Composers Datebook®

King Louis XIII's "Blackbird" Ballet

Composer's Datebook - Mar. 15, 2023


The thick historical novels of the 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas, Sr. are packed with some fact and a lot of fiction. Chapter 22 of "The Three Musketeers," for example, set during the 17th century reign of King Louis XIII, begins as follows:

"Nothing was talked of in Paris but the ball which the aldermen were to give to the king and queen in which their Majesties were to dance the famous 'La Merlaison' — the favorite ballet of the king. Eight days had been spent preparing for the important evening. The city carpenters erected risers for the guests; the hall would be lit by two hundred huge candles of white wax, a luxury unheard of; and twenty violins were ordered, the price for them double the usual rate, since they would be playing all night."

In this case, Dumas was referencing a real event.

On today's date in 1635, at Chantilly castle, a gala ballet premiered. It depicted in stylized dance the Louis's favorite activity: hunting the blackbird ("la merlaison" in French). The choreography, the costumes, and music were all created by the King himself—who also danced several of the lead roles.

It got a rave review in the press of the day. If there were any critics, we suspect Cardinal Richelieu, the dreaded power behind the throne in Dumas's novel—and in real life—had them hauled off and "dealt with."

Ah yes, it's good to be King.

Music Played in Today's Program

Louis XIII Roi de France (1601 - 1643) Ballet de la Merlaison Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Paris; Jacques Chailley, conductor. Nonesuch LP H-71130

On This Day


  • 1835 - Austrian composer and conductor Eduard Strauss, in Vienna; He was the youngest son of Johann Strauss, Sr.;

  • 1864 - Norwegian composer, conductor and violinist Johan Halvorsen, in Drammen;

  • 1901 - American composer Colin McPhee, in Montréal, Canada;

  • 1926 - American composer Ben Johnston, in Macon, Ga.;

  • 1928 - American composer Nicolas Flagello, in New York City;


  • 1842 - Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, age 81, in Paris;

  • 1918 - French composer Lili Boulanger, age 24, in Mezy;

  • 1942 - Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, age 70, in Larchmont, N.Y.;


  • 1807 - Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 (first public performance), in Vienna, at a benefit concert conducted by the composer;

  • 1885 - Franck: symphonic poem "Les Dijinns" (The Genies), in Paris;

  • 1897 - Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1 (Gregorian date: Mar. 27);

  • 1908 - Ravel: "Rapsodie espagnole" (Spanish Rhapsody), in Paris;

  • 1911 - Scriabin: Symphony No. 5 ("Prometheus: Poem of Fire"), in Moscow, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky and with the composer performing the solo piano part (Julian date: Mar. 2);

  • 1981 - Stockhausen: opera "Donnerstag, aus Licht" (Thursday, from Light), in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala; This is one of a projected cycle of seven operas, each named after a day of the week;

  • 1994 - Peter Maxwell Davies: "Chat Moss" (the name of a quagmire in Lancashire) for orchestra, in Liverpool by the orchestra of St. Edward's College, John Moseley conducting;

  • 2000 - Corigliano: "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan," at Carnegie Hall, by soprano Sylvia McNair and pianist Martin Katz; An orchestrated version of this song-cycle premiered in Minneapolis on October 23, 2003, with soprano Hila Plitmann and the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano;


  • 1895 - Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, age 22, makes his operatic debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples, singing the lead tenor role in Domenico Morelli's comic opera "L'Amico Francesco."

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®