The Moulin Rouge and the emblematic French Cancan music

January 2022

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An upbeat song, with a tune that has become iconic: the French Cancan music is part of the history of Paris as well as that of cabarets. The Moulin Rouge reveals the secrets of both this exhilarating melody and those of its creator, Jacques Offenbach.

The history of Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach

The French Cancan is first and foremost an emblematic tune: the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld. A song from an operetta that shows the French Cancan’s ancestry. Its creator, Jacques Offenbach, was also the founder of the ‘opéra-bouffe’, or French operetta, a category of comic opera that addresses light and comical topics.

The biography of Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach was a 19th century German-born French composer and cellist. He established himself as the creator of French operettas, with light and catchy melodies that are still a resounding success today. Having become the musical director of the Comédie-Française in 1847, he decided to open the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens several years later. Inaugurated in 1855, the theatre was home to Offenbach’s first operetta three years later: Orpheus in the Underworld, two acts and four scenes that would forever shape the history of music.

The composer went on to achieve fame with other operettas, such as La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Vie parisienne and Les Brigands. He then turned his hand to the ‘opéra-bouffe-féerie’ genre – where the plot is based on fairytales – with Le Roi Carotte, followed by patriotic opera with La Fille du tambour-major. His music even led him to tour America in 1876. On his return to France he wrote a new opera, this time an ‘opéra fantastique’ with a fantasy plot, but he died several months before the première. Les Contes d’Hoffmann eventually brought him posthumous success by becoming one of today’s most played French operas.

The creation of operetta music: the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach

Originally composed in two acts and four scenes when it was created in 1858, the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld would later be restructured at Paris’s Théâtre de la Gaîté in 1874. But even in its original version, the operetta song Infernal Galop of Orpheus was lively, insolent and provocative all at the same time, parodying the previous lyrical versions of the myth of Orpheus. ‘Ce bal est original, d’un galop infernal, donnons tous le signal, vive le galop infernal!’ (‘this ball is original, of an infernal galop; let’s tell everyone, long live the infernal galop!), with these lyrics gaining iconic status and still being sung to this day. The music was taken and arranged by the famous French Cancan from 1868, 10 years after the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld was created.

The history of the French Cancan

But you have to go back to the 1820s to trace the origins of the French Cancan. At this time, both public and private balls were highly sought after by Parisians. Back then they danced the French Cancan with a partner, and there was no real place for improvisation. Tired of this rigidity, a handful of men decided to indulge in a few minutes of solo dancing, giving free rein to their imaginations while they let off steam. These moments were then christened ‘chahuts or ‘cancans’. It wasn’t long before women were at it too, far surpassing the men in their prowess, releasing shockwaves with their daring moves in the process. In 1831 there was even a law attempting to ban the cancan – in vain!

The rebellious spirit of the chahut saw the arrival of the first wave of female ‘chahuteuses’, including Queen Pomare and Céleste Mogador. Over time, the cancan became a tourist attraction. The British inventor of the music-hall, Charles Morton, added the term ‘French’ to describe this dance performed by the Parisians. This is how the name ‘French Cancan’ was born. In reality the dance derived from the ‘naturalist quadrille’, a ballroom dance that was very much in vogue in the early 19th century.

The movement ended up becoming more professional from 1860 onwards, and cabaret posters slowly began to appear across France. Then, in 1868, both male and female dancers reappropriated Orpheus’s Infernal Galop, with the tune becoming inseparable from the French Cancan. In the 1920s the artistic director of the Moulin Rouge, Pierre Sandrini, decided to remove all improvisation to make way for compulsory dance moves. Back then the cabaret cancan owed its popularity to the performances of its dancers turned celebrities: La Goulue, Nini Patte-en-l’air (Nini Legs in the Air) and Grille d’Égout (Sewer Grate).

Born in 1868, Jane Avril was among the Moulin Rouge dancers who made a mark on their time. Unlike other dancers, particularly La Goulue, she didn’t remove her clothes or offer herself to men. Thanks to her, the French Cancan was exported to cabaret stages across the whole of Europe, and Jane became painter Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse.

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Today the French Cancan continues to inspire both little ones and grown-ups on the stage of the Moulin Rouge!

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