Victor Hugo

by Paul Dorgan

Hands up those of you who've read read Notre Dame de Paris, published in Paris in 1831? I see. Now hands up those of you who've seen one of its movie adaptations? Tsk, tsk, tsk! The Hunchback of Notre-dame? Now that's more like it! There've been about 10 movie versions since the first one in 1905. In 1923 Lon Chaney played Quasimodo, the hunchback; in 1939 it was Charles Laughton, with Maureen O'Hara as Esmerelda; in 1956 Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida starred; and in 1996 Disney released its animated film. There have been 4 adaptations for TV; 2 each for the stage and radio; 3 ballets; 4 operas; 6 musicals.

I'm guessing that many of you will have seen the musical Les Misérables, an adaptation a novel of the same name published in Paris in 1862. But before the musical conquered the world, there had already been 11 silent movie versions, while the "talkies" resulted in about 30 more productions from a variety of countries, including Egypt; Italy; Japan; Brazil; USSR (Soviet Russia to our younger readers!); Korea; Sri Lanka; Turkey; even a version in Hindi! There have been 5 adaptations for TV; 5 for radio; 6 stage versions; 7 animations; and, of course the musical.

Who wrote these wildly, and widely, successful novels? Victor-Marie Hugo did. He was born in 1802 in Besançon, and died in Paris in 1885; probably the most politically tumultuous span of years in all of French history. The Revolution, which erupted with the storming of the notorious Bastille prison in 1789, and included the Reign of Terror during which thousands of aristocrats, including the royal family, were guillotined, abolished the monarchy and established a Republic (the First) in 1792. That was when the rest of Europe decided that things in France had gone too far and the First Coalition declared war. Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant soldier, emerged as an inspired leader and defeated the various armies; the Coalition regrouped and a second war began in 1798. Fighting the rest of Europe again was, obviously, not occupation enough for Bony, for in 1799 he staged a coup d'état, and became First Consul; in 1804 he had himself declared Emperor. So now France is an Empire! And Beethoven violently scratched out the original dedication of his "Eroica" symphony! Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and subsequent banishment to St. Helena led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVIII, the brother of the guillotined Louis XVI. Louis was succeeded, in 1824, by Charles X who was deposed in the "July Revolution" of 1830; his successor, Louis Philippe, was forced to abdicate in 1848, when the Second Republic was declared, with Prince Louis Napoleon as its President. Prince Louis declared himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852, only to be deposed after France was defeated by Prussia in 1870, when the Third Republic was established, which lasted until the German conquest of France in 1940.

Hands up those who are (totally) confused by this? My hands shoot up!! Many a French mind must have been boggled, and many a tête must have been scratched! "Eh, Pierre, it's Tuesday; are we a Monarchy, an Empire or a Republic, and if so, what number?" "Mon ami, France is like the weather: wait a day and it'll all change!" Not surprisingly, Victor Hugo's political thinking changed during his life: as a young man he had been in favor of the monarchy, but gradually turned to Republicanism. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1841 and in the same year King Louis-Philippe made him a Peer; in the Upper House he spoke against the death penalty, social injustice and censorship, while advocating a more Republican form of government. In 1851, when Louis Napoleon assumed power, Hugo denounced him as a traitor and left France, eventually settling in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, and refused to return, even under the amnesty granted in 1859. With the declaration of the Third Republic after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Hugo finally came home to France. His wife, Adèle, had died two years earlier; after his return to Paris his daughter, also Adèle, was committed to an insane asylum; his two sons died; and he himself suffered a mild stroke, while his mistress died in 1883. In his years of exile, younger writers like Flaubert and Zola, with their more "realistic" novels, had supplanted Hugo's historical-fiction novels. But he hadn't been forgotten: his 79th birthday, in 1881, was an extraordinary three-day event, culminating in a six-hour parade past his house while over 2 million people joined his funeral procession in 1885.

The huge international popularity of Notre-Dame de Paris and of the later Les Misérables tends to overshadow the fact that Hugo was writing, not just incredibly exciting page-turners, but novels with a social conscience: the settings might be in the past, but the injustice was contemporary. Charles Dickens proved an avid disciple, and Dostoevsky must surely have read The Last Day of a Condemned Man published in 1829. With such blockbuster novels available to us non-French in translation and adaptation, it's easy to forget (if we ever were aware) that Hugo was a great poet whose first collection, published when he was 20, earned him a royal pension; further volumes appeared in 1829, 1831, 1835, 1837 and 1840. Many of these poems became songs. Liszt's best songs to French texts are all settings of Hugo; Bizet's greatest song is a Hugo poem; even Rachmaninoff and Wagner were inspired by his poems.

And then there were the plays: ten of them. His first play, Cromwell (1827), was turned into a libretto for Verdi by Piave when Venice wanted an opera from the young composer who had had such triumphs at Milan's La Scala. Verdi was enthused neither by the subject nor by the novice librettist's adaptation, but the proposal of Hugo's Hernani as a substitute greatly enthused the composer. Hernani had been a riotous success when it was first performed in Paris in 1830. The riots were between the old-school, (who wanted preserved the Classicism of Racine and Corneille, with its regular verse; its avoidance of on-stage violence; its adherence to Aristotle's "unities" ) and those who rejoiced in the romantic passion of Hugo's characters (today we'd probably consider them a bit over the top), and the Shakespearean freedom to ignore a single location and have a heap of dead bodies on stage at the final curtain! Ernani was a riotous success in Venice in 1844. When the opera was produced in Paris two years later, Hugo, who had been opposed to the operaticization of his play in the first place, insisted that the title of the piece and the names of the characters be changed. They were.

Marion Delorme, written in 1829, was prohibited by the censor because it showed King Louis XIII (an ancestor of the reigning Charles X) in an unfavorable light and, therefore, might lead the public to have nasty feelings about the current king. "Current King" was removed in the 1830 Revolution, and the play was performed in 1831. In 1862 the great double-bass player, Giovanni Bottesini, wrote an opera based on the play; Amilcare Ponchielli's operatic version was given in 1885.

Hugo's next play, Le roi s'amuse, was officially closed down after its first performance in 1832. Since it is the basis for Rigoletto we'll discuss it in another section. (SEE BACKGROUND LINK.)

The following year saw two plays produced. Lucrèce Borgia quickly became Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, produced at La Scala in December of 1833, while Marie Tudor had to wait over 40 years before it was adapted (Arrigo Boito was one of the librettists!) and set to music by the Brazilian Carlos Gomez, who had wowed Italy with his 1870 opera Il Guarany. (Donizetti's Maria Stuarda was based on Schiller, not Hugo). Angelo, tyran de padoue was produced in 1835. Two years later the play became Mercadante's most successful opera, Il Giuramente. Today the play is remembered, if at all, as the basis for Amilcare Ponchielli's most successful opera, La Gioconda, first produced in 1876; various revisions produced the version we see today on the rare occasions it's put on. Compared to Verdi (Aida was first produced in 1871) Ponchielli may seem clunky and clumsy, but there's a sort of visceral vocal energy to Gioconda that almost by-passes Verdi and takes us straight to Puccini-Mascagni-Leoncavallo-land and verismo. Ponchielli's librettist was Tobia Gorria, an anagram for Arrigo Boito, a composer in his own right, but who is more famous today as the instigator and librettist for Verdi's last operas: Otello and Falstaff.

In 1836 La Esméralda was given at the Paris Opéra, with music by Louise Bertin, and libretto by Victor Hugo, adapted from his Notre-Dame de Paris. It limped along for five performances.

Ruy Blas (1838) resulted in an Overture by Mendelssohn who, apparently, hated the play (but the music is fun!); a parody by W.S. Gilbert (of GilbertandSullivan fame). An opera by one Filippo Marchetti died in childbirth at La Scala in 1869, which only goes to show that even Opera Central screws up sometimes, and that for every Verdi there are hundreds of Marchettis!

Hugo's last plays, Les Burgaves from 1843, and Torquemada from 1882, seem not to have interested musicians.

It's difficult to arrive at an accurate tally of the musical works inspired by Hugo's writings - one source mentioned "well over one thousand"; probably most of them are songs. But composers continue to mine his works: the Alagna brothers (Roberto is the tenor in the family) made an opera from his 1829 novel protesting capital punishment, Le dernier jour d'un condamné (The last day of a condemned man). Frédérico wrote the libretto and David composed the score for his tenor brother; it was first performed in Paris in 2007, and recorded. And if the Alagna brothers, in the 21st-century, can see musical possibilities in Hugo's writings, who knows what other composers will find there! But even if there are no further translations of Hugo's words into music, we music-lovers already have a treasure-chest filled with masterpieces by such a diverse group as Liszt, Fauré, Bizet, Wagner, Rachmaninov and Verdi.

Scroll to top