On the evening of 25 August 1830, the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels—now the capital of Belgium, but then just a city in the south of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands—hosted a very special performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) to honour the birthday of King William I.
This nationalistic tale had resonated powerfully with the rebels of the July Revolution in France that summer, and it also lit a patriotic fire in the hearts of its audience in the Netherlands. As Richard Wagner wrote in his 1871 book Reminiscences of Auber, “The opera was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection to a world event.”
La Muette de Portici, seen as the first of the French grand opera tradition, premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opera on 29 February 1828. It told the historical tale of a lowly fisherman, Masaniello, who started an uprising against the Spanish rulers of Naples in 1647. During the patriotic duet “Amour Sacre de la Patrie” (“Sacred Love of the Fatherland”) at the Brussels performance, the crowd was whipped into a nationalistic fervour and began a riot. Needless to say, it was not the happiest birthday present that William I ever received.
As soon as the show was over, the excited audience poured out into the streets and started occupying government buildings as well as destroying factories. In the days afterwards they designed a flag for Belgian independence—they even attached it to their standard with their shoelaces and used it to lead a charge against William I’s royal army—and attracted a lot of support from Brussels’ downtrodden underclass. In September, the city fell into bloody street battles between the military and the rebels, who were eventually victorious. They drafted a Declaration of Independence on 4 October, and on 20 December the London Conference declared that the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was dissolved. Soon afterwards it confirmed that Belgium was now an independent country.
There were many reasons for the Belgian Revolution, but primarily it was the result of a great divide between the Northern and Southern provinces of the kingdom; the Southerners were mostly Roman Catholic, French-speaking Walloons, and they deeply resented their treatment at the hands of William I, a Dutch Protestant. The Catholic bishops in the South refused to collaborate with the government; for instance Maurice Jean de Broglie, the Bishop of Ghent, hated the King’s House of Orange so much that when their Princess was pregnant in 1817, he cursed her unborn child. The simmering tensions that could spark a revolution were always there, but it took a sentimental opera song to ignite them.
Credit: © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
Caption: A scene from “La Muette de Portici” where lowly fisherman Masaniello leads a mob.