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Popular Conductor Jullien: Humbug or Possible Role Model for Today’s Orchestras?

Updated on December 13, 2017

Louis George Maurice Adolphe Roch Albert Abel Antonio Alexandre Noé Jean Lucien Daniel Eugène Joseph-le-Brun Joseph-Barême Thomas Thomas Thomas-Thomas Pierre Arbon Pierre-Maurel Barthélemi Artus Alphonse Bertrand Dieudonné Emanuel Josué Vincent Luc Michel Jules-de-la-plane Jules-Bazin Julio César Jullien was born in 1812 to the conductor of the local orchestra in Sisteron, France. All the members of the orchestra wanted to be his godfather, so his father named him for all of them.

Let’s start that over for easier reading. Jullien, a famous conductor of the nineteenth century, was born in 1812. His father, a local conductor, named him for every member of his orchestra. No wonder he became a musician. No wonder his fame rests as much on his eccentricities as on his musical accomplishments.


Some background

According to William Weber (in Music and the Middle Class, 1975), important social distinctions became important to music in the 1820s and 1830s. The nobility and the upper middle class each became divided between partisans of classical music and what he called high-status popular music.

Low status concerts featured the same music as high-status concerts, but drew less affluent audiences. Philippe Musard, conductor of a popular Parisian dance orchestra, introduced the prototype of the low status concert in an attempt to make money with his orchestra during the off-season for balls.

The promenade concerts, as Musard called them, were far less formal affairs than the high-status symphony orchestra concerts of classical music. People could move around as they listened, eat, drink, socialize, even dance. He kept ticket prices low enough that members of the lower middle class, artisan class, and working class could afford to attend. His concerts always included dance music, popular novelties, and classical music.

Jullien was only one of several conductors who tried to compete with Musard in Paris, starting his series in 1836. It proved popular, but not enough to succeed financially. Meanwhile, several promoters had introduced promenade concerts in London, but no one had yet achieved a dominant position. Jullien left Paris for London in 1838, intending to take that position for himself.

The Times, March 9, 1842
The Times, March 9, 1842

Jullien the humbug

Like Musard, Jullien’s reputation rested both on showmanship and musicianship. His dress shirt for concerts had diamond studs. He conducted from a gold-studded crimson podium, and after each piece, sank exhausted into a white and gold chair. Whenever he conducted Beethoven he ostentatiously donned special gloves and used a jewel-encrusted baton, which a page always brought to him on a silver salver.

He regularly advertised some concerts as “monster concerts.” The advertisement for one in 1845 promised selections from Bellini’s I puritani, including “Suona la Tromba” performed by 20 trumpets, 20 cornets-a-piston, 20 trombones, 20 ophicleides, and 20 serpents. (Italian opera, by the way, was not regarded as classical music at that time. It was one of the components of “high-status popular music”).

A quadrille, something of an aristocratic square dance with four or five separate movements, occupied pride of place in Jullien’s programming. He composed one for every season. Quadrilles gave him a chance to showcase the talents of the many soloists in his orchestra. It included renowned players of every instrument, especially those like the cornet, trombone, and ophicleide that would never have been welcome as solo instruments by symphony orchestras.

Jullien took his orchestra on an annual tour, usually around the British Isles. In 1853, he took 40 players to New York and filled out the rest of his orchestra with local musicians. Jullien introduced his Fireman’s Quadrille for the American tour. Before the premiere performance at the Crystal Palace, he warned the audience of 42,000 that something unusual “might happen.”

Special effects started early in the piece, as Jullien had designed instruments to simulate the sounds of fire engines, water turning to steam in the heat, and the eventual collapse of the house. A brass band quietly assembled behind the amphitheater during all of the noise. The orchestra suddenly stopped playing and the unseen band began to blare. It marched on stage and joined the orchestra. Some minutes later a second band of mixed brass and woodwinds likewise made its way to the stage.

Above the sound of a 100-piece orchestra and the two bands, an alarm bell sounded and, to all appearances, a fire started in the cupola. On cue, three companies of firemen entered with their hoses to douse the flames. During all of this commotion, the orchestra never missed a beat. Despite the forewarning, ushers had to deal with some minor panic and carry ladies that fainted out for fresh air. When it was over, of course, the audience loved it.

Jullien's Orchestra at a Promenade Concert in Covent Garden Theatre, 1846
Jullien's Orchestra at a Promenade Concert in Covent Garden Theatre, 1846

Jullien the musician

If Jullien could be explained entirely in terms of stunts and gimmicks, he would not be worthy of our attention. As 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."

His first season in London, Jullien presented four complete Beethoven symphonies. He sometimes devoted entire concerts to music of a single classical composer. He probably went through his entire shtick with the special baton, crimson podium, and chair, but while he conducted the music, he was all business.

Most conductors of the time took it upon themselves to update and “improve” the orchestration of the masters by adding parts for instruments that had not been customary in earlier generations. Jullien himself once added four ophecleides, a saxophone, and side drum to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But usually he left great classical pieces alone, and thus earned critical praise.

After one Mozart night, when Jullien presented two symphonies and the overture to The Magic Flute, the Times noted:

It was consoling to find that music, in order to be relished by a modern audience, is not obliged, as a matter of necessity, to be boisterous and overpowering, full of violent contrasts, fantastic, exaggerated, and so forth. In the two symphonies there are no loud instruments--no trombones or ophicleides. In the second, the immortal "Jupiter" (so called, not by the unassuming Mozart, but by his admirers)--there are not even clarionets. M. Jullien, with real artistic feeling, refrained from interference with the original scores, simply adding a third bassoon in the last-named symphony.

In New York, Jullien programmed symphonies by two American composers, George Bristow and William Fry. How ironic that a visiting conductor would play the music of local composers that the local orchestra disdained to touch. Jullien performed both symphonies again after he returned to London. Although American orchestras continued not to play American symphonic music, they did notice that Jullien’s orchestra played with a polish and precision they could not match. Jullien’s legacy in America includes an elevation of performance standards.

Lessons modern American orchestras can learn from Jullien

As quoted in the Illustrated London News in 1850, Jullien declared that he aimed “to ensure amusement as well as attempting instruction, by blending in the programmes the most sublime works with those of a lighter school.” It may come as a surprise to many readers of this article, but symphony orchestras have been doing that for at least a century and a half. William Weber discerned that the division between “classical” and “high-status popular” music disappeared by mid-century, at about the same time that any real distinction between the aristocracy and the upper middle class disappeared.

While the culture wars among the upper crust never took notice of the flash and dazzle of the promenade concerts, “high-status popular” music favored flash and dazzle of another sort and offended the sensibilities of classical music audiences by favoring such low-brow musicians as Rossini, Meyerbeer, Johann Strauss (Sr.), and Liszt. After mid-century, that music became so acceptable on symphony concerts that is it easy for us to forget that it was not originally considered classical music at all. Now it’s time to look back to Jullien and his contemporaries to learn from what made them successful

We do not need the gimmicks. We do not need musically empty quadrilles that depend on bizarre staging for their effect. Modern music videos provide enough of that. What we do need is Jullien’s ability to connect to an audience, to blend classical music and contemporary lighter fare, and give those who already like the one a chance to like the other.

Music by modern composers from Philip Glass and his generation onward can at least occupy the parts of every program that Jullien devoted to lighter music. So can film music, or even video game music The audience that comes to hear it will also hear the great classics on the same program. If there is no overt attempt to “elevate” their taste, they will have the opportunity to learn on their own that the new music indeed has some connection to the old music. Who knows? Maybe some of new music will catch on and join the classical repertoire.

What orchestral music do you most like?

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    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Yes, James, I wonder if even he and his father ever managed to memorize the whole name! As for showmanship, I'll have to look up the theater managers who arranged for entertainment between the acts of plays and operas. One of them in New Orleans advertised a live duel once. I can't remember just when off hand.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      That is a heckuva name! And a right fine story to boot. I had heard of Jullien but knew little of him until today. Thanks for the education. Interesting that showmanship goes back this far.