Get out your tuning forks! The Societe Generale Orchestra of the Belle Époque

Just before World War I, the Societe Generale Athletic Club ("CASG") started a music section. Although the experiment was short-lived, it was a success. Here's another look at a little-known period in the history of the Group.

Sunday, 31 May 1908. On this sunny afternoon, the Societe Generale Athletic Club ("CASG") invited its members and their families to a special event on the grounds of the Château of Thoiry. More than two thousand people attended.

© Archives historiques - Spectacle

Amidst a jubilant atmosphere, the event continued until nightfall. Sporting competitions, games, a banquet, a prize ceremony, comic sketches and a parade in traditional costumes were all part of the festivities. But the highlight of the day was the completely unexpected performance by a philharmonic orchestra made up of sixty Societe Generale employees. Conducted by Maurice Gaillard, these amateur musicians performed with masterful skill and in perfect unison after only a handful of rehearsals. To the delight of the audience, the orchestra began their performance with a rousing rendition of Sogénère, the official anthem of the club, prompting many to burst into song with the refrain celebrating sports and comradeship:

                              Noble Sogénère [Oh noble Sogénère]
                              Tu peux être fière [You can be proud]
                              De tous tes enfants [of all your children];
                              Leur âme est commune [With their hearts as one]
                              Et sous ta fortune [in the aura of your bounty]
                              Ils serrent les rangs [they stand united]!

The successful experiment had the desired effect. The club started a music section called Harmonie. It had 90 members. Moved by the same passion and inspired by the same esprit de corps, these volunteer orchestra members were selected after an audition during which they showcased their talents and knowledge of musical nuance. Until the outbreak of World War I, they enlivened CASG events and meetings. On 9 January 1909, at a performance of Auber's The Crown Diamonds at the Théâtre Marigny, they played the overture and the entr'actes. Nine months later, at the urging of the Executive Management, they put on a concert in the town of Fontainebleau. The following year, they performed the best pieces of their repertoire in the Parc des Princes, Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and lastly in Lyon, where they were met with acclaim. What's more, the CASG's Harmonie received rave reviews in the local press. In 1911, after performing in the festival hall of the Palais du Trocadéro, Societe Generale's amateur musicians received accolades during the National Music Competition held in Carenten (Normandy), winning multiple prizes and honours. Under the spirited conductorship of Maurice Gaillard and his assistant, Joachim Lerchi, the "harmonious phalanx" as they were fondly known, also put on benefit concerts to raise money for charities such the Bank and Stock Exchange Orphans Association. In September 1913, they distinguished themselves again at the Saint-Germain Festival. No one imagined that their days were numbered. Yet a year later, the musical section of the CASG was forced to suspend its activities when most of its members were called to war. The orchestra never reformed after the Armistice was signed. Although the experiment was short-lived, it was not forgotten. A century later, the collaborative zeal that led to the creation of Harmonie is back and is about to restore it to life...but in a completely different form.

© Archives historiques - The CASG's orchestra in 1908 and Maurice Gaillard in 1909

Farid Ameur, Historian