A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Orphéon

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ORPHÉON, ORPHÉONISTE. The general name of the French singing societies and their members. Choral singing had been largely cultivated in Germany and Switzerland, and Liedertafelnhad existed for some years, before the French established similar institutions. As Goethe had assisted Zelter in founding the first Liedertafel in Berlin in 1808, so ten years later Béranger materially contributed to the success of the Orphéon, by nominating Bocquillon-Wilhem as teacher of singing in the Ecoles d'enseignement mutuel, at Paris, when music was made one of the subjects of study in October 1818. It was not however till 1835 that the Conseil municipal of Paris voted the adoption of singing in all the communal schools. Three years later it was adopted at the universities, and thus the whole youth of France had the opportunity of cultivating an ear for music.

The working-classes in Paris and the departments next came under consideration, and at the suggestion of Wilhem and under his superintendence, evening classes were opened in 1835 in the Rue Montgolfier by Hubert, who afterwards became conductor of the Orphéon. The success of this attempt encouraged the formation of similar classes in different quarters of Paris, all directed by followers of Wilhem's method. These classes were all for male voices only, and thus the Orpheon had at its disposal hundreds of tenors and basses, who could be used to reinforce the choirs of the Ecoles communales for choral singing on a grand scale. The interest in performances of this kind increased rapidly, and soon, through the exertions of M. Delaporte and others, 'contests' and festivals were established, to which choral unions flocked from all parts of France.

Influenced doubtless by the growing importance of these gatherings, the corporation of Paris resolved to place at the head of the Orphéon a composer of the first rank, capable of managing the institution on sound musical principles; their choice fell on M. Gounod, who became conductor in 1852, and under whom the society prospered immensely. On his resignation in 1860, owing to the increase of Paris it was divided into two sections, that of the left bank of the Seine being conducted by M. François Bazin, and that of the right bank by M. Pasdeloup. Hubert became inspector of the Ecoles communales on the right bank, and Foulon of those on the left. In the spring of each year a test-performance was held at the Cirque des Champs Elysées, and in the Cirque d'hiver, at which 1200 picked singers—about half the number in attendance at the schools and adult classes—sang the new pieces learned during the year before the Préfet of the Seine, and the members of the Commission de surveillance du chant. This organisation was maintained till 1872, but the societies were seriously affected by the war, and in 1873 the Orphéοn was again united under the sole conductorship of Bazin, who retained it till his death. His favourite pupil, M. Danhauser, inspector of singing in the Ecoles communales since 1875, was appointed in July 1878 Inspector-General of singing, a position really equivalent to that previously held by Bazin and by Gounod.

The répertoire of the Orpheonists is very varied, and comprises pieces in various styles composed expressly for them by Halévy, Adolphe Adam, Félicien David, Ambroise Thomas, Gounod, Bazin, Boulanger, Semet, Delibes, Massenet, Dubois, and, most of all, Laurent de Rillé, who has composed over a hundred choral melodies. In Belgium also, where choral-singing is cultivated with great success, several composers have written for the Orphéonistes, especially Hanssens (born at Ghent July 12, 1802; died at Brussels April 8, 1871), Gevaert, Soubre, Denefve, Radoux, and Camille de Vos, the Belgian rival of de Rillé.

An institution which in 1867 numbered in France alone 3,243 choral societies, with 147,500 effective members, and which still (1880) comprises 1500 Orphéons and 60,000 Orphéonistes, naturally required organs of its own, especially for the ventilation of topics connected with the 'concours' and festivals. The most important of these are 'La France chorale,' 'L'Echo des Orphéons,' 'La nouvelle France chorale,' and 'L'Orphéon.' [See Musical Periodicals.]

There is at present no history of the Orphéon, but ample materials exist in the above periodicals. They give details of the 'grands jours,' and of the principal feats accomplished by the French and Belgian choral societies; such as the journey of 3000 Orphéonistes under M. Delaporte to London in June 1860, and the international contests of Lille (1862), Arras (1864), Paris (1867 and 78), Rheims (1869 and 76), Lyons (1877) and Brussels (1880). For these occasions the best pieces in their repertoire have been composed, and attention may be directed specially to 'Le Tyrol,' 'Le Carnaval de Rome,' 'La Nuit du Sabbat,' and others, by A. Thomas, to words by the writer of this article, striking productions, which within the limits of a simple chorus, exhibit the variety, interest, and movement of a dramatic scene.

[ G. C. ]