Upcoming Program: The Sounds of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris

Image: Figures in Front of Orchestra (Toulouse-Lautrec)

The Sounds of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris broadcasts Wednesday, July 24, 6 pm - 8 pm. Inspired by the MFA's Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris exhibit, this music program tours the nighttime streets of late-19th century Paris, making stops at various music, dance, and other nightlife establishments frequented and popularized by Toulouse-Lautrec. Produced with the assistance of the Museum of Fine Arts and exhibit curator, Helen Burnham.

“This gallery immerses you in the nightlife of fin-de-siecle Paris,” state the opening lines of the MFA’s Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris exhibit. Since early April, the bottom floor the MFA has hosted a network of colorful print-filled rooms capturing the sensation and vivacity of late-19th century Parisian nightlife. The careful preservation of this era owes much thanks to the exhibit’s namesake, Toulouse-Lautrec. Enraptured by the celebrity, performance, and nightlife culture of his era, Lautrec produced an extensive print collection illustrating the sights and Parisians surrounding him. Lautrec’s fascination in the era is contagious. One pass through the exhibit is enough to enthrall the visitor with the radiance and decadence of his time.

However, the MFA also recognizes that, as a visual medium, Lautrec’s depictions of Paris can only be incomplete. While developing the exhibit, Helen Burnham, the exhibit’s curator, collaborated with various colleagues, including those at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Together, they incorporated an element missing from Lautrec’s works: music.

Often overshadowed today by the visual charm of Lautrec’s prints, in the late-19th century, Paris’ music scene blossomed alongside the city’s burgeoning culture of nighttime spectacles. Heralding the 20th century’s popular music culture, the era churned out chansons, operettas, and dance music. Parisians crowded into the local circus venue for cheap orchestra concerts and lounged near Erik Satie playing piano at Le Chat Noir. They chuckled at the operetta performances staged at Le Théâtre des Variétés, dined to cabaret songs at the numerous cafés scattered throughout Montmartre, and observed the cancan dancers prance at the Moulin Rouge. Music was not only the era’s accompaniment; it was an essential dimension of Paris’ performance environment.

The artist Lautrec was at the very center of this bustling music culture. Situated in the heart of the Bohemian Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, Lautrec’s studio was surrounded by the growing scene of café-concerts or café-chantants. With his celebrity friendships and innovative drawing style, Lautrec’s career flourished. Singers sought publicity through his simple and colorful print portraits; cabarets commissioned him to promote their concert spaces; and songwriters released albums with Lautrec’s illustrations gracing the covers. Lautrec’s work emphasizes the prominence and vibrancy of the era’s often-overlooked music scene.

This broadcast is a rare occasion to experience the late-19th century Paris through the sounds that surrounded Toulouse-Lautrec. Structured as a tour of various Parisian performance establishments, this upcoming program begins in Montmartre, first visiting the nearby cabarets for songs by several of Lautrec’s muses such as Aristide Bruant and Yvette Guilbert. Then, it travels to the concert halls and circus venue for Offenbach’s operettas and Paris’ favorite composers such as Wagner and Fauré. Finally, it ends at the Moulin Rouge just a few blocks from Lautrec’s apartment. There, we hear the music of dance stars La Goulue and Jane Avril as they perform the iconic can-can.

Join us this Wednesday, July 24 at 6 pm for The Sounds of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris. Only on WHRB Cambridge.