Boulevard de Rochechouart (Paris)


The Boulevard de Rochechouart is situated at the foot of Monmartre and named after Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau, Abbess of Montmartre. The street has a rich cultural history. No. 72 was the former site of the Elysée Montmartre which was a popular ballroom originally dating back to 1807.

Twelve doors down the road was the original location of the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir opened by the painter Rodolphe Salis on 18 November 1881. Hungarian painter Francois Gall became an impressionist painter in the French tradition after he moved to Paris in 1936. He admired the first generation of impressionists and adopted their concepts for his own interpretations. Parisian scenes and boulevards – of which his ‘Boulevard de Rochechouart’ is one – were among his preferred subjects.

Pleyel and Company is a French piano manufacturing firm founded by Austrian-born French composer Ignace Joseph Pleyel who had moved to Paris in 1795. In 1797 he set up a business as a music publisher, which among other works produced a complete edition of Haydn’s string quartets in 1801. The publishing business lasted for some forty years and published about 4,000 works. In 1807, Pleyel became a manufacturer of pianos. His firm also ran a concert hall, the Salle Pleyel.

It was there that Chopin performed his first and his final Paris concerts. By 1834 the company had purchased a construction workshop and sale room in the Rue Rue Rochechouart. At that time, it boasted 250 employees and an annual production of 1,000 pianos. Pleyel pianos were the choice of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Stravinsky, and many other outstanding musicians. The Salle Pleyel opened its doors in December 1839 at no.22 Rue Rochechouart. It became central to nineteenth century concert life in the capital. Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg, Rubinstein, César Franck had all appeared there by the mid-1840s. Over the years it saw the premieres of many important works, including the second (1868) and fifth (1896) piano concertos by Saint-Saëns, and Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infant défunte’.

In 1927, a new Salle Pleyel was opened at no. 252 Rue du Faubourg St Honoré. Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel both conducted their own works as part of the inaugural concert on 18 October of that year. For the occasion, André Devambez painted a charming 1928 oil painting of the ‘Salle Pleyel’ for the magazine L’Illustration.

The Boulevard de Rochechouart has a noble reputation in the history of music. In literature however the street was known for its noise levels. To young French romantics of the late 1820s art meant protest. Protest involves noise and agitation. Artistic evolution from the nineteenth into the twentieth century is one of ever increasing noise and loudness. Blast was the perfect title for a literary magazine. The Italian futurists went a step further. Noise is art. This development from public posturing to poetic expression can be shown in a set of contrasting anecdotes involving the intervention of neighbours. Closeness is a dominating feature of city life.

Contemporary historians, in their grand designs, have not been kind to the anecdotal tale. Like Voltaire before them, they have been dismissive about including anecdotes in their narrative. The anecdote comes into play when emphasis is put on ‘couleur locale’ and physiognomy, an approach that focuses on the characters, customs, and habits particular to a country (region), period in time, or movement in art. If one takes a wider overview of historical accounts, the anecdote has often stood in a close relation to more elaborate narratives of history, sometimes in a supportive function, as examples and illustrations, sometimes in a challenging role, as the ‘petite histoire’ that is all too often ignored by authors. Prosper Mérimée was a dramatist and historian, best known for his novella Carmen which inspired Bizet’s opera.

In 1829 he published La chronique du temps de Charles IX, a historical novel set at the French court at the time of the St Bartholomew massacre. In his introduction to the story the author wrote: ‘Je n’aime dans l’histoire que des anecdotes, et parmi les anecdotes je préfère celles où j’imagine trouver une peinture vraie des moeurs et des caractères à une époque donnée.’ [I like nothing in history but its anecdotes; and of all anecdotes, I prefer those, which strike me as presenting a correct picture of the manners and characters of any given period]. The use of anecdote may no longer be considered a scholarly method, but it can nevertheless by an effective way in characterizing the tone of a period. After all, every age speaks its own language, creates its own music, and makes its own noise.

The Romantics were the first to raise the noise level in art and literature. Artists and poets were young, loud and disrespectful. Being young was a critical value in itself. In a society in flux youth seemed to be called upon to play a decisive role. Poet Pétrus Borel was spokesman for an eccentric group of Parisian students and artists, known as Le Petit Cénacle, who were dedicated to the fight against Classicism and artistic stagnation. Among its members were Célestin Nanteuil, Philothée O’Neddy, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and others. As was the case for so many Bohemians, Borel’s lodgings were poor and small. In 1831, he and his followers moved from the Latin Quarter to the corner of Boulevard de Rochechouart. Since they could not afford the cost of an entire house, they rented a room which opened into a garden and named their base ‘Le Camp des Tartares’. They changed their group name as well and proudly called themselves Les Jeunes France, suggesting that they were the nation’s future. They intended to fight all forms of philistinism that symbolized the regime of Louis Philippe.

Borel and his band of artists made a social nuisance of themselves. They gathered naked in the garden until outraged neighbours called in the police. The practice had to stop under threat of court action for outrageous behaviour. Garden concerts given by the artists were not aimed at evoking a sense of tonal harmony, but were staged for the purpose of making as much noise as possible. To them, music meant creating a cacophony of sound. In the end, their rowdy behaviour led to arrests (even a gentle soul such as De Nerval spent time inside). The landlord decided to terminate the lease. Neighbours had convinced him that the presence of these non-conformist youngsters lowered the prestige of the neighbourhood. Borel then found a tiny house in the Quartier Latin. Appropriately, the street was called La Rue d’Enfer. He celebrated the move with a house-warming party that may still count as one of the wildest orgies ever celebrated in the French capital. Once again, the physical move brought a new name to the group. A term of abuse in the press became a banner of pride (in much the same way as the label Impressionism was introduced some decades later).

The artists adopted the name of Bousingos (‘faiseurs de bousin’ = brawlers). As Charles Asselineau mentions in his Mélanges tirés d’une petite bibliothèque romantique (1866), they even planned to publish a joint collection of short stories under the title Les contes du Bousingo – par une camaraderie. The project never materialized, Gérard de Nerval being the only author who contributed a story. Borel and his circle of bousingo’s formed the link between Bohemia and Romanticism. Hugo naturally turned to him when recruiting his ‘Romantic Army’ on the eve of the performance of Hernani, the play that would prove to be the decisive blow in the battle between Classicists and Romantics (artistic relations at the time were described in military terms, indicating a sharpening of competitive relationships).

Futurist artists were a loud lot. Noise was their trademark. Excessive noise, they argued, is a by-product of modern industrial and technological society to which art has to respond. To them, it served both to shatter older forms of perception based on notions of order and harmony, and to instantiate the violence the Futurists believed was inherent in matter as well as in social life. L’arte dei rumori (The Art of Noises) is a 1913 manifesto written by Luigi Russolo. In it, the author argues that as the human ear has become accustomed to the speed and noise of the urban soundscape, musical instrumentation and composition has to adept itself to new technologies and create an intoxicating orchestra of noise. Futurism, of course, was rooted in poetry. From the outset, the renovation of language was its ultimate aim. In the process the notion of New Typography was developed. The initiative goes back to F.T. Marinetti who, since 1905, advocated in the pages of his magazine Poesia the idea of free verse (verso libero) which gradually evolved into the idea of words-in-freedom (parole in libertà). In 1913 Marinetti published his manifesto ‘Destruction of Syntax / Imagination without Strings / Words-in-Freedom’ where he argued that the futurist experiment was ‘grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility that has generated our pictorial dynamism, our anti-graceful music in its free, irregular rhythms, our noise-art and our words-in-freedom’. By an imagination without strings the poet meant the absolute freedom of images or analogies, expressed with unhampered words and without connecting strings of syntax or punctuation. Adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions were to be banished from poetry.


His theories were given shape and form in his masterpiece Zang Tumb Tumb in 1914. Marinetti’s efforts were central to subsequent typographical experiments in European poetry. Book-making would never be the same.

Marinetti visited London in 1910 as part of a series of lectures aimed at galvanizing support across Europe for the Italian avant-garde. In his presentation at the Lyceum Club, he addressed his British audience as victims of ‘traditionalism and its medieval trappings’. His attack on John Ruskin was devastating. Ruskin – Marinetti thundered – with his morbid dream of rustic life, his nostalgia for Homeric cheeses and legendary wool-winders, and his hatred for the machine, is like a man who, after having reached maturity, wants to sleep in his cradle and feed himself at the breast of his decrepit old nurse in order to recover his infancy. Marinetti electrified some of the assembled English avant-garde with his performance. Others were more reserved about, if not shell-shocked by the Italian’s cultural extremism.

One of those was young Richard Aldington. It is an irony of Aldington’s career that he is chiefly remembered for his involvement in a modernist movement he quickly disowned. Aldington was only twenty when Ezra Pound launched him as a leading light of the Imagistes, who fought Victorian poetics with the ideal of clear imagery and flexible rhythms. Hardness as of cut stone, as Aldington phrased the ambition himself. However, Marinetti confused him. He appreciated his artistic radicalism, but abhorred the Italian’s derision of traditional culture and civilization. In his memoirs Life for Life’s Sake (1941) Richard Aldington has left an amusing description of an evening that a party of poets consisting of Ezra Pound, Thomas Sturge Moore, Yeats, and himself, spent with Marinetti. Communication was difficult as Marinetti spoke no English and Yeats would not talk a language of which he was not a master. Yeats read some poems which Marinetti would have thought disgustingly passéistes if he had understood them. Marinetti was requested to recite something of his. He sprang up and in a stentorian Milanese voice began bawling:

Ivre d’espace,
Qui piétine d’angoise, etc.

Yeats had to ask him to stop his performance because neighbours were knocking in protest on the floor, ceiling and walls. In art and literature, England was slow to adopt modernist trends that were manifest on the Continent. Fear of neighbours maybe?