The Guillotine in Music

The following works of classical music use the guillotine as a dramatic theme.

As mentioned in class, the fourth movement of Hector Berlioz' 1830 Symphonie Fantastique is called The March to the Scaffold. A poet dreams that he is being led to the guillotine. The symphony is programmatic (each movement has a narrative story or scene attached to it). Program music was very popular in the  nineteenth century as the novel became the most important literary form in Europe and both music and fine-art made attempts to mirror this.

The 1957 opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc is based on the true story of a group of nuns executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The final scene is one of the most moving in all of modern opera.

Placido Domingo is considered one of the greatest singers who has ever lived. Below is a clip of him singing a song called "Memories of Danton" written by his son the composer Placido Domingo Jr.  I am not certain if the lyrics are a poet's invention or taken from the actual writings of Georges Danton.

Finally John Corigliano's  The Ghosts of Versailles is a spectacular fantasy opera commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. It tells the story of the ghosts of Marie Antoinette and the playwright Beaumarchais who are tormented by memories of the Revolution. In this scene the phantom of the queen relives her last days. Creepy and beautiful!!

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