Commentary Let's All Go To Maxim's

Let’s All Go To Maxim’s by Jeff Counts

Place of Interest

Maxim’s is a restaurant in the 8th arrondissement but it is not only that. It is also a symbol of Parisian fin-de-siècle splendor and, according to its own website, a true temple of the Art Nouveau aesthetic.

What began as a modest bistro in 1893 soon bloomed into a legendary landmark as Maxim’s second owner, Eugène Cornuché, created a highly successful business plan that included always having “a beauty sitting by the window, in view from the sidewalk.” Cornuché understood that women – lots of them – were key to his success. Once the dancers were hired and the courtesans began to gather there, the moneyed men of the city followed.

Today, Maxim’s is more than just “fashionable,” it’s a “brand.” A brand owned and nurtured since 1981 by Pierre Cardin, to be exact, and the Maxim’s name now graces dinner boats and locations in other European capitols. Though Maxim’s, as a concept, has certainly grown beyond its address, the Belle Époque charm of the original location remains. Many international celebrities are drawn to occupy the tables once haunted by Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau and it is no secret that divas have always loved the place. That line can be traced from Maria Callas to Brigitte Bardot to Barbara Streisand to, of course, Lady Gaga.       

Piece of Music

No wonder the Danilo character of Lehar’s story sings so fondly of Maxim’s. The siren call of Cornuché’s ladies is too much to deny and, frankly, he hardly even tries. After bemoaning the demands of his job at the embassy and the constant pull of attention towards his homeland, Danilo tells us “I’m off to Chez Maxim, there I am always at home.” He sings about how the women there help him “forget the dear Fatherland” and that he knows them all by their nicknames. According to Danilo, the “Grisette’s” of Maxim’s “drink champagne” and “frequently carouse” and he can’t wait to get back to “hugging and kissing with all these sweeties.” It’s a perfectly operatic scene, given that the man doing the singing is both the past and future love interest of the story’s heroine. It seems the pretend nation of Pontevedro is quite small indeed and dear Hanna has had few options beyond her rich and recently dead husband. Danilo before, Danilo again. True love.

Melodically speaking, the descending notes of the “I’m off to Chez Maxim” portion of the aria are as striking as they are simple. The passage adopts an innocently folkish aspect and has an immediately endearing quality that essentially guarantees the popularity of the aria. In fact, there is no denying that when the title “Merry Widow” is invoked in today’s theatrical world, it is done so with great delight thanks to the oft-excerpted Waltz and Danilo’s “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” moment. Danilo’s rapturous tribute to Maxim’s and the bygone decadence of late 19th-centure Paris speaks to us at the DNA level, if not for the carousing then at least for the dreamy, time-halting atmosphere on offer there.

That Lehar chose Maxim’s as a principal location for his opera was due, in part, to his particular experience in the city as a poor musician. According to Nicholas Slonimsky and others, Lehar included the vocal tribute as humble thanks to the ownership of Maxim’s for showing him kindness during those hardscrabble days. Regardless of the impetus, the aria and the opera as a whole have done much for the restaurant’s currently standing as a historical beacon, though maybe not as much as Pierre Cardin’s money.

Point of Dispute

The first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony depicts the march of the German Army on Leningrad in the winter of 1940. The resulting siege would last some 900 days and Shostakovich, like so many artists under Soviet suspicion, found a measure of pure, non-political patriotism in himself and his suffering countrymen during those dark years. The melody that represents the Germans comes quietly after a distant snare drum herald and builds slowly and inexorably, Bolero-like, over the course of many repetitions. It was an incredibly daring and controversial way to portray an invasion and interesting in this context for the notes that comprise the tune.

The middle part of the “German Army” melodic sequence is a direct quote of the “I’m off to Chez Maxim” section of the Danilo’s aria. One needs only to listen once to this theme to hear it clearly and smile at the audacity of the gesture. Think about it! Shostakovich chose to represent the German invaders with a fragment from an Austrian operetta that celebrated, even pined for, the virtues of life in Paris. If Hitler had indeed been a fan of the tune, as many believed, then Shostakovich really deserves extra credit for this bit of dismissive pluck. One Shostakovich biographer, the unfortunately doubtable Solomon Volkov, stated that the quote was intended as a private reference to the name of the composer’s young son, Maxim, but it seems unlikely that Shostakovich would have connected his son, in name or in any other way, with German aggression.

But the quotations and allusions do not end there. Bela Bartók was living in New York City when Shostakovich 7 had its U.S. premiere and was broadcast over the radio. Bartók was poor, sickly and not particularly popular outside his small circle of devoted international colleagues and, perhaps not surprisingly, he found the immediate popularity of the new symphony preposterous. He thought the monotonous “Maxim” march music of the first movement was especially banal and his son Peter later recalled him counting the repetitions out loud with increasing frustration. Whether or not Bartók was still bitter about Shostakovich’s success when he wrote his masterful Concerto for Orchestra one year later is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that he inserted a parody version of the Shostakovich “Maxim” theme into the fourth movement. Like Volkov, Peter Bartók was quick to classify it as a joke but, in truth, it sounds too darkly colored to be nonchalant. No, to even the most generous ear, it sounds like Bartók senior was making a statement with his use of the “Maxim” fragment, one that was as pejorative as it was hilarious.

So, if not simply a restaurant, what is Maxim’s really, in the end? Is it a melody, a protest, a possibly overstated protest of a protest? Let’s meet Danilo there and see for ourselves. Don’t try to just walk in though. Reservations are required.         

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