Alexandre Boucher and La Marseillaise

Posted on December 16th, 2009 by

Boucher and La Marseillaise

Alexandre-Jean Boucher (1770-1861) was born and died in Paris. His father was a member of Louis XV’s  Mousquetaires Gris A pupil or Navoigille ainé, and Gaviniés, he performed at court at the age of eight years old, shortly before his debut at les Concerts Spirituels.  .  In 1787, he was engaged as solo violinist to Charles IV of Spain, a position that he held for the next nineteen years.  In 1880, his royal patron was imprisoned at Fontainebleau by Napoleon; later he was exiled to Chambord. He died in Rome. Boucher ‘did not hesitate in giving his former master a mark of devotion’, and went to play to the King in prison. He was loyal to the King for the remainder of his life.  Boucher’s bizarre E major Concerto ‘Mon Caprice’ was dedicated to Charles IV’s consort, the Queen Maria Luisa; the first edition was prefaced with a lengthy preamble about the king.

Upon Boucher’s return to Paris in 1806, his performances were acclaimed, but it was remarked that he tended towards charlatanism; his public appearances over the next few decades did very little to dispel this suspicion.

In 1819, Boucher found himself in Brussels. There he met the violinist and composer Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859), who was performing with his wife, the brilliant harpist,  Dorothea Scheidler, who preferred to be called  ‘Dorette’ (1787-1834). Mme. Boucher, was also a virtuoso harpist.  Spohr, ever generous, wrote: 

“Both of them demonstrated much virtuosity of execution, but the music that they played was poor and without merit; I cannot recall whether it was by M. Boucher himself.  He played a Haydn Quartet, but he added so many ornaments of bad taste, that it was impossible to derive any pleasure from it. “

Spohr wished to visit France; Boucher, always ready to be of service, gave him a letter of introduction to the Baron d’Assignies at Lille. In the letter, he wrote:

“Finally, if I am, as it is said, the Napoleon of the violin, then M. Spohr is indeed the Moreau.”

Boucher was echoing the pretensions of Viotti’s teacher, Gaetano Pugnani.  Once, Pugnani was introduced to an Italian nobleman who did not recognise him:

“‘Who are you?’ asked the noble. ‘I am Caesar with my violin in my hand’ replied the violinist with pride…”

In point of fact, Boucher did bore  striking resemblance to the Napoleon, whom he delighted in imitating. “My field of battle, is the concert hall, and here is my army”, he used to say passionately, proffering his violin.

General Jean Victor Moreau (1763-1813) had been implicated in an 1804 plot to kill Napoleon, who had crowned himself Emperor that year.  Moreau was flung in gaol for two years, before travelling to the United States. Clearly, Boucher wellwas aware of the threat that a truly great artist such as Spohr posed to him.

In June 1821, Boucher met Carl Maria von Weber in Berlin.  Weber agreed to perform with appear with him. It was reported that:

“This likeable and eccentric personality [Boucher], liked to mix into his performance, which was actually remarkable and solid, more comic tours-de-force, such as walking the wood of the bow under the strings, playing the violin behind his back etc.   On this day they played Weber’s Variations for piano and violin on a Norwegian theme, into which Boucher had introduced a cadenza of his own composition.   The moment arriving to insert his cadenza, Boucher stopped Weber, and with an inspired aspect, set himself to attack a furious improvisation, interleaving all possible strings of tremolo, pizzicato, arpeggios,  in which he incorporated an overview of the most popular themes of  Robin des Bois.  He agitated himself, overwhelmed himself … and finished by muddling himself up so much that it was impossible for him to find his way back to the homekey. So, as if seized by a sudden inspiration, he threw his violin on the piano, seized, Weber, who by now had no idea what was going on , lifted him up in his vigorous arms, embraced him and sobbed; ‘Oh great master! How I love you! How I admire you!’  … Cries of “Vive Weber!” rang out from all corners of the hall.”

 Immediately after this concert , which  had netted him 115 Thaler, Weber famously noted in his journal Molto onore, poco contante

            Throughout the 19th century a rumour persisted that Boucher had written the music for Rouget de Lisle’s la Marseillaise.  This hymn had anchored itself in the revolutionary consciousness on the third celebration of ‘Bastille Day’, July 14th 1792. 600 National guards had marched for 27 days from Marseilles, singing revolutionary and patriotic songs all the way.  Rouget de Lisle’s ‘Allons, Enfants de la Patrie,…’ had proved their favourite. Despite the fac that he was from Strasbourg, it was promptly named for the native city of this intrepid troop.

           Clearly, the rumours as to the anthem’s authorship were spread by Boucher, an indefatigable self-promoter, but the story rings true.  The character of the melody itself suggests, that more than one mind was at work, and that one of those minds was not that of a composer specialising in vocal music.  Perhaps the collaboration took place in the relatively public space of a salon, in the context of public improvisation and musical conversation.

           For all of the limitations of Boucher’s art, he had one true talent.  Vidal summed this up; Boucher, “…left everywhere a reputation of being a very talented violinist, but at the same time that of being an eccentric charlatan, who well knew, how to make himself loved and esteemed through the good qualities of Nature.”

 There is a tantalizing possibility that Alexandre Boucher might have played chamber music for the most famous artist to be associated with Charles IV of Spain,  Francisco de Goya (1746-1826). Goya’s two passions were music and conversation, both of which were progressively denied to him as he lost his hearing from the 1790’s. It has not escaped notice that his first major set of engravings, Los Caprichos (1799) , being in the plural, alludes to both the musical and painterly conceits. Upon his death, the inventory of his effects included music stands, instruments ( including violins by Gaudagnini and a Guarnerius), and much chamber music. This was dominated by music of the Revolutionary generation. Along with music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, there were scores of Kreutzer, Rode, Baillot, and Charles Philippe Lafont. These might have been brought to Goya’s salons by Boucher himself.

Link to Beethoven’s piece for Boucher: