Poor little rats: Les Misérables… de l’opéra

‘Friquette’ by Raoul Schubert, published by E. Demets (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed ‘Gebo’.

The gesture of a wealthy man patronisingly lifting the chin of a ballerina hides a grim and sordid truth.

‘Ballerine’ by Hermann Devries, published by L. Grus (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Dola.

In the 19th century most ballet dancers of the Parisian Opera came from poor and deprived families. They were also often illiterate. Sometimes a family’s hope for a better future rested on the frail shoulders of a daughter with dancing skills. These young ballerina’s were commonly called Les Petits Rats, or the little rats of the opera.

‘Petits Rats’ by Henri Christiani, published by Durand (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

Around 1830 Louis Véron, a short corpulent man, became the new administrator of the Parisian opera. Véron was a trained physician turned businessman who had made fortune from cough drops (Pâte pectorale de Reginauld Ainé). He had arranged a lucrative deal that yielded two-thirds of the profits to him without having to work.

Left: Louis Véron, 1855. Right: publicity for Pâte Pectorale de Regnauld.

Véron devised several strategies to make the opera profitable. One was to create the Foyer de la danse, an exclusive and lavishly decorated backstage salon. Véron, the shrewd entrepreneur, offered to the well-heeled season ticket holders or abonnés not only a private theatre box, but also secluded access to this backstage. There the wealthy male abonnés enjoyed a kind of droit de seigneur over the little dancers.
Astonishingly to modern standards, these men in top hats had obtained the right to prowl the corridors and meet the (very young) ballet dancers in the lavishly decorated Foyer de la danse. They could enjoy informal performances and hold private parties with the danseuses. In the corridor leading up to the Foyer, they could negotiate with the ‘mothers’ the right fee to get an ‘introduction’ to a pretty dancer.

Valse Caprice‘ by Georges Piquet, published by Charles Morice (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed with monogram CAB.

The most affluent of these abonnés were the members of the Jockey Club. This club was the epitome of exclusivity, its elite members solely being aristocrats. They were connoisseurs of horses, cigars and women. Their preferred part of the opera was the ballet. At that time the ballet was often nothing more than a choreographic interlude performed during the second part of an opera. The members of the Jockey Club used to dine during the first act. They then arrived at the opera just in time to admire their protégées on the gaslit stage, and —immediately after the ballet— left quickly for the Foyer… (*)

‘Les Vieux Gagas de l’Opéra’ by Eugène Oustric, Edouard Jouve & François Tier, published by Edouard Jouve (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Faria

Another strategy of Véron was to decrease the wages of the dancers, thus forcing the girls to find a wealthy protector. In this way Véron set up a patronage system for the opera’s corps de ballet based more or less on sexual services. The opera had become a place where there was art on the one hand and prostitution on the other.

Two young dancers from the Parisian Opéra (1878-1895) Source: Gallica, BNF.

But the story becomes even more Dickensian or Zolaesque. The opera also housed the ballet school. Girls as young as ten had to work up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, dividing their time between lessons, rehearsals and shows. Arriving too late or faults were fined. They had to live close to the Opera, because with their meagre pay they couldn’t afford the tram or omnibus. Only a minority of these young dancers would become famous and earn a salary sufficient to support their family. Meanwhile, some mothers hunted for a rich protector for their (underage) daughters.

The most famous of these girls was Marie Van Goethem. She was of Belgian descent and stood model for the beautiful Degas statue of a 14-year-old dancer.
“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” by Degas.

At first Marie was a respectable dancer of the corps de ballet. But a year after the Degas statue was exhibited (1881) she went off the rails. Marie’s older sister Antoinette, had robbed a man in Le Chat Noir. She was arrested and put in prison for three months. The evidence at the trial made it clear that her mother was prostituting her. It is supposed that Marie was also on the game because she started to miss her appointments in the Opera until at last she was sacked.

Degas: illustration from ‘Les petites Cardinal’ by Ludovic Halévy.

Degas also illustrated the short stories Les Petits Cardinal written by his friend Ludovic Halévy. These stories tell, slightly veiled, about the obvious similarities between life at the Opera and scenes in a brothel where the abonné is the client, the dancer is the prostitute, and the mother is the madam.

‘C’est le charme de Florence’ from ‘Les Petites Cardinal’ by Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger & Albert Willemetz, published by Choudens (Paris, 1938) and illustrated by Würth.

The Musée Grevin, the Parisian wax museum, understood that the Foyer de la danse captured the public imagination and made it into a tableau. It was exhibited from 1890 on, for eleven years. It offered the visitor a voyeuristic peek behind the scenes on how the rich abonnés got entertained. The representation of the Foyer de la danse was Grévin’s greatest success after the famous crime scenes.

It was only from 1927 on that the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, tackled the problem of the excesses at the Foyer de la danse. His newly nominated Ballet Master, Serge Lifar, supported him fully. Under the dramatic protests of the abonnés they banned the backstage access to the Foyer de la danse, and made from the ballet in the opera a real art form. The film The Ballet of the Paris Opera, featuring Serge Lifar, dates from that period.


(*) When Wagner broke with the tradition and included a ballet in the first act of Tannhauser instead of in the second act, the members of the Jockey Club arrived too late to ogle their young protégées. They booed during the 1861 Parisian premiere and for the next two performances of Tannhauser, they disturbed the performances to such an extent, distributing whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner was forced to withdraw the opera after three performances.

The Birds

Chansons des Oiseaux‘ published by L. Henri May, Paris, 1898. Cover and inside illustrations by Georges Fraipont.

Today’s post is not a usual story. Rather, it is a dreamy walk through enchanted sceneries of the kingdom of birds and a few fluttering bats. The very special songbook Chansons des Oiseaux was published in 1898 by the Société française d’éditions d’art L.-Henri May.
This monsieur Louis-Henry May may have given his venture a rather pompous title, but it well reflects the care and attention that was given to the book: the unusual oblong format, the peaceful cover image without room for names nor other text than the title, the decorative pastedown to finish the inside of the hardboard cover, and last but not least the delicate full-page illustrations by Georges Fraipont (1873-1912).

The cock on the front cover of 'Chansons des Oiseaux'
Detailed scan of the front cover (click for high resolution).

We have already written about ‘Recto Verso de Luxe‘ where sheet music is illustrated on both the front and back cover to form one large image when you fold open the sheet. This is one of these special covers.

illustration by Georges Fraipont for 'Chansons des Oiseaux'
Front and back cover of ‘Chansons des Oiseaux’, 1898 (illustration by Georges Fraipont)

The book collects 10 songs composed by Georges Fragerolles (1855-1920), who is famous for being the maestro of the Chat noir, having enlivened at the piano many shows of the Théatre d’ombres. The lyrics of four songs were written by Fragerolles himself.

The decorated pastedown on the cover interior of the book, designed by Jean Closset.

In our collection the name Fraipont is familiar. Gustave Fraipont (1849-1923) created a few sheet music covers. It was however his son Georges who illustrated this book. It is rather hard to discern the work of Gustave from that of Georges, as they both use ‘G. Fraipont’ as signature, and their style is comparable. Besides, Georges was also a composer. On at least one sheet music cover both father (illustrator) and son (composer) appear together. Yes, also with birds.

Tendresse sheet music by Georges Fraipont
Tendresse‘ by Georges Fraipont and Pierre Barbier. Published by Costallat & Cie (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Gustave Fraipont.

But let us continue with the book. Here is the title page.

The title page for the ‘Chansons des Oiseaux’.

And here follows your oxygen, your antidote to nastiness, negativity and gloom: ten lithographs, so delightfully charming that it is hard to imagine that they are but the result of a combination of ink, brush and paper.
Savour and rejoice!

'Mon Coq - Chanson rustique' illustrated by Georges Fraipont
‘Mon Coq – Chanson rustique’
'Les Mésanges Divines' by G. Fraipont
‘Les Mésanges Divines – Légende Mystique’
'Les Mouettes - Chanson de Mer' illustration by G. Fraipont
‘Les Mouettes – Chanson de Mer’
'La Chauve-souris' by Georges Fraipont
‘La Chauve-souris – Chanson d’Enfant’
'Voici l'Hirondelle - Aubade' by G. Fraipont
‘Voici l’Hirondelle – Aubade’
'Le Cygne - Stances' by Georges Fraipont
‘Le Cygne – Stances’
l'Oiseau Favori by G. Fraipont
‘L’Oiseau Favori – Romance dans le genre ancien’
'Le Perroquet - Rondo' by G. Fraipont
‘Le Perroquet – Rondo’
‘La Colombe – Romance’
'Le Rossignol - Sonnet' by Georges Fraipont
‘Le Rossignol – Sonnet’

 


The book was printed by R. Engelmann, Imprimeur-lithographe
(
16 rue Nansouty, Paris)

A Nice Cuppa

‘Ich lass mich gar zu gern (Teekanne Javalied)’ by Carl Alfredy, published by Musikverlag Metropol (Berlin, sd). Illustration signed ‘molge’.

On our way back from Berlin we did not enjoy our rather bland breakfast. But the tea was lovely and its brand name Teekanne rang a musical bell.

Back home we searched our sheet music collection and sure enough we found the above stunning cover. It was probably designed by Heinrich Molge for the German tea company Teekanne, a firm founded in 1926 that still exists. Molge (1888 – ?) was a Dresden based artist of whom we know little but that he was half of the graphic artists couple Molge-Koch.  The Asian red and white teapot however is still used as today’s logo of the Teekanne company.

Advertising for Teekanne’s textile incentives : small silk gadgets offered by Teekanne with their product.

To thank customers for their loyalty, Teekanne offered small silks. These promotional gifts, popular during the early 1900s,  could be stitched on tablecloths or cushions to embellish them. In the tobacco industry these little textile gadgets were more common, as seen in our earlier posts about Dutch Cigarettes.

Advertising poster for Teekanne, by Jupp Wiertz
Advertising poster for Teekanne, signed with PL monogram.

Teekanne engaged excellent illustrators for their advertising campaigns. Also, their tea blends were packaged in lovingly designed tin boxes.

Teekanne played an important role in the invention of the teabag, that ‘ordinary’ item that we are so used to. The history of the teabag starts in 1901 with two American ladies who obtained a patent for a tea-leaf holder. We do not know if they ever commercialised their invention. The first modern tea bags in the Western World were hand-sewn fabric bags. The story goes that the New Yorker Thomas Sullivan sent samples of his tea leaves in small silk bags to potential buyers as a sales gimmick. His customers wrongly supposed that these were meant to be popped into a teapot and loved the idea.  So this Sullivan, and others, started selling tea in single-serve bags. However, customers started to complain because the glue used to seal the bags left a bad taste to their nice cup of tea.

During the First World War, Teekanne adapted the idea and started mass producing round cotton-gauze bags sewn by hand, and tied close with a piece of string. These tea bags —also filled with sugar to offer energy— were called Teebomben (tea bombs).  The Teebomben were distributed to the German soldiers on the front line. Alas, soon they got the reputation among servicemen of only colouring hot water to a brown concoction.

Advertisement for Tee-Bomben by R. Seelig & Hille (the trademark owner of Teekanne)

After the war the German inventor and self-made engineer Adolf Rambold started to work for Teekanne. And in 1929 he invented the world’s first tea-bag-packing machine. Twenty years later he invented the double-chamber tea bag: the tea is filled in two chambers allowing an optimum flow of water around the tea which results in a fuller tea flavour. In the same year he proposed a new tea-bag-packing machine which produced these double-chamber tea bags. His machine sold all over the world and  revolutionised the tea market. I never analysed my teabags before but indeed the double chamber is still used for today’s tea bags.

Double-chamber teabag.
The two following ‘tea songs’ from our collection were very successful in their days. Apart from a hit, Tea for Two even became a standard.
‘La tasse de thé’ by Joseph Szulc, Gaston Dumestre & Roger Ferréol, published by Salabert (Paris, 1920) and illustrated by Atelier Salabert.
‘Tea for two‘ by Vincent Youmans & Irving Caesar, published by Salabert (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Now, let’s start to bake a sugar cake and have a tea for two…

Possibly you would prefer Bourville’s version of the famous song in the film La Grande Vadrouille. Certainly a memorable hot scene!

For the aficionados of Teekanne, hereunder is the German publicity printed on the back of their sheet music. To be read with a nice cuppa, of course!

'Ceci et ça' about Illustrated Sheet Music