Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

The Hen with the Golden Eggs, a Féerie

'La Poule aux oeufs d'or. Grand Quadrille Féerique' by Paul Henrion,sheet music published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.
La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Grand Quadrille Féerique‘ by Paul Henrion, published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.

17th century Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable La Poule aux oeufs d’or (The Hen with the Golden Eggs). It tells about a farmer with a hen that lays an egg made of gold, every single day. To discover the source of his good luck —and hoping to increase his prosperity— he opens the hen thus killing the animal without finding anything. The moral conclusion is that greed can ruin one’s good fortune.

The sheet music above was composed for a play that diverges entirely from the original moral tale. This quadrille is part of a féerie, or fairy play. In a féerie the plot is subordinate and auxiliary to the spectacle and the stage effects.

This typical French theatrical genre was known for its fantasy plots and spectacular visual effects. Think smoke machines, stunning lightning and sound, and mechanical contraptions to magically change stage sets. Féeries combined captivating music, colourful ballet, pantomime and acrobatics. They developed in the early 1800s and became hugely popular in France throughout the nineteenth century. Their stories were melodramas borrowed from fables and fairy tales, with a penchant for the supernatural. A full-length féerie often ran for several hours.

People queuing at the opening of ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Theatre National in Paris. Source BNF.

The 1848 premiere of La Poule aux oeufs d’or was at the Théâtre National on the famous Boulevard du temple, now gone but at that time the Parisian Broadway. The Théâtre National was previously a circus, and therefore commonly called Cirque national. La Poule aux oeufs d’or was a great success, if we can rely on the drawing of the crowd on the opening night. And it was relaunched in 1859.

The actor René François Boutin as Cocorico in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Circa 1859. Source: eBay.

I started reading the scenario but gave up after two pages. It was enough to realise that the play was rocambolesque: an absurd mix of ridiculous adventures, burlesque characters and the obligatory ingenue. In the mocking words of the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier: “The characters, brilliantly clothed, wander through a perpetually changing series of tableaux, panic-stricken, stunned, running after each other, searching to reclaim the action which goes who knows where; but what does it matter! This dazzling feast for the eyes is enough to make for an agreeable evening.”

L’empire des animaux‘, one of the 24 tableaux in La Poule aux oeufs d’or, at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

In La Poule aux oeufs d’or the characters were brilliantly clothed indeed as shown by the pretty costume drawings.

Costumes for ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by E. Bourdillat, 1848. Source: BNF.

An angel and Satan provided the essential magic in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. In a féerie such supernatural forces used to drive the characters through fantastic landscapes and amazing adventures, typically with magic totems (in this case the golden eggs) used to transform people, things, and places. Wow!

Améline, Satan, in ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie. Source BNF.

But in the first place the audience came to see and appreciate the tricks. For La Poule aux oeufs d’or 24 elaborate stage settings or tableaux were built. Each one created an enchanted universe of dazzling attractions, spectacular effects and sophisticated optical illusions. In full view of the audience a cottage would transform magically in a palace. In another scene windmills would turn into gondolas while a lake emerged from the ground. Of course a large crew in charge of design and stagecraft was needed.
The grand finale stage led to the apotheosis: all actors, dancers, musicians and extras were united on the Île de l’harmonie (the isle of harmony) with a musical flourish.

The grand finale: stage setting for the 21th scene, L’Île de l’Harmonie. Source: BNF.

A colourful drawing shows a detail of this tableau illustrating the clever design of the costumes and props.

Le royaume de la musique, ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

La Poule aux oeufs d’or was later staged in other productions. In the 1870s version, even the grande vedette and forcefull singer Mademoiselle Thérésa, played a role in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. This production was so successful that it would travel to London.

Left: ‘Couplets de l’effet’. Right: ‘La Boite à musique’. Both by Albert Vizentini, Ennery & Clairville and sung by Thérèsa. Published by Choudens (Paris, 1873). Source: Gallica.fr.

Ten years later La Poule aux oeufs d’or was restaged at the Théâtre du Chatelet.

Poster for La Poule aux oeufs d’or, Theâtre du Chatelet, 1882. Source: BNF.

An Italian journalist reviewing that performance reported that his jaw dropped when he saw a hundred and fifty bricklayers and carpenters, all played by children between six and twelve years, constructing a house. But what most impressed him was a house on fire extinguished by a regiment of firefighters acted by persons of short stature and he was overwhelmed by the indescribable effects of the electric light. A real nouveauté at that time. He wrote: “Just take a look at our illustration to understand how much enticement it provided to the spectator.”

Front page of ‘Il Teatro Illustrato’ – November 1884. Source: BNF.

In the 1890s La Poule aux oeufs d’or became a pretext to bring a little bit of nudity at the Folies Bergère. Yes, the end of the live feérie was in sight

Left: Bonnet. Right: Couralet. In ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Folies Bergère. Photographs by Nadar, 1900. Source: BNF.

It fell out of popularity by the end of the 19th century, by which time it was largely seen as entertainment for children and disappeared from French stages.

The féerie quickly reincarnated as a popular cinema genre in the 1900s. The forerunner in the genre, was Méliès but the French Gaston Velle was also a prominent pioneer of special effects. He began his career as a travelling magician, before applying his illusionist skills to the cinema.

Poster for Velle’s film ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by Faria (1905). Source: Wikipedia – EYE Film Instituut Nederland.

Velle’s silent short La Poule aux œufs d’or (16 min) was produced by Pathé Frères in 1905. The scenario of the film is much simpler than for the theatrical féeries and it goes back to the roots of the story. You can watch the complete film on YouTube, but we start at the apotheosis. If you haven’t time to watch the complete sequence, may we suggest to at least watch the strange 3:40 scene? Though at 7:55 (and at 8:48) you will not be less baffled…

Far from the Madding Carnival

Valse Carnaval‘ composed by Sandor Laszlo, published by Elkan & Schildknecht (Stockholm, 1920) and illustrated by Tornborg.

A festive couple finds an intimate moment far from what we imagine to be a frenzied carnival parade or costume ball. The Swedish illustrator Tornborg (who’s life we were unable to trace…) succeeded in capturing this subtle moment with a ‘simple‘ drawing.
Here are a few more carnivalesque sheet music covers that are at odds with the obligatory exuberance of carnival parties. If not very similar to our intro-cover, they at least share the same atmosphere of privateness…

Karneval‘ a fox-trot composed by Einar Grönvall and published by Abr. Lundquists Musikförlag (Stockholm, s.d.). Illustration signed with J C monogram and the year 1913.
The Carnival‘ by Osborne Roberts. Published by Anton J. Benjamin in Berlin (1910). Illustration by Hookham.
'Una noche de garufa', a tango by Eduardo Arolas. Published by C. M. Roehr (Berlin, s.d.) and illustrated by Louis Oppenheim.
Una noche de garufa‘, tango by Eduardo Arolas. Published by C. M. Roehr (Berlin, s.d.) and illustrated by Louis Oppenheim.
Die Nacht war schwül…‘ a Shimmy-Lied by Sigmund Romberg. Published by Wiener Bohème Verlag (Wien, 1924). Illustrator is unknown.

The carnival is not yet over. It is still too early to go home. So let us enjoy —far from the noisy and madding crowds— a courting pantomime between Pierrette and Columbine, and an exquisite dance between her and Harlequin…


More on Alice Guy’s fantastical short film here.

The Spanish Cuplé: from rogue to bourgeois

 

Fumando Espero‘ by Tragan, Viladomat & Felix Garzo, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, s.d.)

At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of popular music genres were created, all over the world. Spain saw the birth of a characteristic genre, influenced by French cabaret songs: the cuplé, coming from the French word couplet.

El baile y el amor – Couplets‘ by Clifton Worsley and Margarit, published by Manuel Villar (Valencia, 1917) and illustrated by Pouo.

Augusta Berges is said to have started this genre: with La Pulga (The Flea), in 1893 in Madrid. While singing, Augusta was looking for fleas in her clothes as an excuse for a bit of demure stripping. It was a huge success. Other singers followed suit with their own versions, frantically searching a flea, an ant or a spider under their frock, to the lascivious excitement of the whole male audience. Sara Montiel, a Spanish actress who achieved Hollywood-stardom, re-enacts such a Pulga song in the sixties film ‘La reina del Chantecler’. Chantecler being a Madrilenean theatre before the first World War.

La Pulga was the starting point for a profusion of more or less erotically explicit songs with simple, short and repetitive lyrics. But always with a lot of gesture. The performers, almost exclusively women and transvestites, told a story in three or four minutes with a large dose of theatricality and a load of double entendre and erotic allusions. An ample and voluptuous body was sometimes a better key to success than a good singing voice. Showing their ankles and clad in tulles that left little to the imagination, the cupletistas became sexual objects in seedy variety theatres.

‘Sicaliptico’, Spanish erotic magazine (1904)

The cuplé was part of the sicalipsis, a Spanish neologism of unclear origin to designate the trend of erotic manifestations in literature and the press, as well as in the visual arts, and in variety shows. Being part of this sicalipsis certainly added to the popularity of the cuplé, at least in its beginning.

Postcards of Cupletistas to promote their career.

The profession of cupletista was popular among women, many of them illiterate, trying to escape poverty. It was also frequently a stepping stone to the world of prostitution. A trigger to that was that the cupletista had to perform in ever smaller and cheaper salones, bringing the woman teasingly close to the male public.

While at first the cuplé was a frivolous, provocative and even erotic song with a lot of humour and spice, from 1910 on it became more ‘decent’ and sentimental. It became even considered as a higher quality art form. The cuplé reached a larger middle class public with an increasingly female audience. It became more of a sentimental love song. The singers abandoned their playful outfits and tended to dress in black and to wear a Mantilla.

La Goya (Aurora Jauffret)

The first one to bring this new kind of cuplé was La Goya (Aurora Jauffret, 1891-1950). She performed in well reputed theatres and changed her dress with each song to match the lyrics, taking care of the theatrical part of her performance.

‘Por tus caricias’ by E. Burrull & Pedro Puche, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, sd) and illustrated by Pol, with a picture insert of La Goya.

In the Twenties, the cuplé had become a sentimental song mentioning contemporary social, cultural or political issues. Gone was the flea and the spider, no more bawdy undertones. The most famous cupletista was Raquel Meller, an international star who launched world hits like La Violetera and El relicario, both written by José Padilla Sánchez.

Left: ‘La Violetera’ by José Padilla & Eduardo Montesinos; Right: ‘El Relicario’ by José Padillia. Both published by Salabert (Paris, 1918) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

The cuplé was forbidden during Franco’s reign until it resurged in a nostalgic way, with the boom of Sara Montiel in the cinema. In the film El ultimo cuple, she plays the role of a cupletista struggling with her rise to fame and her subsequent downfall. Let’s listen to Sara Montiel —in real life a passionate cigar smoker— singing Fumando espero. This tantalizing cuplé by Joan Viladomat is the song we started with.
Now, enjoy Montiel reclining on her chaise longue, just like the lady on the sheet music cover.

Fumar es un placer
genial, sensual.
Fumando espero
al hombre a quien yo quiero

Smoking is a wonderful,
sensuous pleasure.
Smoking, I wait
for the man I love
behind the glasses
of gaily-colored windows.
And as I smoke,
my life does not burn away
because, on the drifting smoke
I tend to get sleepy…
Lying on the chaise-longue
smoking and loving…