A good book gaudily bound: popular conductor Jullien

Nowadays, we are accustomed to entertainers who go by only one name, but in the nineteenth century, there was only Jullien (1812-1860). LIke Madonna and so many others today, he was born with more than one name. In fact, his father conducted a French orchestra and every member became the young son’s godfather: he had 37 Christian  names!

With a start in life like that, no wonder he became eccentric. His concert dress included a shirt front with diamond studs. When he conducted  Beethoven, he had a page bring him a special jeweled baton on a silver salver. He kept a white and gold chair near his gold-studded crimson podium so he could rest between numbers.

In Europe, Jullien represented what William Weber has called “low status music,” one of a number of conductors who played dance music and informal promenade concerts for an audience of mixed social classes. His promenade programs always featured classical music, including complete symphonies, along with lighter novelties. For the latter, he often put together “monster concerts” with huge orchestras to make a grand effect.

Many critics called Jullien a humbug for his excessive showmanship, but no one could deny his musicianship. In fact, his performances of the classics were often more faithful to the composers’ intent than those of some of his more serious contemporaries. Many of them did not hesitate to add additional winds and brass to music by Handel, Mozart, and even Beethoven for a “better” effect.

A critic in Putnam’s Monthly (November 1853, p. 573) noted, “He is a humbug, not in essence, but in form. He is like a good book gaudily bound. . . But the music is true and great.”

After a stint in the army, Jullien entered the Paris Conservatory in 1831. Because he preferred light music to studying counterpoint, he did not finish. Instead, he left school in 1836 to start a series of promenade concerts. That put him in direct opposition to Philippe Musard, the originator of the concept then at the height of his popularity.

Jullien achieved notoriety, but not financial success. Bankruptcy forced him to flee to England, where he reigned supreme in promenade concerts until near the end of  his life. He traveled all over England, Scotland, and Ireland, along with all of his gaudy props and, for the 1853-54 season, visited New York.

His return to Paris in 1859 proved disastrous. He became mentally unstable and died in a lunatic asylum. Along with his contemporaries Musard and Johann Strauss, Sr., Jullien spent a lifetime bringing classical music to a mass audience. His aim was always first to entertain and second to instruct. Perhaps that combination and their order has lessons for modern concert series as well.


A good book gaudily bound: popular conductor Jullien — 2 Comments

    • Thank you for the complement! I removed some links from the body of your comment, but people can always follow up because of the link in your signature.

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