Rondo Parisien

For years, concerts “Chez Nous,” presented by Mary Ann Warrick in her home in the 16th, have been a highlight of our visits to Paris. Now we watch concerts in that familiar drawing room online. Recently, we saw a brilliant piano recital by Daniel Propper that introduced us to the “Rondo Parisien” by Camille Moke. Here is a picture of the composer as a young woman. She looks demure. (Spoiler alert: she wasn’t.)

In her introduction, Mary Ann mentioned that Camille Moke was a celebrated pianist in the 19th century who had been engaged to Hector Berlioz, but married Camille Pleyel, the piano manufacturer. I wanted to know more.

I found that Camille Moke never got to tell her own story. What we have are stories by others – musicians such as Berlioz or Franz Lizst, writers such as Gérard de Nerval or Alexandre Dumas – and those stories do not emphasize her gifts as a piano performer, but rather the fact that these men were attracted to her, dedicated music to her, went to bed with her, tried to marry her, and in one case, planned to murder her. It’s all about the men, not her. Harumph.

I also stumbled over the question of her name. She is known either as Camille Moke or as Marie Pleyel. Wikipedia gives her original name as Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke (Moke is pronounced “mock”). But the French genealogical website Filae turned up the name “Camille Marie Louise Moke,” born 4 September 1811 in Paris. Her marriage certificate calls her “Camille Marie Denyse Moke.”

Long story short. She was known as Camille Moke before her marriage (and at the time she wrote the Rondo), but when she married a man whose first name was also Camille, she started to use the name Marie Pleyel, the name she used for the rest of her life.

Her parents were Jean-Jacques Moke and Marie Madeleine Segnitz. Jean-Jacques is sometimes described as a Belgian professor of linguistics, sometimes simply as a language teacher (the word “professeur” in French can be misinterpreted). He was reputed to speak six languages and at the time of his death in 1857 was working as secretary for a Belgian museum. He seems to have remained in Belgium most of his life. His wife Marie Madeleine, however, lived in France for many years and for a while had a shop in Paris.

Camille Marie had at least three older siblings – two brothers and one sister. One brother, Henri Guillaume Moke, went on to have a literary career. Camille Marie appears to have been the youngest child, born at least seven years after her nearest sibling, in Paris (the others were born in Le Havre). One senses a complicated family situation.

I think it safe to say that the family was not particularly well off. Camille’s talent emerged when she was very young, but unlike the well-to-do society families who were aghast at the thought of a daughter performing in public, Camille’s gift was considered an economic asset. She made her debut at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in 1825, when she was 14 years old, playing, among other things, works by her teacher, Friedrich Kalkbrenner.

Camille also taught in an “institut orthopédique” – a school for young women with what were considered physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. (The 19th-century obsession with perfecting the female body in these institutions demands a blog of its own.) This particular one was run by a Madame Daubrée (or d’Aubrée) on the rue Harlay (now the rue des Arquebusiers) in the Marais. Music was an important part of the curriculum, and one of the other teachers was Hector Berlioz, who taught guitar. It was 1830. He was 26; Camille was 18.

According to Berlioz, Camille was the instigator of their affair. Perhaps. At the time, he was in love with an unattainable actress, and Camille was nearby and available. Whoever made the first move, the two became close and Berlioz proposed marriage.

Camille’s mother was unenthusiastic. I can’t say I blame her. Although Berlioz had good professional and even financial prospects, he was emotionally volatile and known to behave wildly at times, as the next part of the story shows. His strong emotions served him well as a composer – a placid person could not have pulled off the Symphonie Fantastique – but they didn’t augur well for domestic harmony, nor for Camille’s own career. (To be fair, Camille herself would not have been the performer she was if she had been conventional, chaste, and meek.)

Rather than opposing the marriage outright, Madame Moke chose to stall. She suggested the young couple wait a year or so. Berlioz had won the Prix de Rome and left Paris to take it up at the end of December 1830.

A little more than three months later, on 9 April 1831, Camille Moke married Camille Pleyel and was thereafter known as Marie Pleyel. Camille Pleyel was 42; she was not yet 20. Was it her idea? Her mother’s? Did Pleyel make her an irresistible offer? Who knows? He was a piano manufacturer with a prominent place in Parisian musical circles; she was a brilliant and beautiful young pianist. It certainly looks like a strategic move on somebody’s part.

Berlioz reacted with ridiculously exaggerated passion. He planned to come to Paris and kill Camille/Marie, her mother, her husband, and finally, himself. He even planned to dress up as a female domestic in order to get closer to his victims, for heaven’s sake. He got as far as Nice before getting a grip and abandoning the plan.

Spared a grisly murder, Marie Pleyel and her husband Camille went on to have a son in 1832, Ignace Henri, and a daughter the following year, Camille Louise.* But Marie and Camille Pleyel separated in 1836, at his demand, on the grounds of Marie’s infidelity.

There was certainly plenty of gossip. For example, according to a biography of Franz Liszt, in early 1835, Liszt asked to borrow his friend Frederic Chopin’s apartment while Chopin was out of town. Chopin agreed, not realizing that Liszt planned to use it for trysts with Marie Pleyel. The matter apparently caused a rift between Chopin and Liszt. Liszt prided himself on this affair. Marie’s opinion is not known. Both men dedicated music to her: three of Chopin’s nocturnes (in 1832, before the rift) and Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Norma” (1841) and “Tarantelle di Bravura” (1848), written in the later part of Marie’s career.

After the separation (Marie and Camille Pleyel never obtained a divorce), Marie and her mother left Paris. In 1836 she gave birth to another daughter in Hamburg, whom she named Marie Moke. Meanwhile, Camille Pleyel found solace with 21-year-old Emma Osborn, an Englishwoman who came to live with him in Paris.

No much is known about how Marie Pleyel spent the years immediately after the breakdown of her marriage, but Alexandre Dumas has left one story,** which he claimed to know because he was a friend of hers. According to Dumas, after leaving Paris, Marie was living in Hamburg, but too poor to afford a piano. So poor, in fact, that she was hungry. One day, as she was passing a shop that sold musical instruments, she went in on an impulse, sat down, and began to play. She improvised with such skill and feeling that the shop owner took an interest, and on finding that she was in financial trouble, arranged for her to play a concert that helped her earn money and begin to regain her reputation as a performer. It’s a good story, but did it actually happen?

What is on the record is that in 1839, Marie embarked on a concert tour, beginning in St. Petersburg, and travelling to Leipzig, Dresden, and Vienna (she met Gérard de Nerval in Vienna, and he was very taken with her). Her reviews were glowing and she was classed with the two other celebrated pianists of the time, Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, both about the same age as she was.

After 1841, she made her home in Belgium, where her father was still living. A concert tour in 1845 and 1846 took her back to Paris, as well as to Bonn for a Beethoven festival and to London. The tour was briefly interrupted when her mother died in 1845 and she returned to Belgium for the funeral. After the tour, she was offered and accepted a position at the Conservatoire in Brussels, where she taught for 23 years, while also giving regular concerts. She was a single mother; she needed to work.

And she was a good teacher. Her colleagues respected her and her students did well.

Marie died in 1875, at the age of 63, just a few months after giving a concert in Brussels. Her younger daughter had died of tuberculosis in 1869.

Marie never published an autobiography, as Berlioz did. Some of her correspondence may be in France’s Archives Nationales. Her letters might tell a very different story from Berlioz’s, Liszt’s, and Dumas’s accounts. She also did not publish many compositions; the surviving Rondo Parisien dates from her teenage years when she was still known as Camille Moke; it was written for her teacher Kalkbrenner.

I wrote to Daniel Propper about it. He told me that it is a difficult piece to play, but popular with audiences. He has recorded it for DOM Disques; the CD will be available in 2022. Propper also drew an interesting comparison between Marie Pleyel and Clara Schumann:

Her [Clara’s] father didn’t want her to marry Robert as he feared that his daughter, an extraordinary talent, would be shadowed by Robert. Which indeed happened. It’s heartbreaking to read that, finally, after having brought up their many children, having seen her husband go mad and die, she didn’t have the strength to take up composition again, saying “No other woman has succeeded yet, why would I do so?” Maybe a hint of a reason why Camille/Marie also “disappeared” as a composer?

So many talented women have put their light under a bushel in the name of family harmony or because they assumed they would be ignored or simply because the lives they led did not allow the luxury of time for composition. Such a waste. Thank goodness for people like Daniel Propper, who seek out little-known pieces by overlooked composers that remind us of what might have been.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of Camille Moke / Marie Pleyel from Gallica. Image of Camille Pleyel and of Marie Pleyel’s grave from Wikipedia. Drawing of Berlioz playing the guitar from The Musical Quarterly, January 1970.

In sorting out the fiction from the non-fiction, I was helped by an academic thesis – Seducing Paris: Piano Virtuosos and Artistic Identity, 1820–48, by Alicia Cannon Levin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009 – and an article about Marie Pleyel by Lisa Yiu.

*Ignace Henri died in 1852, aged 20. Camille Louise Pleyel married her father’s business partner, Auguste Wolff. She also died young, in 1856, aged 23.

**Une aventure d’amour, 1862. The story about Marie Pleyel starts on page 32.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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16 Responses to Rondo Parisien

  1. Ana says:

    Very interesting as always. Hope to hear Marie Pleyel’s music some day. Thanks so much !

  2. Catharine Parke says:

    A fascinating story. How you ever considered joining all of your articles into a book? Your investigations make for such wonderful reading.

  3. Jan Whitaker says:

    Great story. She was really something!

  4. jsgabin says:

    What a terrific story! This would make a wonderful novel, or a series on Netflix!

  5. Jessica Morton says:

    Fascinating and beautifully written – thank you for revealing more of this intriguing woman’s life! I agree with Catharine – reading your well-researched essays always makes me feel I’m back in Paris once again, grateful to know that beloved city just a bit more deeply each time.

  6. Esmee Etoile says:

    What a fabulous post! As an amateur pianist, this was one of my favorite articles you’ve ever done.

    Thank you, Gail in Orlando, FL

  7. Isabelle Cochelin says:

    Fascinating! Merci.

  8. Very interesting! You did some excellent detective work for this essay. I’d never heard of Camille/Marie before.

  9. Pingback: Reviving the charms of the concert-promenade | Parisian Fields

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