Morphy and Music

Morphy and Music

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Mrs. Morphy is renowned in the salons of New Orleans as a brilliant pianiste and musician; and her son, without ever having studied music, has a similar aptitude for it, and he believes he would have become as famous therein as in chess, had he given his attention to it.

~"Paul Morphy, Chess Champion" by an Englishman (F. M. Edge) p. 138


     Paul Morphy was raised in a musical arena. His mother, Thelcide Le Carpentier Morphy, was a superlative musician whose home was a Mecca for visiting notables of the music world as well as a meeting place for the talented musicians of New Orleans.

     Thelcide's granddaughter, Regina Morphy-Voitier, in her late-life pamphlet on Morphy, wrote rather matter-of-factly:

Almost every week, Mrs. Morphy entertained large house parties, and her weekly "musicales" were highly artistic and enjoyable. Although Paul was not a musician in the true sense of the word, he was noted for his splendid ear for music, and once he heard a tune, he never forgot it, and he thoroughly enjoyed these evenings devoted to classic music and brilliant
conversation. (p. 28)

Mrs. Morphy very often contributed to the enjoyment of these gatherings by her talent, possessing a magnificent voice. She was noted as a composer, having composed many delightful trios for piano, violin and 'cello. (p.37)

     One of Mrs. Morphy's piano students, as well as a close family friend, Léona Queyrouze, painted a much more intricate picture in her unpublished manuscript, the " First and Last Days of Paul Morphy":

     There were about forty-five music-stands at hand, in a closet adjoining the music-hall; and on the grand concerto-days, they were all taken out and grouped around the splendid Erard, which had been manufactured especially for Mrs. Morphy and transported to her Louisiana home, with more solicitude than if it had been a priceless jewel. It was exceedingly simple in appearance, and destitute of a single ornament. Its value consisted entirely in its wealth of sound, and resided within the
plain rosewood frame, for the harmonies which issued from it were powerful and thrilling.
     There was a large and high music-hall in the house, so constructed as to be intensely sonorous, and it had been fitted up in a way that favored the reverberation of sound, which was not muffled and stifled by the thick carpets; heavy draperies and encumbering furniture. Besides the piano, it contained numerous light chairs, and a few massive music-stands of antiquated style. There was also a vast rosewood book-case, filled with all the master-pieces of classical music. When Herg, Thalberg and other celebrated artists came to New-Orleans, it was there only that they found various works which they had been unable to procure elsewhere in that city.
     All kinds of musical instruments stood up against the walls, or hung upon them in panophiles. Some of them were scattered pell-mell on the chairs. Many years later, after Paul Morphy had become the king of chess-players, several very fine engravings found their way into that room; and in some of them he was seen playing with some famous champion. When he returned from his first visit to Paris, he brought back to his mother a copy of his bust - by the great sculptor Lequesne. It was proudly placed by her in her sanctum. That copy, smaller than the original bust, also came from the hands of Lequesne who presented it to Mr. Morphy, as a token of friendship and admiration.
     On one side of the hall was the broad back-gallery, protected from the sun's heat by the dense umbrage of the trees; and on the other, the oval-shaped vestibule, through the lofty glass-dome of which the light poured in, illuminating the music-hall and showering aureoles upon the marble busts of  Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn, the divinities of that temple. Here and there, the reflection of a golden beam was caught by one of the quaint old copper music-stands, shaped in the form of a lyre, or lingered on some brass instrument glittering in an obscure corner. At certain hours the room was all constellated with stray sparks of sun. At night, the stars glowing in the luminous sky, and the moon's tranquil rays, falling from the transparent dome and vaguely whitening the darkness, imparted a weird aspect to the vestibule, full of dusk and silence.

     People, apparently, were astonished by Morphy's ability to reproduce even the complicated score from an opera after hearing it only once:

I asked his if his nephew was remarkable for anything else than his peculiar aptitude for chess, and I recollect that he stated, among other things, that after his return from a strange opera he could hum or whistle it from beginning to end.
~Dr. L. P. Meredith’s Letter in the Cincinnati Commercial - New Orleans April 16, 1879

Almost every week, Mrs. Morphy entertained large house parties, and her weekly "musicales" were highly artistic and enjoyable. Although Paul was not a musician in the true sense of the word, he was noted for his splendid ear for music, and once he heard a tune, he never forgot it, and he thoroughly enjoyed these evenings devoted to classic music and brilliant conversation.
Life of Paul Morphy in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans and Abroad"; p. 28

Morphy, after leaving the theatre, hummed over many airs to me, which he had just heard for the first time, with astonishing precision.
~Paul Morphy, Chess Champion by an Englishman (F. M. Edge) p. 138

He was passionately fond of music, and his memory in regard to it, was as prodigious as for chess. After having once heard any opera whatever, he could sing or whistle it almost through, with the greatest facility and accuracy.
~"First and Last Days of Paul Morphy"

     Morphy's first love was the opera, but he wasn't limited to that particular musical form. Léona Queyrouze described a moving encounter she had with Paul as he surreptitiously watched her play the piano:

     He was a worshiper of Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn; and when his light, nervous step, so familiar to me, resounded in the sonorous vestibule, at one o'clock, the time at which he came in from his promenade, I often stopped practicing, and set aside scales and exercises for some of his favorite adagios, andantes or scherzos. The doors of the music hall were always open, and when he passed by it, he looked in with a smile, nodded and went.
     He was particularly fond of "La Bella Capricciosa" , one of Hummel's most exquisite gems [Polonaise for Piano in B flat major, Op.55 La Bella capricciosa by Johann Nepomuk Hummel]. Chopin's morbidness affected him painfully, and there were very few of the Polish master's works which I ventured to perform for him. One day, I was alone in the music-hall playing the "Berceuse" [a lullaby
]. After a short while, I felt that somebody else must be present, but I did not heed that impression, thinking that it could only be Mrs. Morphy or her daughter. It grew more forcible every second, and at length I was irresistibly impelled to turn around and look, before I had concluded that ideal composition. Leaning against the black marble mantlepiece, under the large engraving which represented him in one of his brilliant games with Louis Paulsen, both surrounded by renowned amateurs, there stood Paul Morphy, silent and pale, with tears trickling down his wan cheeks. I shall never forget that sight. Neither of us spoke, and he immediately withdrew from my presence.
     It was like an apparition.


Le Théâtre-Italien, Paris c.1850



The interior of the Théâtre-Italien


Inside a Box in the Théâtre-Italien


     During Morphy's triumphal tour of Europe, one of his most famous games, as most chess enthusiasts know, was played against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard in the Duke's box at the Italian Opera House, and has been dubbed the Opera Game. There is often some confusion which opera was being performed during this game. The cause of this confusion is that Edge describes Morphy playing these two noblemen in their first encounter at the opera during which Norma by Vincenzo Bellini was being performed:

H. R. H. the Duke of Brunswick is a thorough devotee to Caïssa; we never saw him but the was playing chess with someone or other. We were frequent visitors to his box at the Italian Opera; he had got a chess-board even there, and played throughout the performance. The Duke's box is right on the stage; so close, indeed, that you might kiss the "prima donna" without any trouble. Morphy sat with his back to the stage, and the Duke and Count Isouard facing him. Now it must not be supposed that he was comfortable. Decidedly other wise; for I have already state that he is passionately fond of music, and, under the circumstances, wished chess at Pluto. The game began and went on: his antagonists had heard Norma so often that they could, probably, sing it through without prompting; they did not even listen to most of it, but went on disputing each other as to their next move. Then Madame Pencho, who represented the Druidical priestess, kept looking towards the box, wondering what was the cause of the excitement inside; little dreaming that Caïssa was the only "Casta Diva" the inmates cared about. And those tremendous fellows, the "supes." who "did" the Druids, how they marched down the stage, chaunting [sic] fire and bloodshed against the Roman host, who, they appeared to think, were inside the Duke's box.
~Edge; pp. 154-155

     However, as Edge stated above, "We were frequent visitors to his box at the Italian Opera."  The Opera Game was played in one of their subsequent visits during which Gioacchino Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" was performed.

On their first visit in October they played chess throughout the entire performance of Norma....
On the second of November they heard The Barber of Seville, during which Morphy played his most famous game, the Duke again consulting with Count Isouard.
~"Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess" by David Lawson; pp. 159-160

     Lawson's assertion was affirmed via Edward Winter's Chess Note #2895 which reported that "Christian Sánchez has consulted the fortnightly magazine "L’Univers Musical" of October and November 1858. He reports that although Morphy’s name did not appear, the 16 October and 1 November numbers mentioned that the October performances at the Théâtre-Italien included Norma, while the 15 November issue stated that The Barber of Seville had been performed that month. This schedule is in line with the information quoted from Lawson’s book."


  1OperaComique.jpg   1OperaComique2.jpg

The Opéra Comique of Paris  

In the evening we went to the Opéra Comique, and witnessed a very unsatisfactory performance of "La Part du Diable." Morphy has a great love for music and his memory for any air he has once heard us astonishing. Mrs. Morphy is renowned in the salons of New Orleans as a brilliant pianiste and musician; and her son, without ever having studied music, has a similar aptitude for it, and he believes he would have become as famous therein as in chess, had he given his attention to it.
"La Part du Diable" was a new opera, and Morphy, after leaving the theatre, hummed over many airs to me, which he had just heard for the first time, with astonishing precision.
~Paul Morphy, Chess Champion by an Englishman (F. M. Edge)


le Théâtre d'Opéra de la Nouvelle Orléans, 1880

     Returning to New Orleans, Morphy inserted himself into the routines of haute société which included regular attendance at the le Théâtre d'Opéra, known more commonly as the French Opera House located on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets.

Paul Morphy was exceedingly fond of grand opera and very seldom missed a performance at the old French Opera House on Bourbon Street, which was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1920. During intermissions, he would call upon some of his lady friends who occupied boxes and invite them to a promenade in the "foyer" where refreshments were served.
~"Life of Paul Morphy in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans and Abroad"; p. 28

     Since the new Opera House was built in 1859, Morphy had, of course, attended the old opera house, but after the erection of the new one, the old building was used for less prominent productions and was soon torn down.



                                  A Concise History of the French Opera House of New Orleans

Le Théâtre d'Orléans 1819-1866

      The first documented operatic performance in New Orleans, Silvain by Jean François Marmontel, M. Grétry, took place on May 22, 1796. By 1809 there was an actual "opera season" during which operas were regularly scheduled. A building specifically for operas, le Théâtre d'Orléans,  was constructed in 1815 by Louis Tabary (who came from Provence, France by way of Saint-Domingue around 1805) but burned down the following year and was replaced in 1819 with the building pictured above by John Davis, a New Orleans entrepreneur. Davis, who came to New Orleans from France and as a refuge from  Saint-Domingue, had the property on Orleans Street (between Bourbon and Royal) locked-up with control over the Davis Hotel, the Orleans Ballroom, and the Théâtre d'Orléans. While the Théâtre d'Orléans catered to the Creole population, John Caldwell, an Englishman in New Orleans, had built the Camp Street Théâtre mean to attract the American population ("Americans" is a term often used to depict non-Creoles living in New Orleans). As the two groups, Creoles and Americans, started to homogenize, Caldwell and Davis became arch-rivals for the same dollars.

     19th century New Orleans was highly susceptible to breakouts of yellow fever. In 1819 alone there were 2,190 deaths from this cause. To avoid this disease, as well as the heat and the possibility of cholera and of hurricanes, many well-heeled families would leave the city during the summer months. With this dwindled audience the opera cast originally disbanded during the summer, but in 1826-27, Davis came up with the idea to mobilizing his troupe and carry their talent to New York and Philadelphia where French drama and opera were a rarity. Since New Orleans had a reputation for being the premier operatic center in the U.S., the performances were quite welcomed.

     On November 30, 1835 John Caldwell constructed a $325,000 behemoth with a 4100 seating capacity named the St. Charles Théâtre (on St.Charles Street between Poydras and Gravier).

 "Its front was 130 feet wide, & the facade included a balustrade decorated with statues of Apollo & the muses. Inside, the auditorium featured 4,000 seats, 47 boxes draped in crimson, blue & yellow silk, and gilded columns flanking what was probably the largest stage in the country -- ninety by ninety-five feet." [see:  St. Charles TheatreIts most notable feature was "an enormous chandelier 12 feet high & 30 feet in circumference of 23,000 crystal prisms illuminated by 176 gas jets."

Its "productions were popular and ran from the drama's classics of tragedy & comedy, to melodrama & farces.... and to variety acts such as horse shows, acrobats, jugglers, singers & comics."  It also included opera, "importing Italian opera companies from Havana, and further enriched the local repertoire by staging, again often for the first time in this country, operas of Vincenzo Bellini (Norma, 1836), Gaetano Donizetti ("Parisina," 1837), and Rossini (Semiramide, 1837). [see: New Orleans Opera]

  1FrenchOperaHouse1858.jpg     In 1835 James Caldwell put on an English production of  Robert Le Diable by Giacomo Meyerbeer at the St. Charles Théâtre. Shortly after John Davis staged a French performance of the same opera at the Théâtre d'Orléans. Calwell's version received high critical reviews and better acceptance from the audiences.

     Unfortunately St. Charles Théâtre burned down on March 13, 1842 when a fire in the adjacent  coffin factory spread to the theatre.  However, even though the theatre was immediately rebuilt, this event solidified the operatic prominence of the Théâtre d'Orléans.




     Davis soon took on a partner, Charles Boudousquié.

In 1840 M. Charles Boudousquié, who subsequently became the husband of the fascinating Calvé, recruited in France the first important company of singers to visit New Orleans. They arrived on the ship "Le Vaillant," after a voyage of sixty days, and less than a week later made their appearance at the Theatre d'Orleans in Adams' "Le Chalet," Lecourt, tenor, and Victor, baritone, appearing in the cast. Boudousquié continued to direct the operatic performances at the Orleans till 1859. During that interval many important works were produced, among them "Robert le Diable," in 1840; "William Tell," in 1846; "La Juive," in 1847; "Jerusalem," p729"Lucie de Lammermoor," and "Le Prophete," in 1850; and "Les Huguenots," in 1853.
[see: Kendall's History of New Orleans; Ch. 45]

     By 1853 Boudousquié had almost autonomous control.

    In 1859 the Theatre d'Orleans was sold to a Mr. Parlange. Boudousquié proposed to continue the lease of the premises, but not being able to accept Mr. Parlange's terms, announced his intention of abandoning the house. Mainly through his exertions the French Opera House Association was incorporated March 4, 1859, with capital stock of $100,000, divided into 200 shares of $500 each. Boudousquié himself was largely interested in the company. Rivière Gardère was chosen president, and the first board of directors was composed of George Urquhart, E. J. McCall, Charles Kock, Gustave Miltenberger, E. Roman, C. Fellows, Charles Roman, Leon Queyrouze and Adolphe Schreiber. A site was purchased at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets, and the erection of the present building was begun on April 9, 1859. The architect was James Gallier, and the builders were Gallier & Esterbrook. The work was prosecuted by day and by night, 150 men being kept constantly on duty. The building was completed November 28, 1859, at a cost of $118,500.
    In the meantime Boudousquié had, by a contract dated April 12, 1859, undertaken the lease of the new theater. He associated with himself the veteran manager, John Davis. The opera house was formally opened December 1, 1859 with "Guillaume Tell." The principal singers were Mathieu, first tenor; Escarlate, tenor of grand opera; Petit, third tenor;
Melchisadek, baritone; Genibrel, first basso; Vauliar, second basso; Mme. St. Urbain, second falcon. Later during the season "Le Trouvère" and "La Fille duº Regiment" were produced, and "La Tour de Nesle," "La Dame Aux Camelias," and other French plays were acted, in accordance with a tradition of which the opera had not yet been able to shake itself free.
    The season of 1860 was likewise successful. The same singers appeared, with the exception that Mme. Brochard replaced Mme. St. Urbain, falcon. On November 8, 1860, the opening night, "Le Barbier de Seville" was presented with Mme. Faure in the role of Rosine. Among the operas which were presented during this season were "La Favorite," "Il Trovatore," "La Juive" and "Robert le Diable." Early in 1861 Adelina Patti made her first appearance at the French Opera House, as Martha, in Flotow's opera of that name. During her engagement Patti sang also in "Les Huguenots," "Robert le Diable," "Charles VI," and "Lucie." In 1862, 1863 and 1864, on account of the Civil war, there were no performances at the Opera House.
    In January, 1866, an Italian troupe, under the direction of Thioni and Susini, gave a few performances. Paul Alhaiza then became director of the opera. He recruited in France a very large and capable troupe, but the entire membership was lost at sea, October 3, 1866, in the wreck of the steamer "Evening Star." Of the 250 souls on board this ill-fated vessel, only seven escaped. Among those who were lost were Gallier, architect of the opera house, his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Alhaiza, relatives of the impresario. Mr. Alhaiza was, however, able, with the assistance of several excellent artists, to open the season on November 16, when Octave Feuillet's "La Redemption," a comedy in five acts, was presented.
[see: Kendall's History of New Orleans; Ch. 45]

The seating plan for the French Opera House (Théâtre d'Opéra)

"In 1873 the rights and titles of the original company were acquired by L. Placide Canonge for $40,000, and Canonge, acting for a syndicate, resold to the Merchants' Insurance Co., mortgage creditor. Canonge himself assumed the management, which he retained till 1878."

      L. Placide Canonge was a confidante of Mrs. Morphy. According to Regina Morphy-Voitier, "She also composed the music for a five act opera entitled "Louise de Lorraine," the words of which were written by L. Placide Canonge, one of the most brilliant men of New-Orleans, a journalist of talent, editor of L'Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orleans, and also at one time Impressario of the Theatre de l'Opera."

     The Théâtre d'Opéra opened on December 1, 1859

The opera house was one of the most famous masterpieces designed by noted architect James Gallier, architect of Gallier Hall and many other classic 18th Century buildings. The great elliptical auditorium was beautifully arranged with a color scheme of red and white, and seated 1,800 persons in four tiers of seats. It was Greek Revival in design, and its colonnaded front measured 166 feet on bourbon Street and 187 feet on Toulouse Street. Its 80 foot high loft towered above all of the buildings of the French Quarter. In the loges of the opera house, there were screened boxes for pregnant ladies, ladies in mourning, and "ladies-of-the-evening" (elegantly dressed madams from nearby Storyville).

     and burned down on December 4, 1919.

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