux, author of The Phantom of the Opera, who made it the stomping grounds of the Phantom. [Christopher Mead, author of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism] was mesmerized by [the opera house house]. ‘You can see why it inspired Leroux,’ he said. ‘You could invent a whole world there.’”

Which, of course, is precisely what Gaston Leroux did.

Onwards to the star attraction of today’s post!

Clara Schumann in 1857, age 38
Clara Schumann in 1857, age 38

With our heads bowed, we mark the death – 128 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, who died of a stroke at the age of 76 on May 20, 1896.

She was among the great pianists of her time, a child prodigy whose performances were described with awe by her adult contemporaries.  She was a composer of outstanding promise, who – for reasons we will discuss in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post – never had the opportunity to fulfill that promise.  She was the compositional muse for her fiancé and husband, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and the spiritual muse of her best friend, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  Most of all she was a survivor: someone whose life reads like some endlessly tragic Victorian novel, only without the “happy ending” tacked on at the end.

No One Escapes This Life Unscathed, But When it Came to Clara . . .

Next time one of us gets into a self-pitying funk (at which I am a particular virtuoso), during which we stand convinced that our personal lives represent the very nadir of human existence, I would recommend that we think of Clara Schumann and her life as a cautionary tale, as an example of how very badly things can go if fate is not on one’s side.  If such reflection doesn’t temper our own self-absorbed misery, frankly nothing will.…

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