Not long ago, I compiled a listing of published biographies, other books and dissertations that cover music and the arts in Paris during the time of Florent Schmitt’s career as a composer (roughly the 70-year period from 1890 to 1960). Among the many documents I discovered, one of the most interesting was one that focused on Gabriel Astruc, the French impresario who was at the center of artistic life in Paris in the several decades before World War I.
It was Astruc who built the iconic Théâtre des Champs-Élysées which opened in 1913, and which is very much with us today. It may be the accomplishment for which the impresario is best-known, but he was much more than that.
Indeed, there was scarcely any important artistic endeavor in Paris in those days that didn’t have Astruc’s imprimatur on it — or otherwise involved him in some significant way.
Gabriel Astruc was born in Bordeaux, France in 1864. Moving to Paris as a young man, he began his career working for Paul Ollendorf, a small-time publisher and bookshop owner, and soon founded his own arts journal, L’Amateur.
He became acquainted with writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau and Marcel Proust, and served as a proofreader for some of Proust’s published books. But his predilections were not confined to literary interests only.
Being drawn to the modernist Le Chat noir cabaret in the Montmartre district (18th Arrondissement) of Paris, Astruc met Erik Satie, through which he became acquainted with other young composers of the time — up-and-comers like Paul Dukas, Gabriel Pierné, Gustave Charpentier and Florent Schmitt.
In 1897, Astruc began to diversify his involvement in arts activities. He worked in music publishing and shortly thereafter, launched his own magazine that he titled Musica.
By 1904, the intrepid entrepreneur had established himself as a concert promoter and would soon be bringing the latest talents to Paris — budding artists and established luminaries alike. They included personages such as Artur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Dame Nellie Melba — and even the femme fatale actress, courtesan (and later German spy) Mata Hari. In 1911, he brought New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company to Paris for a series of productions led by the conductor Arturo Toscanini.
But perhaps Gabriel Astruc’s most noteworthy artistic coup was bringing Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to Paris in 1909, where the troupe would set up headquarters more or less permanently. Astruc worked closely with Diaghilev and his dancers, choreographers, costume and set designers to mount a wide range of ballets featuring the music of contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Florent Schmitt, Maurice Ravel and Nikolai Tcherepnin, among others.
The most notorious of these productions was Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which caused a near-riot at the premiere in 1913 — as recounted by Florent Schmitt in a column he authored that appeared in the Paris papers the next day.
[The controversial premiere of Le Sacre was the subject of a 2005 film titled Riot at the Rite, in which the character of Gabriel Astruc plays a prominent role; the film can be viewed in its entirety here, courtesy of YouTube.]
Astruc’s consequential activities and career are detailed in an extensive dissertation report titled Re-Thinking Paris at the fin-de-siècle: A New Vision of Parisian Musical Culture from the Perspective of Gabriel Astruc, which was researched and prepared by César Leal in 2014.
Dr. Leal is a musicologist as well as a performing musician (classical saxophonist and conductor). A native of Colombia where he undertook his early musical studies at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Leal came to the United States in 2002 where he earned a degree in instrumental conducting from Florida International University and a PhD. in musicology from the University of Kentucky.
His appointments have included positions at the University of the South near Chattanooga, Tennessee, including conductor of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra plus faculty member and artistic advisor of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival. He has also been active in several musicological groups at the regional, national and international level. At present, he is the newly appointed musicologist and director of orchestral studies at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
I became aware of Dr. Leal’s activities through mutual colleagues and friends, and the two of us have maintained a correspondence for several years. After reading his PhD dissertation on the topic of Gabriel Astruc, I felt that aspects of the life and work of the impresario were significant to developing a richer understanding of artistic life in Paris during the time of Florent Schmitt and his contemporaries, and thus worthy of attention.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Leal about the salient findings from his research. His comments are presented below:
PLN: How did you discover Gabriel Astruc, and what inspired you to make him the topic of your doctoral dissertation?
CAL: My professional activities as a musicologist and conductor often intersect. From both a performance and scholarly standpoint, I have found that fin-de-siècle Paris is a very intriguing and stimulating field of study. As I looked closely into the activities of conductors like Pierre Monteux and representative composers like Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky, Schmitt, Debussy and others, I felt that their stories tended to be presented somewhat in isolation from one another.
Most of the available studies covering this period also seemed more focused on individual composers or pieces of music. Perhaps due to the singularity of all these works and musical languages, I felt there weren’t enough all-encompassing historical narratives.
Authors like Jann Pasler, Diana Hallman, Steven Moore Whiting, Lynn Garafola, and Annegret Fauser had contributed fascinating viewpoints to enhance our understanding of the Parisian cultural landscape. As I got to meet or work with some of those wonderful scholars, they inspired me to pursue a wider understanding of all the cultural landscape in this very special time and place.
While looking at archival materials related to Pierre Monteux at the New York Public Library, I came across a single contract for the 1909 season of the Ballets Russes in Paris, which contained the signatures of Maestro Monteux and Gabriel Astruc. That was a revealing moment to me. I realized that learning about the production of these events, the commissioning of new works as well as fundraising, advertising, and engagements of artists might provide an interesting new perspective on the way the Parisian cultural landscape worked.
Thanks to the support of the Musicology department at the University of Kentucky, and guided by Drs. Jonathan Glixon and Diana Hallman, I was able to spend one year in Paris researching the collection of Gabriel Astruc’s papers and other archives. And there was certainly a great deal of material including contracts, programs, advertisements and personal correspondence.
After building a database containing more than 16,000 different documents, I was able to ascertain the importance of Astruc’s role in the rich and complex cultural milieu of Paris.
PLN: In considering Astruc’s career as an impresario, a booking agent and theatre manager, in what ways do feel that he changed the manner in which those types of activities were carried out? Were there any particular path-finding innovations that he employed?
CAL: Those are interesting questions. The fascinating thing about Gabriel Astruc is that through a study of his activities, we are able to understand what it meant to be an impresario in that era. Additionally, we are able to observe how an impresario could actually influence the cultural landscape.
Professionals like Astruc were also writers, journalists, music publishers, managers, and so on. They knew every single thing there was to know about the artistic landscape in which they worked — and the mechanisms to navigate successfully in a busy cultural capital such as Paris.
One of the most enlightening discoveries in my research was that, just as Astruc worked with artists like Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky and Wanda Landowska during the Grand Saison de Paris (which he created and organized), he also collaborated with popular artists like Rodolphe Berger and Yvette Guilbert in circus revues and café-concerts.
Indeed, Astruc’s activities bridged the so-called “classical” and “popular” traditions. The same impresario who commissioned works such as Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and organized the Parisian premiere performances of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (conducted by the composer), also produced spectacles such as A Fond de Train, Paris au Galope, and A la Cravache.
It’s hard to imagine that the same impresario who conceived, built, and directed the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées — a place that catered to the Parisian elite — also produced the Nouveau-Cirque (New Circus), which entertained a generation of eager spectators before closing in 1926. In these activities Astruc used the nom de plume SURTAC (an anagram of his last name).
Further, as the man behind the world premieres of works such as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu, Pétrouchka and Le Sacre du printemps — not to mention other ballet spectactulars like Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé — Astruc was also instrumental in introducing and popularizing African-American music genres like the cakewalk.
PLN: Over his lengthy career, Astruc promoted the careers of numerous well-known artists — among them Mata Hari, Artur Rubinstein, Wanda Landowska and Feodor Chaliapin. Which artistic careers do you think Astruc did the most to burnish — in other words, where his support was the most consequential to the artists’ success?
CAL: The list is quite long! Among the many artists he worked with, one that stands out is Artur Rubinstein. Astruc played a key role in bringing Rubinstein to Paris in 1904 (Rubinstein had auditioned for Astruc when he was only 16 years old). It was in Paris where, thanks to Astruc, Rubinstein connected with musicians like Ravel, Dukas, Saint-Saëns and Jacques Thibaud.
Then in 1906, Astruc sent the young pianist to New York City, where his career really took off; it is likely that Rubinstein would not have had the storied career he enjoyed were it not for Astruc and this American booking, because it was in America where Rubinstein’s success would be greater than anywhere else.
However, If I had to choose the one area of most consequence, I’d say that Gabriel Astruc’s impact on opera was extremely significant. Not only did Astruc facilitate transatlantic connections — he brought New York’s Metropolitan Opera to Paris for the Italian season of 1910 — he also became the representative in Paris for opera houses like the Met and Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon.
PLN: Which Parisian composers did Astruc interface with most regularly during his career? Are there particular premiere performances or other musical events that he produced which are of particular historical or artistic significance?
CAL: Astruc was at the epicenter of Parisian music. He knew and worked with nearly all of the composers we know today (and some we are rediscovering) who were of historical significance. One of his most remarkable achievements was to build a ballet audience out of those opera lovers. As most operas that Astruc produced featured ballet sequences, such scenes became increasingly independent from the operatic works.
Eventually, entire nights of ballet would consist of choreographies from the major operas. This was the case with the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome — one of the works which tempted Parisians into the ballet theatre. A genre called “Concerts de danse” became widely popular during this time, and it stems directly from Gabriel Astruc’s endeavors.
PLN: In your research, did you come across instances where Gabriel Astruc would have interfaced with Florent Schmitt? More generally, where do you suspect their paths would have crossed in Paris?
I have not come across any direct correspondence between Astruc and Schmitt. However, it’s clear that such a connection would have existed. Schmitt often collaborated with other significant composers of the time such as d’Indy, Dukas, Ravel and Roussel. The fact that Astruc programmed Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé for the inaugural season of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913 suggests not only that there was an implicit sense of personal trust, but also that Astruc knew and had great respect for Schmitt’s abilities as a composer.
PLN: One of Astruc’s lasting achievements was the building of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was completed in 1913. What was notable about the design and construction of that building, and what kind of role has it played in the Parisian artistic world since opening a century ago?
CAL: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was a “first” in Paris in many ways. Not only did Astruc secure substantial financial sponsorship from American investors for his new venture, the building’s Art Deco style, which did not become popular until a decade later, reflected the ahead-of-the-curve thinking of its designers. Also, it was a space that facilitated dialogue between genres.
It’s something that was on his mind for quite a long time; correspondence between Astruc and musical artists such as Debussy reveal that he was discussing this idea as early as 1903.
The story of the theatre and its design is fascinating; in fact, it drove a significant portion of my dissertation.
Although some people may not realize it, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is not located on the avenue from which its name derives. The change in location from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Avenue Montagne, where the theatre was ultimately built, was caused by an unfortunate anti-Semitic scheme plotted by members of the local government (Astruc was from a Sephardic Jewish family).
In the event, Astruc was forced to modify his original plan to achieve his goal. Even the design of the theatre had to change to adjust to the conditions and limitations of the new location.
The original distribution of the interior spaces at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées offers evidence as to how audiences and different artistic disciplines interacted within the same building. The Grande Salle, mainly devoted to orchestral music, opera and ballet, had the capacity to host an audience of 2,500 people.
The Salle Moyenne, devoted to virtuoso soloists, instrumentalists and chamber music (accommodating up to 50 musicians on the stage), could seat up to 1,200 people. Lastly, the Petite Salle, devoted to small recitals and diverse artistic expositions, could host up to 800 people.
In the original proposal that was submitted to the Chamber of Deputies to obtain the lot on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées for the construction of the theater, Astruc compared each one of these halls with other Parisian venues with similar characteristics. In the totality of its conception, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées facilitated the integration of the various spaces through common areas intended for social interaction. In addition, it enabled a “dialogue” among different works and disciplines as well as among audiences with different artistic interests.
I’m sorry to report that sadly, after multiple renovations, the all-encompassing artistic experience that the construction of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées initially offered does not exist today. The three different performing spaces have been separated and are no longer accessible through the same common areas. The Grand, Moyenne, and Petite Salles are currently independent one from another and they are also operated by different administrations.
In addition, the room initially conceived as an art gallery is currently utilized mainly for auctions. In short, the artistic “dialogue” that these spaces had once facilitated — and which reflected Gabriel Astruc’s aesthetic ideals — is no longer facilitated by the building.
PLN: Can you tell us a bit about Astruc’s later career — the years following the opening of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées? Were there particular milestones from the 1920s or 1930s? At the time of his death in 1938, was he still a force on the Parisian arts scene, or had he faded from the limelight?
CAL: Astruc’s role as impresario faded during and after the Great War. The collapse of his business during the early years of the war, including the premature closing of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées soon after its opening, seemed to have left Astruc with a different perspective on the business — and, likely, on life itself.
Although there is little historical record to document in detail his postwar activities, we do know that Astruc maintained connections with different artists through the L’Agence Radio, a press agency for which he worked during this time.
I have also found new evidence on the life of Astruc’s daughter, who maintained a discreet love affair with the granddaughter of the famous French writer Victor Hugo — and about which we do not know much yet.
PLN: As one of the few people to have studied Gabriel Astruc’s life in great detail, what are the one or two “takeaway” points that people should remember about Astruc and his contribution to the arts?
CAL: I’d say the biggest point is that sometimes, in order to understand the “big picture” of something, we need to look into unlikely places. The whole process of research and discovery has been very illuminating. It’s like playing a detective role — finding clues everywhere and connecting as many dots as possible to build meaning!
PLN: Since completing your doctoral degree, you have been involved in a variety of artistic initiatives and pursuits. Please tell us a bit about your current activities. Are there any new special projects on the horizon?
CAL: I consider myself fortunate to be able to maintain an active agenda as a conductor and as a musicologist. It’s true that splitting my time between two very demanding disciplines might affect the amount of scholarly output or artistic projects I am able to lead; there is only so much time in a day. However, I have found an artistic home in the field of liberal arts education where I can combine both passions in interesting and diverse ways.
Currently, I work as a director of orchestral activities at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College, where I also teach musicology coursework. I am also very grateful to be able to maintain an international profile as a performing artist and music scholar.
As for other projects, I am currently working on a book co-edited with Dr. Diana Hallman of the University of Kentucky which consists of a collection of essays exploring America in the French imagination.
My particular contribution focuses on the arrival of the “cakewalk craze” to Paris and its wide-ranging implications on the culture of the time.
We’re grateful to César Leal for his scholarly research into the life and times of Gabriel Astruc. It has revealed interesting new insights into the artistic milieu of Paris at a consequential time — indeed, as fellow musicologist Dr. Jerry Rife has characterized, France’s undisputed “Golden Age” of classical music.