“Loudly applauded”: Composer Louise Angélique Bertin

January 15, 2021 is the 216th birthday of Louise Angélique Bertin (January 15, 1805 – April 26, 1877). She was a French composer, poet, librettist, and painter. She was the only composer to work directly with Victor Hugo (author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the first French composer to set Goethe’s Faust as an opera (she wrote the libretto and music), and the first woman of the 19th century to have an opera performed at the Opéra de Paris. Louise Angélique Bertin studied voice and composition with François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) and composition with Anton Reicha (1770 – 1836). Musicians tend to encounter Louise Angélique Bertin in all-too-brief mentions of women in 19th-century French opera. She gets far more attention in the scholarship and fandom of the poet and author Victor Hugo, who called her the second mother to his children in an 1890 publication of 50 years of letters (Lettres de Victor Hugo aux Bertin).

Before I go into the wonderful resources in the Music Division about Louise Angélique Bertin, I must begin with a caveat: my adventure learning about her began with a misconception. Early in 2020, my colleague Susan Clermont showed me the following entry in our card catalog:

Music Division card catalog entry for Cantate aux Portugais by Mme. Louise Bertin, née Lalanne.

We immediately pulled the manuscript and were fascinated! I knew of the Crystal Palace in London (and you may, too, if you’ve visited London or watched the Netflix show Victoria), but didn’t know about one in Porto, Portugal. The 1865 structure no longer stands, but the gardens are a special attraction (looking at you, Pandemic After-Times). I’m also always intrigued by items LC obtained from other institutions – in this case, a large sale of items from the Royal Collection in Lisbon in 1922.

What’s the misconception, you ask? The Louise Bertin who composed this Crystal Palace cantata is not the Louise Angélique Bertin listed on this card as the composer! On the catalog card and the score’s title page, you can clearly see that the composer signed her name as “Mme. Louise Bertin, née Lalanne.” This means that her married name is Bertin and her maiden name was Lalanne. Today’s birthday gal Louise Angélique Bertin never married – her last name at birth and for life was Bertin. According to Denise Lynn Bernou’s 1990 dissertation Louise Bertin and Opera in Paris in the 1820s and 1830s, the two women aren’t related. While the original catalog card will remain as is, the Crystal Palace score is now properly cataloged online, and each Louise has her own LC Name Authority File: “Bertin, Louise” and “Bertin, Louise Angelique, 1805-1877.” So, your mission if you choose to accept it is to find out who Mme. Louise Lalanne Bertin is – and let us know what you find through Ask a Librarian!

Back to the celebrations at hand. Louise Angélique grew up in French circles of wealth, intellectualism, and culture. Frequent visitors to her family’s country home Les Roches outside of Paris included the Italian composer Giacomo Rossini (1792 – 1868); writers François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) and Victor Hugo; and artists Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863), and Louis Boulanger (1806 – 1867). In fact, Ingres painted a famous portrait of Louise Angélique’s father in 1833, owned by the Louvre in Paris.

Her father owned an important newspaper, Journal des débats, that employed a feisty music critic by the name of… Hector Berlioz! Berlioz closely intertwines with Louise Angélique. She had a physical disability that affected her ability to walk or stand for periods of time, so Berlioz was hired by Bertin’s father to run the rehearsals of her fourth (and final) opera Esmerelda in 1836. Remember how she was the only composer to ever collaborate directly with Victor Hugo? The libretto to Esmerelda was written by Hugo based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Signed first edition title page of Les Nuits d’été, op. 7 by Hector Berlioz. Call number M3.3.B5 no. 1 CASE.

In Chapter 48 of Berlioz’s colorful Memoirs, he goes into great detail about Louise Angélique, his involvement with Esmerelda, and the opera’s reception. Berlioz praises her as “a writer and a musician of considerable distinction and one of the most intelligent women of our time.” He goes on to report that Rossini attended Esmerelda’s dress rehearsal, which was “loudly applauded.” But, the political stance of Journal des débats prompted some chaos at the premiere, where, according to Berlioz, “one or two people who were particularly hostile to the Bertin family shouted out quite shamelessly, ‘It’s not by Mlle Bertin, it’s by Berlioz,’ and actively fostered the rumour that I had written [Quasimodo’s aria] in the style of the rest of the score. It was no more mine than anything else in the work, and I swear on my honour that I did not write a note of it.”

Louise Angélique Bertin, composer. First page of full score Ouverture from Le Loup garou. Call number M1500.B539 L68 CASE.

The accusation is unfortunate given that Louise Angélique gained success with opera – the hot trend of 19th-century Paris and a public, masculine sphere of creative influence. She primarily wrote poetry thereafter. Nevertheless, in 1841, Berlioz dedicated his Opus 7 to Louise Angélique, Les nuits d’été: 6 mélodies pour mezzo-soprano ou ténor avec accompagnement de piano. The Music Division has a first edition signed by Berlioz!

The Music Division also has her second opera Le Loup garou (1827) in full score with the libretto available online, as well as a piano-vocal score of her third opera Faust (1831). And none other than Franz Liszt created the piano-vocal reduction of Esmerelda’s full score. I would be remiss if I did not direct you to the Bibliothèque nationale de France to view Louise Angelique’s digitized holograph full scores of Esmerelda, as well as the costume designs by Louis Boulanger.

My favorite item in our collections, though, is a seven-page 1838 musical autograph Duet by Louise Angélique for soprano and bass voices within Count Anatole Demidoff’s album, our only item in her hand.

Louise Angélique Bertin, composer. Duet for soprano, bass, and piano. 5 October 1838. Demidoff album of autographs, call number ML96.D44 CASE.

You may also be interested in Louise Angélique Bertin’s women contemporaries who wrote operas, operettas, and vocal works: composer, pianist, and pedagogue Louise Farrenc (1804-1875); composer and vocalist Loïsa Puget (1810-1889); composer, mezzo-soprano, and pedagogue Pauline Viardot (1821-1910); Octavie Pillore (active 1820s-1830s); and Vicomtesse Marie de Reiset de Grandval (1828/30-1907), whom you’ll learn more about in a forthcoming blog post!

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