Tuesday, 30 May 2017


It may just have been the first of many bad omens to come: 

247 years ago today, newlywed royal couple Marie Antoinette, (formerly archduchess of Austria and present Dauphine de France), and Louis-Auguste, (heir to the French throne and the future Louis XVI; both 14 and 15 respectively) would receive the shock of their young lives when, during the final festivities held for the future monarch’s recent nuptials, which had been hosted across Paris for some two weeks straight following the May 16th wedding – an errant firework (a rocket) veered off course and set fire to the Temple de l'Hymen (the Temple of Hymen), a specially constructed and elaborate structure erected especially for the royal couple at the Paris' Place de la Concorde.

The disaster would not only echo the calamity that befell Handel in London of 1749 – which also involved the presence of an elaborate structure (erected to serve as a dazzling backdrop for the display of lights) and it’s destruction by an errant firework – but would also succeed it many times over in scale of sheer catastrophe: whereas the tragedy at St James Park of 1749 only claimed two lives, the present disaster in Paris would number over 132 fatalities by the time the final body count had been tallied.

Below, Marie Antoinette biographer Charles Duke Yonge describes, in horrific detail, the deadly actions of the Parisian people as they went from awe to sheer terror - one moment admiring the pyrotechnic feat (even marveling at the raging inferno that lit up the Temple as the rocket struck, thinking it a newly created special effect), and the next, stomping on the bodies of their neighbors as they frantically clawed their way toward safety, running at full speed toward safe terrain (in as much speed as one might acquire whilst in the midst of a full blown stampede).

Perhaps most disheartening of Yonge’s account is the revelation that most of the victims were of the lowest economic class, who had likely come out to celebrate the union of the future king and queen of France, believing in the heirs to the throne as potential saviors to their financial woes. Many would not live to find out – those who were not trampled or otherwise suffocated in the stampede were callously tossed into a river and left to drown by their fellow spectators as they made a mad dash toward safety.

In any event, fate would see to it that the royal couple could have never served as saviors anyhow – the condemned couple would be famously stripped of their titles, beheaded under the sharp blade of the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution in 1793 Revolutionary France, and their corpses dumped in a common grave at the Cemetery of the Madeline – ironically, the very same resting grounds for the victims of the May 30th disaster at the Place de La Concorde.
*CLICK TO ENLARGE* A Contemporary mock-up of the Temple de l'Hymen

From "The Life of Marie Antoinette" by Charles Duke Yonge (1876, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York):
Little as was the good-will which subsisted between Louis XV and the Parisians, the civic authorities thought their own credit at stake in doing appropriate honor to an occasion so important as the marriage of the heir of the monarchy, and on the 30th of May they closed a succession of balls and banquets by a display of fire-works, in which the ingenuity of the most celebrated artists had been exhausted to outshine all previous displays of the sort. Three sides of the Place Louis XV were filled up with pyramids and colonnades. Here dolphins darted out many-colored flames from their ever-open mouths. There, rivers of fire poured forth cascades spangled with all the variegated brilliancy with which the chemist's art can embellish the work of the pyrotechnist.

The centre was occupied with a gorgeous Temple of Hymen, which seemed to lean for support on the well-known statue of the king, in front of which it was constructed; and which was, as it were, to be carried up to the skies by above three thousand rockets and fire-balls into which it was intended to dissolve. The whole square was packed with spectators, the pedestrians in front, the carriages in the rear, when one of the explosions set fire to a portion of the platforms on which the different figures had been constructed. At first the increase of the blaze was regarded only as an ingenious surprise on the part of the artist. But soon it became clear that the conflagration was undesigned and real; panic-succeeded to delight, and the terror-stricken crowd, seeing themselves surrounded with flames, began to make frantic efforts to escape from the danger; but there was only one side of the square unenclosed, and that was blocked up by carriages.

The uproar and the glare made the horses unmanageable, and in a few moments the whole mass, human beings and animals, was mingled in helpless confusion, making flight impossible by their very eagerness to fly, and trampling one another underfoot in bewildered misery. Of those who did succeed in extricating themselves from the square, half made their way to the road which runs along the bank of the river, and found that they had only exchanged one danger for another, which, though of an opposite character, was equally destructive. Still overwhelmed with terror, though the first peril was over, the fugitives pushed one another into the stream, in which great numbers were drowned. The number of the killed could never be accurately ascertained: but no calculation estimated the number of those who perished at less than six hundred, while those who were grievously injured were at least as many more.

The dauphin and dauphiness were deeply shocked by a disaster so painfully at variance with their own happiness, which, in one sense, had caused it. Their first thought was, as far as they might be able, to mitigate it. Most of the victims were of the poorer class, the grief of whose surviving relatives was, in many instances, aggravated by the loss of the means of livelihood which the labors of those who had been cut off had hitherto supplied; and, to give temporary succor to this distress, the dauphin and dauphiness at once drew out from the royal treasury the sums allowed to them for their private expenses for the month, and sent the money to the municipal authorities to be applied to the relief of the sufferers. But Marie Antoinette did more. She felt that to give money only was but cold benevolence; and she made personal visits to many of those families which had been most grievously afflicted, showing the sincerity of her sympathy by the touching kindness of her language, and by the tears which she mingled with those of the widow and the orphan.

Did You Know?

Inside the Royal Opera House at Versailles
The Temple of Hymen wasn’t the only structure to have been created in anticipation of the royal marriage of the Dauphin to the archduchess. 

In 1770, King Louis XV commissioned the construction of a large event hall at Versailles to serve as a ballroom for the wedding banquet and subsequent wedding related festivities. 

It would also serve as the first opera hall in France built in the shape of an oval. The Opéra Royal, as it was then called, was an architectural and technological wonder: boasting finely sculpted depictions of Greek gods and symbols marking the Zodiac, and a mechanically operated flooring system which could both raise the orchestra flush with the stage during balls, and lower it for more intimate occasions.

The newly installed opera hall at Versailles couldn’t have served as a better gift for the newly minted Dauphine de France - a musician and minor composer herself, who would later serve as musical patron, most notably to her musical hero (and former teacher) Christoph Willibald Gluck.

The first opera Marie Antoinette would have attended at the Royal Opera House (as the hall would later become known) was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Persée, composed in 1682. It would serve as the inaugural performance for the venue, and the former archduchess of Austria would witness the occasion whilst still Dauphine.

Although the interior mechanism behind the rising floor may
appear rickety by modern standards, the design was considered
state-of-the-art technology in the late 18th century. The
complex system, consisting of winches and hoists, was
designed by the First Theatre Technician to the King,
Blaise-Henri Arnoult.
Although the state-of-the-art opera hall and its breathtaking acoustics – owed largely to the wooden structure of the venue – were considered a marvel and a sight to behold in it’s day, the opera house was expensive to maintain, and was only used some 40 times before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Memorable performances during this period included Lully’s Persée in 1770 on the day of the royal wedding; a revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 
Castor et Pollux in honor of the visiting Emperor and brother to the Dauphine, Joseph II in may 1777; and the revivals of Marie-Antoinette favorite composer Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide in late May of 1782 and Armide in June 1784. The latter production saw in attendance the King of Sweden, Gustav III, who was visiting the French court.

Listen below to the third act aria from Lully's Persée, "O tranquille sommeil" performed by the American tenor Rockwell Blake:


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