What was Napoleon’s favourite music?

Detail from the Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Napoleon’s favourite composer Giovanni Paisiello wrote a mass and Te Deum for the occasion.

Detail from the Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Napoleon’s favourite composer Giovanni Paisiello wrote a mass and Te Deum for the occasion.

Though French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had no musical talent (see my post on 10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon), he thoroughly enjoyed music. Napoleon valued music both for the pleasure it gave him, and because it could serve political ends. He wrote:

Among all the fine arts, music is the one which exercises the greatest influence upon the passions, and is the one which the legislator should most encourage. A musical composition created by a master-hand makes an unfailing appeal to the feelings, and exerts a far greater influence than a good work on morals, which convinces our reason without affecting our habits. (1)

What kind of music did Napoleon like best?

Napoleon’s favourite songs

Napoleon’s valet Louis Constant Wairy tells us:

He was passionately fond of music, especially of Italian music; and like all great amateurs he was very hard to please. He would like to have sung himself if he could, but he had no ear whatever, yet this did not prevent him from occasionally humming snatches of melodies which had impressed him. It was usually in the morning that these reminiscences came to him, and he treated me to such tunes while he was being dressed. The air that I most frequently heard him murder was the “Marseillaise.” The Emperor used also to whistle at times, though not loudly. The air of “Malbrook” [Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre] if whistled by His Majesty was for me a sure sign that the army would soon leave for the front. I remember that he never whistled so much, nor seemed so gay, as at the moment of starting on the Russian campaign. (2)

Napoleon’s private secretary Baron de Méneval writes:

When he grew weary of reading poetry, he would begin to sing loudly, but out of tune. When nothing vexed him, or when he was satisfied with the subject of his meditations, his choice of songs reflected it. It would be the airs of Devin de village or other old operas.  One of his favorite melodies had for its subject a young girl whose lover cures her of the bite of a winged insect…. It ended with the line: ‘Un baiser de sa bouche en fut le médecin.’

When he was in a more serious mood, he would sing verses of hymns or of revolutionary cantatas, such as the Chant du départ, Veillons au salut de l’empire; or he would warble the two lines: ‘Qui veut asservir l’univers / Doit commencer par sa patrie!’ (He who would subdue the universe / Should begin with his own country.) (3)

When Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, his young friend Betsy Balcombe played and sang “Ye banks and braes” for him.

When I finished, he said it was the prettiest English air he had ever heard. I replied it was a Scottish ballad, not English; and he remarked, he thought it too pretty to be English: ‘their music is vile—the worst in the world. …. He expressed a great dislike to French music, which, he said, was almost as bad as the English, and that the Italians were the only people who could produce an opera. (4)

The music of Paisiello

Napoleon’s favourite composer Paisiello at the clavichord, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1791

Napoleon’s favourite composer Paisiello at the clavichord, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1791

When it came to opera, Napoleon’s favourite composer was the Italian Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816). In Napoleon in America, Napoleon attends a concert in New Orleans that features Paisiello’s music. In Napoleon’s own novella Clisson et Eugénie (1795), the autobiographical main character says of his beloved:

Eugénie was like a piece by Paisiello; only those with souls attuned to his music are transported by it. The common people remain untouched. (5)

When Paisiello – then chapel master for Ferdinand IV, the King of the Two Sicilies – composed music for the funeral of General Hoche in 1797, Napoleon called him the greatest of contemporary composers. (6) In 1801, Napoleon invited Paisiello to Paris to compose and conduct music for his private orchestra. The 71-year-old was reluctant to leave Naples, but Ferdinand persuaded him to go in the interests of improving Franco-Neapolitan relations. Though Napoleon was pleased, Paisiello’s first French opera, Proserpine, did not please Parisians. Under the pretext that the climate did not suit his wife, Paisiello asked for permission to return to Naples in 1803. There he served as chapel master for Napoleon’s brother Joseph when he was King of Naples, and for Joseph’s successor, Joachim Murat, husband of Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

Paisiello composed the mass and Te deum for Napoleon’s 1804 coronation. He wrote numerous religious works for Napoleon’s and Joseph’s chapels. Every year he sent Napoleon a sacred composition for his birthday. He also presented Marie Louise with a song on the occasion of her marriage to Napoleon in 1810.

Napoleon’s favourite Paisiello tunes were the finale from Il Re Teodoro, the duo from La Molinara (Frà l’inchiostro e la farina) and the air from Nina, o sia la pazza per amore (Agitata frà mille pensieri). (7)

According to Paisiello, the Emperor liked his music “because it did not prevent his thinking of other things.” (8)

For more Napoleonic music

To listen to the kind of music that Napoleon’s soldiers would have heard, visit David Ebsworth’s website. To hear music from Napoleon’s 100 Days (his brief return to the throne after escaping from Elba in 1815), see the University of Warwick’s website. The Napoleon Series website offers a list of Napoleonic and French Revolutionary music available on recordings.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s castrato: Girolamo Crescentini

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What did Napoleon like to read?

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

What did Napoleon look like?

Was Napoleon superstitious?

  1. J.-G. Prod’homme and Frederick H. Martens, “Napoleon, Music and Musicians,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct. 1921), p. 584.
  2. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), pp. 16-17.
  3. Claude-François Méneval, Mémoires pour server à l’histoire de Napoléon Ier depuis 1802 jusqu’à 1815, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1894), pp. 425-426.
  4. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 25-26.
  5. K. Peters, “The Music at the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine,” Napoleon.org, http://www.napoleon.org/en/reading_room/articles/files/peters_coronation_music.asp, accessed October 2, 2015.
  6. “Napoleon, Music and Musicians,” p. 585.
  7. Castil-Blaze, L’Opéra-Italien de 1549 à 1856 (Paris, 1856), p. 320.
  8. Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini (London, 1869), p. 279.

8 commments on “What was Napoleon’s favourite music?”

  • Jim Gallen says:

    Didn’t Napoleon’s background have some association with Italy? Either his family had been Italian or his native island had, at some point, been associated with Italy?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Well remembered, Jim. It’s both. His family was of Italian lineage, and Corsica belonged to the Republic of Genoa until 1768, when the island was sold to France, the year before Napoleon was born.

  • Dave McCall says:

    Brilliant article, Shannon. And thanks especially for the reference to the David Ebsworth website. When I was writing “The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour” I could hear some of those ‘revolutionary cantatas’ almost continuously. But I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of Paisiello. And I was even more ashamed when I discovered that Rossini had plagiarised “The Barber of Seville” (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) from Paisiello’s original. Even worse, I knew some of the music from films like “Barry Lyndon” and never thought to discover the composer…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFat-8HOOgs
    I’m now a Paisiello fan!
    Thanks, as always, for a fabulous piece of research!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Dave! I, too, was surprised to learn that Paisiello did “The Barber of Seville” before Rossini. It’s a shame he’s not better known, as he wrote some lovely music.

  • Geoffrey says:

    He lived in the age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and liked Paisiello!

  • Polis says:

    What was his theme music when he reviewed the troops?
    Was it “Salut aux etendards”?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      It sounds like the sort of thing that would be, but I don’t actually know. Joseph-David Buhl, a gifted trumpeter and the reported composer of “Salut aux étendards,” wrote and published at least twelve collections of military fanfares for trumpets between 1799 and 1829. There’s more about him in this article by Bryan Proksch: http://www.historicbrass.org/portals/0/documents/journal/2008/hbsj_2008_jl01_004_proksch_4349.pdf. Buhl’s “L’Étendard” (which is sometimes called “Salut aux étendards” on YouTube clips) was not adopted by the French army until 1829, 8 years after Napoleon’s death. If you can read French, you might want to check out the Manuel général de musique militaire à l’usage des armées françaises, published in 1848, which is available for free on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/manuelgnraldemu00kastgoog.

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He expressed a great dislike to French music, which, he said, was almost as bad as the English, and that the Italians were the only people who could produce an opera.

Betsy Balcombe