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The Role of Opera in the Creation of Modern Belgium

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The pen is mightier than the sword
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton (paraphrasing earlier writings)
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
— John Dryden

In opera, the pen (the libretto) and the passion (the music) are brought together. Many a passion has been raised by a great performance of a great opera, but on the night of 25 August, 1830, it is said the passion ignited a revolution and changed history.

The Opera

The opera concerned was La Muette de Portici1, written by the composer Daniel-François Auber to a libretto by Eugène Scribe. It may be justifiably said that with La Muette de Portici, Auber (1782 - 1871) created the genre of Grand Opera. Set in Naples in 1647, the opera is based on a real historical event in which the people of Naples rose up against their Spanish oppressors. It includes a number of patriotic, revolutionary songs to inflame the passions.

Auber's opera was extremely popular, receiving 100 performances at the Paris Opéra by 1840, and 500 performances there by 1880. Even Richard Wagner spoke highly of it:

...the supreme achievement of French dramatic music is Auber's unsurpassable La Muette de Portici, a work such as no nation can bring forth more than once. Its power to take by storm, its welter of emotions and passions depicted in glowing colours and saturated with characteristic melodies, gracious yet powerful, charming yet heroic...
— Gazette musicale, July, 1840

The performance of interest here was not the première — this had taken place in Paris on 29 February, 1828 — but a later one at a place that now bears two names. In Flemish, it is the Koninklijke Muntschouwburg (or simply de Munt), but in French it still bears the name it was known by at the time: le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, in Brussels.

Recipe for a Revolution

The Belgae, the earliest distinct inhabitants of the territory of present-day Belgium, were defeated by Julius Caesar's Roman army in 54 BC. Following the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, the Franks established a kingdom until it was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire in the 8th Century under Charlemagne. During the 12th - 14th Centuries, it was divided into feudal states, but during the 15th Century became part of Burgundy. Thereafter it was successively Hapsburg (-1556), Spanish (-1713), Austrian (-1794) and, until 1815, French.

In 1815, following the Napoleonic Wars, the map of Europe was conveniently redrawn — to the convenience, that is, of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia — to ensure a strong barrier against possible future French expansion and aggression. The Congress of Vienna created the Kingdom of the Netherlands under William of Orange — William I — uniting the commercial, Protestant, Flemish-speaking northern Netherlands, with the industrial, Catholic, mainly French-speaking south, which included the present-day Belgium and Luxembourg.

Between 1815 - 1830, the economic situation in the southern Netherlands was very poor. A significant component of the economy was the home-produced cloth which had been sold to France. That market disappeared with the war, and the situation was made worse by the arrival of cheaper cloth from England. Paralleling the Industrial Revolution in England, people migrated into cities, earning pittance wages in the textile factories that grew up there. A succession of failed harvests added to the problem; the Catholic clergy preached that these difficulties were God's punishment and railed against the better-faring Protestant north, and against King William.

At the end of July, 1830, revolution in Paris overthrew Charles X, who was replaced by a constitutional monarchy under the Duke of Orleans with the title Louis Philippe, King of the French. In August, the new king and his two sons paid a visit to Brussels — when the town was holding an exhibition of national industry — blissfully unaware of the revolutionary fever that was growing there.

The Night of the Performance

The story goes that on the evening of the performance the theatre was crowded, and as the action on the stage proceeded, the audience grew more excited. Finally, at the patriotic Act II duet 'Amour sacré de la patrie', the passion boiled over and they rushed out into the street. The ensuing riot started the revolution that led to the establishment in 1831 of an independent, neutral state — the Kingdom of Belgium, led by their first king, Leopold I, of Saxe-Coburg — its neutrality guaranteed by Britain and France.

Post-revolutionary History

So here we have an example of how the power of the pen, combined with the passion of music, can bring about real change. Or do we?

Probably not. The story is likely to be as much a piece of fiction as the play acted out on the stage in Auber's opera. The reality was that unemployment was rife among those drawn into the city in search of work and food. After a failed harvest, the new harvest was not yet in and bread prices were soaring.

Jan Neckers, a Flemish journalist and historian, believes that as the audience left the theatre, a few encountered some of the unemployed who were hanging around the theatre — probably waiting to beg from those leaving — and managed to incite a small number of them to plunder houses belonging to people described as being collaborators of King William. Backed by the French and encouraged by a weak response from the king, what started as a protest soon escalated into a striving for the creation of a new state.

The French-speaking part of the new Belgium gained dominance at the expense of the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Later, they preferred to encourage the myth that the revolution had been started in heroic operatic style by a patriotic opera audience, rather than by the reality of the disadvantaged and unemployed proletariat. Those in the world of opera saw no reason to discredit the story either.

...and finally

In the years that followed, La Muette de Portici declined in popularity, as operas tend to, and performances were few. In 1980, a new production of the opera was to be given in Brussels. However, on the day of the performance it was discovered that dissident Flemings planned to disrupt the performance, and it was cancelled. In 2005, to celebrate the 175-year anniversary of the founding of Belgium, another performance of La Muette was to take place in Ghent. Once again a disruption was announced by Flemish radicals, but happily a compromise was reached with the police and local authorities, in which the protesters would interrupt the performance for five minutes only and then leave the theatre. As expected, at the start of Amour sacré de la patrie, the protesters sang the Flemish national anthem, chanted their protests and then left as promised.

To return to John Dryden's words: What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

1English title, The Mute Girl of Portici. Portici is a village located on the coast between Naples and the volcano Vesuvius.

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