Several years of hard work and bitter privation finally culminated in the acceptance of an opera, "La Famille Suisse," at the Theatre Faydeau in 1796, where it was given on alternate nights with Cherubini's "Medee." Other operas followed in rapid succession, among which may be mentioned "La Dot de Suzette" (1798) and "Le Calife de Bagdad" (1800). The latter of these was remarkably popular, and drew from the severe Cherubim the following rebuke: "Malheureux! Are you not ashamed of such undeserved triumph?" Boieldieu took the brusque criticism meekly and preferred a request for further instruction from Cherubini—a proof of modesty and good sense quite remarkable in one who had attained recognition as a favorite with the musical public. Boieldieu's three years' studies under the great Italian master were of much service, for his next work, "Ma Tante Aurore," produced in 1803, showed noticeable artistic progress.
It was during this year that Boieldieu, goaded by domestic misery (for he had married the danseuse Clotilde Mafleuray, whose notorious infidelity made his name a byword), exiled himself to Russia, even then looked on as an El Dorado for the musician, where he spent eight years as conductor and composer of the Imperial Opera. This was all but a total eclipse in his art-life, for he did little of note during the period of his St. Petersburg career.
He returned to Paris in 1811, where he found great changes. Mehul and Cherubini, disgusted with the public, kept an obstinate silence; and Nicolo was not a dangerous rival. He set to work with fresh zeal, and one of his most charming works, "Jean de Paris," produced in 1812, was received with a storm of delight. This and "La Dame Blanche" are the two masterpieces of the composer in refined humor, masterly delineation, and sustained power both of melody and construction. The fourteen years which elapsed before Boieldieu's genius took a still higher flight were occupied in writing works of little value except as names in a catalogue. The long-expected opera "La Dame Blanche" saw the light in 1825, and it is to-day a stock opera in Europe, one Parisian theatre alone having given it nearly 2,000 times. Boieldieu's latter years were uneventful and unfruitful. He died in 1834 of pulmonary disease, the germs of which were planted by St. Petersburg winters. "Jean de Paris" and "La Dame Blanche" are the two works, out of nearly thirty operas, which the world cherishes as masterpieces.
Daniel Francois Esprit Auber was born at Caen, Normandy, January 29, 1784. He was destined by his parents for a mercantile career, and was articled to a French firm in London to perfect himself in commercial training. As a child he showed his passion and genius for music, a fact so noticeable in the lives of most of the great musicians. He composed ballads and romances at the age of eleven, and during his London life was much sought after as a musical prodigy alike in composition and execution. In consequence of the breach of the treaty of Amiens in 1804, he was obliged to return to Paris, and we hear no more of the counting-room as a part of his life. His resetting of an old libretto in 1811 attracted the attention of Cherubini, who impressed himself so powerfully on French music and musicians, and the master offered to superintend his further studies, a chance eagerly seized by Auber. To the instruction of Cherubini Auber owed his mastery over the technical difficulties of his art. Among the pieces written at this time was a mass for the Prince of Chimay, of which the prayer was afterward transferred to "Masaniello." The comic opera "Le Sejour Militaire," produced in 1813, when Auber was thirty, was really his debut as a composer. It was coldly received, and it was not till the loss of private fortune set a sharp spur to his creative activity that he set himself to serious work. "La Bergere Chatelaine," produced in 1820, was his first genuine success, and equal fortune attended "Emma" in the following season.
The duration and climax of Auber's musical career were founded on his friendship and, artistic alliance with Scribe, one of the most fertile librettists and playwrights of modern times. To this union, which lasted till Scribe's death, a great number of operas, comic and serious, owe their existence: not all of equal value, but all evincing the apparently inexhaustible productive genius of the joint authors. The works on which Auber's claims to musical greatness rest are as follows: "Leicester," 1822; "Le Macon," 1825, the composer's chef-d'ouvre in comic opera; "La Muette de Portici," otherwise "Masaniello," 1828; "Fra Piavolo," 1830; "Lestocq," 1835; "Le Cheval do Ihonze," 1835; "L'Ambassadrice," 1836; "Le Domino Noir," 1837; "Les Diamants de la Couronne," 1841; "Carlo Braschi," 1842; "Haydee," 1847; "L'Enfant Prodigue," 1850; "Zerline," 1851, written for Madame Alboni; "Manon Lescaut," 1856; "La Fiancee du Roi de Garbe," 1867; "Le Premier Jour de Bonheur," 1868; and "Le Reve d'Amour," 1869. The last two works were composed after Auber had passed his eightieth year.
The indifference of this Anacreon of music to renown is worthy of remark. He never attended the performance of his own pieces, and disdained applause. The highest and most valued distinctions were showered on him; orders, jeweled swords, diamond snuffboxes, were poured in from all the courts of Europe. Innumerable invitations urged him to visit other capitals, and receive honor from imperial hands. But Auber was a true Parisian, and could not be induced to leave his beloved city. He was a Member of the Institute, Commander of the Legion of Honor, and Cherubini's successor as Director of the Conservatory. He enjoyed perfect health up to the day of his death in 1871. Assiduous in his duties at the Conservatory, and active in his social relations, which took him into the most brilliant circles of an extended period, covering the reigns of Napoleon I., Charles X., Louis Philippe, and Napoleon III., he yet always found time to devote several hours a day to composition. Auber was a small, delicate man, yet distinguished in appearance, and noted for wit. His bons mots were celebrated. While directing a musical soiree when over eighty, a gentleman having taken a white hair from his shoulder, he said laughingly, "This hair must belong to some old fellow who passed near me."
A good anecdote is told a propos of an interview of Auber with Charles X. in 1830. "Masaniello," a bold and revolutionary work, had just been produced, and stirred up a powerful popular ferment. "Ah, M. Auber," said the King, "you have no idea of the good your work has done me." "How, sire?" "All revolutions resemble each other. To sing one is to provoke one. What can I do to please you?" "Ah, sire! I am not ambitious." "I am disposed to name you director of the court concerts. Be sure that I shall remember you. But," added he, taking the artist's arm with a cordial and confidential air, "from this day forth you understand me well, M. Auber, I expect you to bring out the 'Muette' but very seldom." It is well known that the Brussels riots of 1830, which resulted in driving the Dutch out of the country, occurred immediately after a performance of this opera, which thus acted the part of "Lillibulero" in English political annals. It is a striking coincidence that the death of the author of this revolutionary inspiration, May 13, 1871, was partly caused by the terrors of the Paris Commune.
Boieldieu and Auber are by far the most brilliant representatives of the French school of Opera Comique. The work of the former which shows his genius at its best is "La Dame Blanche." It possesses in a remarkable degree dramatic verve, piquancy of rhythm, and beauty of structure. Mr. Franz Hueffer speaks of this opera as follows:
"Peculiar to Boieldieu is a certain homely sweetness of melody which proves its kinship to that source of all truly national music, the popular song. The 'Dame Blanche' might be considered as the artistic continuation of the chanson, in the same sense as Weber's 'Der Freischtitz' has been called a dramatized Volkslied. With regard to Boieldieu's work, this remark indicates at the same time a strong development of what has been described as the 'amalgamating force of French art and culture'; for it must be borne in mind that the subject treated is Scotch. The plot is a compound of two of Scott's novels: the 'Monastery' and 'Guy Mannering.' Julian, alias George Brown, comes to his paternal castle unknown to himself. He hears the songs of his childhood, which awaken old memories in him; but he seems doomed to misery and disappointment, for on the day of his return his hall and his broad acres are to become the property of a villain, the unfaithful steward of his own family. Here is a situation full of gloom and sad foreboding. But Scribe and Boieldieu knew better. Their hero is a dashing cavalry officer, who makes love to every pretty woman he comes across, the 'White Lady of Avenel' among the number. Yet no one who has witnessed the impersonation of George Brown by the great Roger can have failed to be impressed with the grace and noble gallantry of the character."
The tune of "Robin Adair," introduced by Boieldieu and described as "le chant ordinaire de la tribu d'Avenel," would hardly be recognized by a genuine Scotchman; but what it loses in homely vigor it has gained in sweetness. The musician's taste is always gratified in Boieldieu's two great comic operas by the grace and finish of the instrumentation, and the carefully composed ensembles, while the public is delighted with the charming ballads and songs. The airs of "La Dame Blanche" are more popular in classic Germany than those of any other opera. Boieldieu may then be characterized as the composer who carried the French operetta to its highest development, and endowed it in the fullest sense with all the grace, sparkle, dramatic symmetry, and gamesome touch so essentially the heritage of the nation.
Auber's position in art may be defined as that of the last great representative of French comic opera, the legitimate successor of Boieldieu, whom he surpasses in refinement and brilliancy of individual effects, while he is inferior in simplicity, breadth, and that firm grasp of details which enables the composer to blend all the parts into a perfect whole. In spite of the fact that "La Muette," Auber's greatest opera, is a romantic and serious work, full of bold strokes of genius that astonish no less than they please, he must be held to be essentially a master in the field of operatic comedy. In the great opera to which allusion has been made the passions of excited public feeling have their fullest sway, and heroic sentiments of love and devotion are expressed in a manner alike grand and original. The traditional forms of the opera are made to expand with the force of the feeling bursting through them. But this was the sole flight of Auber into the higher regions of his art, the offspring of the thoroughly revolutionized feeling of the time (1828), which within two years shook Europe with such force. Aside from this outcome of his Berserker mood, Auber is a charming exponent of the grace, brightness, and piquancy of French society and civilization. If rarely deep, he is never dull, and no composer has given the world more elegant and graceful melodies of the kind which charm the drawing-room and furnish a good excuse for young-lady pianism.
The following sprightly and judicious estimate of Auber by one of the ablest of modern critics, Henry Chorley, in the main lixes him in his right place:
"He falls short of his mark in situations of profound pathos (save perhaps in the sleep-song of 'Masaniello'). He is greatly behind his Italian brethren in those mad scenes which they so largely affect. He is always light and piquant for voices, delicious in his treatment of the orchestra, and at this moment of writing—though I believe the patriarch of opera-writers (born, it is said, in 1784), having begun to compose at an age when other men have died exhausted by precocious labor—is perhaps the lightest-hearted, lightest-handed man still pouring out fragments of pearl and spangles of pure gold on the stage.... With all this it is remarkable as it is unfair, that among musicians—when talk is going around, and this person praises that portentous piece of counterpoint, and the other analyzes some new chord the uoliness of which has led to its being neglected by former composers—the name of this brilliant man is hardly if ever heard at all. His is the next name among the composers belonging to the last thirty years which should be heard after that of Rossini, the number and extent of the works produced by him taken into account, and with these the beauties which they contain."
Few great names in art have been the occasion of such diversity of judgment as Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose works fill so large a place in French music. By one school of critics he is lauded beyond all measure as one whose scientific skill and gorgeous orchestration are only equaled by his richness of melody and genius for dramatic and scenic effects; "by far the greatest composer of recent years;" by another class we hear him stigmatized as "the very caricature of the universal Mozart... the Cosmopolitan Jew, who hawks his wares among all nations indifferently, and does his best to please customers of every kind." The truth lies between the two, as is wont to be the case in such extremes of opinion. Meyerbeer's remarkable talent so nearly approaches genius as to make the distinction a difficult one. He can not be numbered among those great creative artists who by force of individuality have molded musical epochs and left an undying imprint on their own and succeeding ages. On the other hand, his remarkable power of combining the resources of the lyric stage in a grand mosaic of all that can charm the eye and car, of wedding rich and gorgeous music with splendid spectacle, gives him a unique place in music; for, unlike Wagner, whose ideas of stage necessities are no less exacting, Meyerbeer aims at no reforms in lyric music, but only to develop the old forms to their highest degree of effect, under conditions that shall gratify the general artistic sense. To accomplish this, he spares no means either in or out of music. Though a German, there is but little of the Teutonic genre in the music of Weber's fellow pupil. When at the outset he wrote for Italy, he showed but little of that easy Assomption of the genius of Italian art which many other foreign composers have attained. It was not till he formed his celebrated art partnership with Scribe, the greatest of librettists, and succeeded in opening the gates of the Grand Opera of Paris with all its resources, more vast than exist anywhere else, that Meyerbeer found his true vocation, the production of elaborate dramas in music of the eclectic school. He inaugurated no clearly defined tendencies in his art; he distinctively belongs to no national school of music; but his long and important connection with the French lyric stage classifies him unmistakably with the composers of this nation.
The subject of this sketch belonged to a family of marked ability. Jacob Beer was a rich Jewish banker of Berlin, highly honored for his robust intellect and scholarly culture as well as his wealth. William, one of the sons, became a distinguished astronomer; another, Michael, achieved distinction as a dramatic poet; while the eldest, Jacob, was the composer, who gained his renown under the Italianized name of Giacomo Meyerbeer, a part of the surname having been adopted from that of the rich banker Meyer, who left the musician a great fortune.
Meyerbeer was born at Berlin, September 5, 1794, and was a musical prodigy from his earliest years. When only four years old he would repeat on the piano the airs he heard from the hand-organs, composing his own accompaniment. At five he took lessons of Lanska, a pupil of Clementi, and at six he made his appearance at a concert. Three years afterward the critics spoke of him as one of the best pianists in Berlin. He studied successively under the greatest masters of the time, Clemcnti, Bernhard Anselm Weber, and Abbe Vogler. While in the latter's school at Darmstadt, he had for fellow pupils Carl von Weber, Winter, and Gansbachcr. Every morning the abbe called together his pupils after mass, gave them some theoretical instruction, then assigned each one a theme for composition. There was great emulation and friendship between Meyerbeer and Weber, which afterward cooled, however, owing to Weber's disgust at Meyerbeer's lavish catering to an extravagant taste. Weber's severe and bitter criticisms were not forgiven by the Franco-German composer.
Meyerbeer's first work was the oratorio "Gott und die Natur," which was performed before the Grand Duke with such success as to gain for him the appointment of court composer. Meyerbeer's concerts at Darmstadt and Berlin were brilliant exhibitions; and Moscheles, no mean judge, has told us that if Meyerbeer had devoted himself to the piano, no performer in Europe could have surpassed him. By advice of Salieri, whom Meyerbeer met in Vienna, he proceeded to Italy to study the cultivation of the voice; for he seems in early life to have clearly recognized how necessary it is for the operatic composer to understand this, though, in after-years, he treated the voice as ruthlessly in many of his most important arias and scenas as he would a brass instrument. He arrived in Vienna just as the Rossini madness was at its height, and his own blood was fired to compose operas a la Rossini for the Italian theatres. So he proceeded with prodigious industry to turn out operas. In 1818 he wrote "Romilda e Costanza" for Padua; in 1819, "Semiramide" for Turin; in 1820, "Emma di Resburgo" for Venice; in 1822, "Margherita d'Anjou" for Milan; and in 1823, "L'Esule di Granata," also for Milan. These works of the composer's 'prentice hand met with the usual fate of the production of the thousand and one musicians who pour forth operas in unremitting flow for the Italian theatres; but they were excellent drill for the future author of "Robert le Diable" and "Les Huguenots." On returning to Germany Meyerbeer was very sarcastically criticised on the one side as a fugitive from the ranks of German music, on the other as an imitator of Rossini.
Meyerbeer returned to Venice, and in 1824 brought out "Il Crociato in Egitto" in that city, an opera which made the tour of Europe, and established a reputation for the author as the coming rival of Rossini, no one suspecting from what Meyerbeer had then accomplished that he was about to strike boldly out in a new direction. "II Crociato" was produced in Paris in 1825, and the same year in London. In the latter city, Veluti, the last of the male sopranists, was one of the principal singers in the opera; and it was said by some of the ill-natured critics that curiosity to see and hear this singer of a peculiar kind, of whom it was said, "Non vir sed Veluti," had as much to do with the success of the opera as its merits. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, however, an excellent critic, wrote of it "as quite of the new school, but not copied from its founder, Rossini; original, odd, flighty, and it might be termed fantastic, but at times beautiful. Here and there most delightful melodies and harmonies occurred, but it was unequal, solos being as rare as in all the modern operas." This was the last of Meyerbeer's operas written in the Italian style. In 1827 the composer married, and for several years lived a quiet, secluded life. The loss of his first two children so saddened him as to concentrate his attention for a while on church music. During this period he composed only a "Stabat," a "Miserere," a "Te Deum," and eight of Klopstock's songs. But he was preparing for that new departure on which his reputation as a great composer now rests, and which called forth such bitter condemnation on the one hand, such thunders of eulogy on the other. His old fellow pupil, Weber, wrote of him in after-years: "He prostituted his profound, admirable, and serious German talent for the applause of the crowd which he ought to have despised." And Mendelssohn wrote to his father in words of still more angry disgust: "When in 'Robert le Diable' nuns appear one after the other and endeavor to seduce the hero, till at length the lady abbess succeeds; when the hero, aided by a magic branch, gains access to the sleeping apartment of his lady, and throws her down, forming a tableau which is applauded here, and will perhaps be applauded in Germany; and when, after that, she implores for mercy in an aria; when, in another opera, a girl undresses herself, singing all the while that she will be married to-morrow, it may be effective, but I find no music in it. For it is vulgar, and if such is the taste of the day, and therefore necessary, I prefer writing sacred music."
"Robert le Diable" was produced at the Academie Royale in 1831, and inaugurated the brilliant reign of Dr. Veron as manager. The bold innovations, the powerful situations, the daring methods of the composer, astonished and delighted Paris, and the work was performed more than a hundred consecutive times. The history of "Robert le Diable" is in some respects curious. It was originally written for the Vontadour Theatre, devoted to comic opera; but the company were found unable to sing the difficult music. Meyerbeer was inspired by Weber's "Der Freischtitz" to attempt a romantic, semi-fantastic legendary opera, and trod very closely in the footsteps of his model. It was determined to so alter the libretto and extend and elaborate the music as to fit it for the stage of the Grand Opera. MM. Scribe and Delavigne, the librettists, and Meyerbeer, devoted busy days and nights to hurrying on the work. The whole opera was remodeled, recitative substituted for dialogue, and one of the most important characters,—Rainibaud, cut out in the fourth and fifth acts—a suppression which is claimed to have befogged a very clear and intelligible plot. Highly suggestive in its present state of Weber's opera, the opera of "Robert le Diable" is said to have been marvelously similar to "Der Freischtitz" in the original form, though inferior in dignity of motive.
Paris was all agog with interest at the first production. The critics had attended the rehearsals, and it was understood that the libretto, the music, and the ballet were full of striking interest. Nourrit played the part of Robert; Levasseur, Bertram; Mme. Cinti Damoreau, Isabelle; and Mile. Dorus, Alice. The greatest dancers of the age were in the ballet and the brilliant Taglioni led the band of resuscitated nuns. Ilabeneck was conductor, and everything had been done in the way of scenery and costumes. The success was a remarkable one, and Meyerbeer's name became famous throughout Europe.
Dr. Veron, in his "Memoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris," describes a thrilling yet ludicrous accident that occurred on the first night's performance. After the admirable trio, which is the d'enoument of the work, Levasseur, who personated Bertram, sprang through the trap to rejoin the kingdom of the dead, whence he came so mysteriously. Robert, on the other hand, had to remain on the earth, a converted man, and destined to happiness in marriage with his princess, Isabelle. Nourrit, the Robert of the performance, misled by the situation and the fervor of his own feelings, threw himself into the trap, which was not properly set. Fortunately the mattresses beneath had not all been removed, or the tenor would have been killed, a doom which those on the stage who saw the accident expected. The audience supposed it was part of the opera, and the people on the stage were full of terror and lamentation, when Nourrit appeared to calm their fears. Mile. Dorus burst into tears of joy, and the audience, recognizing the situation, broke into shouts of applause.
The opera was brought out in London the same year, with nearly the same cast, but did not excite so much enthusiasm as in Paris. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who represented the connoisseurs of the old school, expressed the then current opinion of London audiences: "Never did I see a more disagreeable or disgusting performance. The sight of the resurrection of a whole convent of nuns, who rise from their graves and begin dancing like so many bacchantes, is revolting; and a sacred service in a church, accompanied by an organ on the stage, not very decorous. Neither does the music of Meyerbeer compensate for a fable which is a tissue of nonsense and improbability."*
* Yet Lord Mount Edgcumbe is inconsistent enough to be an ardent admirer of Mozart's "Zauberflote."
M. Veron was so delighted with the great success of "Robert" that he made a contract with Meyerbeer for another grand opera, "Les Huguenots," to be completed by a certain date. Meanwhile, the failing health of Mme. Meyerbeer obliged the composer to go to Italy, and work on the opera was deferred, thus causing him to lose thirty thousand francs as the penalty of his broken contract. At length, after twenty-eight rehearsals, and an expense of more than one hundred and sixty thousand francs in preparation, "Les Huguenots" was given to the public, February 26, 1836. Though this great work excited transports of enthusiasm in Paris, it was interdicted in many of the cities of Southern Europe on account of the subject being a disagreeable one to ardent and bigoted Catholics. In London it has always been the most popular of Meyerbeer's three great operas, owing perhaps partly to the singing of Mario and Grisi, and more lately of Titiens and Giuglini.
When Spontini resigned his place as chapel-master at the Court of Berlin, in 1832, Meyerbeer succeeded him. He wrote much music of an accidental character in his new position, but a slumber seems to have fallen on his greater creative faculties. The German atmosphere was not favorable to the fruitfulness of Meyerbeer's genius. He seems to have needed the volatile and sparkling life of Paris to excite him into full activity. Or perhaps he was not willing to produce one of his operas, with their large dependence on elaborat e splendor of production, away from the Paris Grand Opera. During Meyerbeer's stay in Berlin he introduced Jenny Lind to the Berlin public, as he afterward did indeed to Paris, her debut there being made in the opening performance of "Das Feldlager in Schlesien," afterward remodeled into "L'Etoile du Nord."
Meyerbeer returned to Paris in 1849, to present the third of his great operas, "Le Prophete." It was given with Roger, Viardot-Garcia, and Castellan in the principal characters. Mme. Viardot-Garcia achieved one of her greatest dramatic triumphs in the difficult part of Fides. In London the opera also met with splendid success, having, as Chorley tells us, a great advantage over the Paris presentation in "the remarkable personal beauty of Signor Mario, whose appearance in his coronation robes reminded one of some bishop-saint in a picture by Van Eyck or Durer, and who could bring to bear a play of feature without grimace into the scene of false fascination, entirely beyond the reach of the clever French artist Roger, who originated the character."
"L'Etoile du Nord" was given to the public February 16, 1854. Up to this time the opera of "Robert" had been sung three hundred and thirty-three times, "Les Huguenots" two hundred and twenty-two, and "Le Prophete" a hundred and twelve. The "Pardon de Ploermel," also known as "Dinorah," was offered to the world of Paris April 4, 1859. Both these operas, though beautiful, are inferior to his other works.
Meyerbeer, a man of handsome private fortune, like Mendelssohn, made large sums by his operas, and was probably the wealthiest of the great composers. He lived a life of luxurious ease, and yet labored with intense zeal a certain number of hours each day. A friend one day begged him to take more rest, and he answered smilingly, "If I should leave work, I should rob myself of my greatest pleasure; for I am so accustomed to work that it has become a necessity." Probably few composers have been more splendidly rewarded by contemporary fame and wealth, or been more idolized by their admirers. No less may it be said that few have been the object of more severe criticism. His youth was spent amid the severest classic influences of German music, and the spirit of romanticism and nationality, which blossomed into such beautiful and characteristic works as those composed by his friend and fellow pupil Weber, also found in his heart an eloquent echo. But Meyerbeer resolutely disenthralled himself from what he appeared to have regarded as trammels, and followed out an ambition to be a cosmopolitan composer. In pursuit of this purpose he divested himself of that fine flavor of individuality and devotion to art for its own sake which marks the highest labors of genius. He can not be exempted from the criticism that he regarded success and the immediate plaudits of the public as the only satisfactory rewards of his art. He had but little of the lofty content which shines out through the vexed and clouded lives of such souls as Beethoven and Gluck in music, of Bacon and Milton in literature, who looked forward to immortality of fame as the best vindication of their work. A marked characteristic of the man was a secret dissatisfaction with all that he accomplished, making him restless and unhappy, and extremely sensitive to criticism. With this was united a tendency at times to oscillate to the other extreme of vaingloriousness. An example of this was a reply to Rossini one night at the opera when they were listening to "Robert le Diable." The "Swan of Pesaro" was a warm admirer of Meyerbeer, though the latter was a formidable rival, and his works had largely replaced those of the other in popular repute. Sitting together in the same box, Rossini, in his delight at one portion of the opera, cried out in his impulsive Italian way, "If you can write anything to surpass this, I will undertake to dance upon my head." "Well, then," said Meyerbeer, "you had better soon commence practicing, for I have just commenced the fourth act of 'Les Huguenots.'" Well might he make this boast, for into the fourth act of his musical setting of the terrible St. Bartholomew tragedy he put the finest inspirations of his life.
Singular to say, though he himself represented the very opposite pole of art spirit and method, Mozart was to him the greatest of his predecessors. Perhaps it was this very fact, however, which was at the root of his sentiment of admiration for the composer of "Don Giovanni" and "Le Nozze di Figaro." A story is told to the effect that Meyerbeer was once dining with some friends, when a discussion arose respecting Mozart's position in the musical hierarchy. Suddenly one of the guests suggested that "certain beauties of Mozart's music had become stale with age. I defy you," he continued, "to listen to 'Don Giovanni' after the fourth act of the 'Huguenots.'" "So much the worse, then, for the fourth act of the 'Huguenots,'" said Meyerbeer, furious at the clumsy compliment paid to his own work at the expense of his idol.
Critics wedded to the strict German school of music never forgave Meyerbeer for his dereliction from the spirit and influences of his nation, and the prominence which he gave to melodramatic effects and spectacular show in his operas. Not without some show of reason, they cite this fact as proof of poverty of musical invention. Mendelssohn, who was habitually generous in his judgment, wrote to the poet Immermann from Paris of "Robert le Diable": "The subject is of the romantic order; i.e., the devil appears in it (which suffices the Parisians for romance and imagination). Nevertheless, it is very bad, and, were it not for two brilliant seduction scenes, there would, not even be effect.... The opera does not please me; it is devoid of sentiment and feeling.... People admire the music, but where there is no warmth and truth, I can not even form a standard of criticism."
Schlueter, the historian of music, speaks even more bitterly of Meyerbeer's irreverence and theatric sensationalism: "'Les Huguenots' and the far weaker production 'Le Prophete' are, we think, all the more reprehensible (nowadays especially, when too much stress is laid on the subject of a work, and consequently on the libretto of an opera), because the Jew has in these pieces ruthlessly dragged before the footlights two of the darkest pictures in the annals of Catholicism, nor has he scrupled to bring high mass and chorale on the boards."
Wagner, the last of the great German composers, can not find words too scathing and bitter to mark his condemnation of Meyerbeer. Perhaps his extreme aversion finds its psychological reason in the circumstance that his own early efforts were in the sphere of Meyerbeer and Hale-vy, and from his present point of view he looks back with disgust on what he regards as the sins of his youth. The fairest of the German estimates of the composer, who not only cast aside the national spirit and methods, but offended his countrymen by devoting himself to the French stage, is that of Vischer, an eminent writer on aasthetics: "Notwithstanding the composer's remarkable talent for musical drama, his operas contain sometimes too much, sometimes too little—too much in the subject-matter, external adornment, and effective 'situations'—too little in the absence of poetry, ideality, and sentiment (which are essential to a work of art), as well as in the unnatural and constrained combinations of the plot."
But despite the fact that Meyerbeer's operas contain such strange scenes as phantom nuns dancing, girls bathing, sunrise, skating, gunpowder explosions, a king playing the flute, and the prima donna leading a goat, dramatic music owes to him new accents of genuine pathos and an addition to its resources of rendering passionate emotions. Through much that is merely showy and meretricious there come frequent bursts of genuine musical power and energy, which give him a high and unmistakable rank, though he has had less permanent influence in molding and directing the development of musical art than any other composer who has had so large a place in the annals of his time.
The last twelve years of Meyerbeer's life were spent, with the exception of brief residences in Germany and Italy, in Paris, the city of his adoption, where all who were distinguished in art and letters paid their court to him. When he was seized with his fatal illness he was hard at work on "L'Africaine," for which Scribe had also furnished the libretto. His heart was set on its completion, and his daily prayer was that his life might be spared to finish it. But it was not to be. He died May 2, 1864. The same morning Rossini called to inquire after the health of the sick man, equally his friend and rival. When he heard the sad news he sank into a fit of profound despondency and grief, from which he did not soon recover. All Paris mourned with him, and even Germany forgot its critical dislike to join in regret at the loss of one who, with all his defects, was so great an artist and so good a man.
Meyerbeer seems to have been greatly afraid of being buried alive. In his pocketbook after his death was found a paper giving directions that small bells should be attached to his hands and feet, and that his body should be carefully watched for four days, after which it should be sent to Berlin to be interred by the side of his mother, to whom he had been most tenderly attached.
The composer was the intimate friend of most of the celebrities of his time in art and literature. Victor Hugo, Lamartine, George Sand, Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Delacroix, Jules Janin, and Theophile Gautier were his familiar intimates; and the reunions between these and other gifted men, who then made Paris so intellectually brilliant, are charmingly described by Liszt and Moscheles. Meyerbeer's correspondence, which was extensive, deserves publication, as it displays marked literary faculty, and is full of bright sympathetic thought, vigorous criticism, and playful fancy. The following letter to Jules Janin, written from Berlin a few years before his death, gives some pleasant insight into his character:
Your last letter was addressed to me at Konigsberg; but I was in Berlin working—working away like a young man, despite my seventy years, which somehow certain people, with a peculiar generosity, try to put upon me. As I am not at Konigsberg, where I am to arrange for the Court concert for the eighteenth of this month, I have now leisure to answer your letter, and will immediately confess to you how greatly I was disappointed that you were so little interested in Rameau; and yet Rameau was always the bright star of your French opera, as well as your master in the music. He remained to you after Lulli, and it was he who prepared the way for the Chevalier Gluck: therefore his family have a right to expect assistance from the Parisians, who on several occasions have cared for the descendants of Racine and the grandchildren of the great Corneille. If I had been in Paris, I certainly would have given two hundred francs for a seat; and I take this opportunity to beg you to hand that sum to the poor family, who can not fail to be unhappy in their disappointment. At the same time I send you a power of attorney for M. Guyot, by which I renounce all claims to the parts of my operas which may be represented at the benefit for the celebrated and unfortunate Rameau family. Why will you not come to Konigsberg at the festival? Why, in other words, are you not in Berlin? What splendid music we have in preparation! As to myself, it is not only a source of pleasure to me, but I feel it a duty, in the position I hold, to compose a grand march, to be performed at Konigsberg while the royal procession passes from the castle into the church, where the ceremony of crowning is to take place. I will even compose a hymn, to be executed on the day that our king and master returns to his good Berlin. Besides, I have promised to write an overture for the great concert of the four nations, which the directors of the London exhibition intend to give at the opening of the same, next spring, in the Crystal Palace. All this keeps me back: it has robbed me of my autumn, and will also take a good part of next spring; but with the help of God, dear friend, I hope we shall see each other again next year, free from all cares, in the charming little town of Spa, listening to the babbling of its waters and the rustling of its old gray oaks. Truly your friend, Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer's operas are so intricate in their elements, and travel so far out of the beaten track of precedent and rule, that it is difficult to clearly describe their characteristics in a few words. His original flow of melody could not have been very rich, for none of his tunes have become household words, and his excessive use of that element of opera which has nothing to do with music, as in the case of Wagner, can have but one explanation. It is in the treatment of the orchestra that he has added most largely to the genuine treasures of music. His command of color in tone-painting and power of dramatic suggestion have rarely been equaled, and never surpassed. His genius for musical rhythm is the most marked element in his power. This is specially noticeable in his dance music, which is very bold, brilliant, and voluptuous. The vivacity and grace of the ballets in his operas save more than one act which otherwise would be insufferably heavy and tedious. It is not too much to say that the most spontaneous side of his creative fancy is found in these affluent, vigorous, and stirring measures.
Meyerbeer appears always to have been uncertain of himself and his work. There was little of that masterly prevision of effect in his mind which is one of the attributes of the higher imagination. His operas, though most elaborately constructed, were often entirely modified and changed in rehearsal, and some of the finest scenes both in the dramatic and musical sense were the outcome of some happy accidental suggestion at the very last moment. "Robert," "Les Huguenots," "Le Prophete," in the forms we have them, are quite different from those in which they were first cast. These operas have therefore been called "the most magnificent patchwork in the history of art," though this is a harsh phrasing of the fact, which somewhat outrides justice. Certain it is, however, that Meyerbeer was largely indebted to the chapter of accidents.
The testimony of Dr. Veron, who was manager of the Grand Opera during the most of the composer's brilliant career, is of great interest, as illustrating this trait of Meyerbeer's composition. He tells us in his "Memoires," before alluded to, that "Robert" was made and remade before its final production. The ghastly but effective color of the resuscitation scene in the graveyard of the ruined convent was a change wrought by a stage manager, who was disgusted with the chorus of simpering women in the original. This led Meyerbeer to compose the weird ballet music which is such a characteristic feature of "Robert le Diable." So, too, we are told on the same authority, the fourth act of "Les Huguenots," which is the most powerful single act in Meyerbeer's operas, owes its present shape to Nourrit, the most intellectual and creative tenor singer of whom we have record. It was originally designed that the St. Bartholomew massacre should be organized by Queen Marguerite, but Nourrit pointed out that the interest centering in the heroine, Valentine, as an involuntary and horrified witness, would be impaired by the predominance of another female character. So the plot was largely reconstructed, and fresh music written. Another still more striking attraction was the addition of the great duet with which the act now closes—a duet which critics have cited as an evidence of unequaled power, coming as it does at the very heels of such an astounding chorus as "The Blessing of the Swords." Nourrit felt that the parting of the two lovers at such a time and place demanded such an outburst and confession as would be wrung from them by the agony of the situation. Meyerbeer acted on the suggestion with such felicity and force as to make it the crowning beauty of the work. Similar changes are understood to have been made in "Le Prophete" by advice of Nourrit, whose poetical insight seems to have been unerring. It was left to Duprez, Nourrit's successor, however, to be the first exponent of John of Leyden.
These instances suffice to show how uncertain and unequal was the grasp of Meyerbeer's genius, and to explain in part why he was so prone to gorgeous effects, aside from that tendency of the Israelitish nature which delights in show and glitter. We see something in it akin to the trick of the rhetorician, who seeks to hide poverty of thought under glittering phrases. Yet Meyerbeer rose to occasions with a force that was something gigantic. Once his work was clearly defined in a mind not powerfully creative, he expressed it in music with such vigor, energy, and warmth of color as can not be easily surpassed. With this composer there was but little spontaneous flow of musical thought, clothing itself in forms of unconscious and perfect beauty, as in the case of Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Rossini, and others who could be cited. The constitution of his mind demanded some external power to bring forth the gush of musical energy.
The operas of Meyerbeer may be best described as highly artistic and finished mosaic work, containing much that is precious with much that is false. There are parts of all his operas which can not be surpassed for beauty of music, dramatic energy, and fascination of effect. In addition, the strength and richness of his orchestration, which contains original strokes not found in other composers, give him a lasting claim on the admiration of the lovers of music. No other composer has united so many glaring defects with such splendid power; and were it not that Meyerbeer strained his ingenuity to tax the resources of the singer in every possible way, not even the mechanical difficulty of producing these operas in a fashion commensurate with their plan would prevent their taking a high place among popular operas.
GOUNOD AND THOMAS.
Moscheles, one of the severe classical pianists of the German school, writes as follows in 1861 in a letter to a friend: "In Gounod I hail a real composer. I have heard his 'Faust' both at Leipsic and Dresden, and am charmed with that refined, piquant music. Critics may rave if they like against the mutilation of Goethe's masterpiece; the opera is sure to attract, for it is a fresh, interesting work, with a copious flow of melody and lovely instrumentation."
Henry Chorley in his "Thirty Years' Musical Recollections," writing of the year 1851, says: "To a few hearers, since then grown into a European public, neither the warmest welcome nor the most bleak indifference could alter the conviction that among the composers who have appeared during the last twenty-five years, M. Gounod was the most promising one, as showing the greatest combination of sterling science, beauty of idea, freshness of fancy, and individuality. Before a note of 'Sappho' was written, certain sacred Roman Catholic compositions and some exquisite settings of French verse had made it clear to some of the acutest judges and profoundest musicians living, that in him at last something true and new had come—may I not say, the most poetical of French musicians that has till now written?" The same genial and acute critic, in further discussing the envy, jealousy, and prejudice that Gounod awakened in certain musical quarters, writes in still more decided strains: "The fact has to be swallowed and digested that already the composer of 'Sappho,' the choruses to 'Ulysse,' 'Le Medecin malgre lui,' 'Faust,' 'Philemon et Baucis,' a superb Cecilian mass, two excellent symphonies, and half a hundred songs and romances, which may be ranged not far from Schubert's and above any others existing in France, is one of the very few individuals left to whom musical Europe is now looking for its pleasure." Surely it is enough praise for a great musician that, in the domain of opera, church music, symphony, and song, he has risen above all others of his time in one direction, and in all been surpassed by none.
It was not till "Faust" was produced that Gounod's genius evinced its highest capacity. For nineteen years the exquisite melodies of this great work have rung in the ears of civilization without losing one whit of the power with which they first fascinated the lovers of music. The verdict which the aged Moscheles passed in his Leipsic home—Moscheles, the friend of Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, and Mendelssohn; which was reechoed by the patriarchal Rossini, who came from his Passy retirement to offer his congratulations; which Auber took up again, as with tears of joy in his eyes he led Gounod, the ex-pupil of the Conservatory, through the halls wherein had been laid the foundation of his musical skill—that verdict has been affirmed over and over again by the world. For in "Faust" we recognize not only some of the most noble music ever written, but a highly dramatic expression of spiritual truth. It is hardly a question that Gounod has succeeded in an unrivaled degree in expressing the characters and symbolisms of Mephistopheles, Faust, and Gretchen in music not merely beautiful, but spiritual, humorous, subtile, and voluptuous, accordingly as the varied meanings of Goethe's masterpiece demand.
Visitors at Paris, while the American civil war was at its height, might frequently have observed at the beautiful Theatre Lyrique, afterward burned by the Vandals of the Commune, a noticeable-looking man, of blonde complexion and tawny beard, clear-cut features, and large, bright, almost somber-looking eyes. As the opera of "Faust" progresses, his features eloquently express his varying emotions, now of approval, now of annoyance at different parts of the performance. M. Gounod is criticising the interpretation of the great opera, which suddenly lifted him into fame as perhaps the most imaginative and creative of late composers.
An aggressive disposition, an energy and faith that accepted no rebuffs, and the power of "toiling terribly," had enabled Gounod to battle his way into the front rank. Unlike Rossini and Auber, he disdained social recreation, and was so rarely seen in the fashionable quarters of Paris and London that only an occasional musical announcement kept him before the eyes of the public. Gounod seems to have devoted himself to the strict sphere of his art-life with an exclusive devotion quite foreign to the general temperament of the musician, into which something luxurious and pleasure-loving is so apt to enter. This composer, standing in the very front rank of his fellows, has injected into the veins of the French school to which he belongs a seriousness, depth, and imaginative vigor, which prove to us how much he is indebted to German inspiration and German models.
Charles Gounod, born in Paris June 17, 1818, betrayed so much passion for music during tender years, that his father gave him every opportunity to gratify and improve this marked bias. He studied under Reicha and Le Sueur, and finally under Halevy, completing under the latter the preparation which fitted him for entrance into the Conservatory. The talents he displayed there were such as to fix on him the attention of his most distinguished masters. He carried off the second prize at nineteen, and at twenty-one received the grand prize for musical composition awarded by the French Institute. His first published work was a mass performed at the Church of St. Eustache, which, while not specially successful, was sufficiently encouraging to both the young composer and his friends.
Gounod now proceeded to Rome, where there seems to have been some inclination on his part to study for holy orders. But music was not destined to be cheated of so gifted a votary. In 1841 he wrote a second mass, which was so well thought of in the papal capital as to gain for the young composer the appointment of an honorary chapel-master for life. This recognition of his genius settled his final conviction that music was his true life-work, though the religious sentiment, or rather a sympathy with mysticism, is strikingly apparent in all of his compositions. The next goal in the composer's art pilgrimage was the music-loving city of Vienna, the home of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, though its people waited till the last three great geniuses were dead before it accorded them the loving homage which they have since so freely rendered. The reception given by the capricious Viennese to a requiem and a Lenten mass (for as yet Gounod only thought of sacred music as his vocation) was not such as to encourage a residence. Paris, the queen of the world, toward which every French exile ever looks with longing eyes, seemed to beckon him back; so at the age of twenty-five he turned his steps again to his beloved Lutetia. His education was finished; he had completed his Wanderjahre; and he was eager to enter on the serious work of life.
He was appointed chapelmaster at the Church of Foreign Missions, in which office he remained for six years, in the mean while marrying a charming woman, the daughter of Herr Zimmermann, the celebrated theologian and orator. In 1849 he composed his third mass, which made a powerful impression on musicians and critics, though Gounod's ambition, which seems to have been powerfully stimulated by his marriage, began to realize that it was in the field of lyric drama only that his powers would find their full development. He had been an ardent student in literature and art as well as in music; his style had been formed on the most noble and serious German models, and his tastes, awakened into full activity, carried him with great zeal into the loftier field of operatic composition.
The dominating influence of Gluck, so potent in shaping the tastes and methods of the more serious French composers, asserted itself from the beginning in the work of Gounod, and no modern composer has been so brilliant and effective a disciple in carrying out the formulas of that great master. More free, flexible, and melodious than Spontini and Halevy, measuring his work by a conception of art more lofty and ideal than that of Meyerbeer, and in creative power and originality by far their superior, Gounod's genius, as shown in the one opera of "Faust," suffices to stamp his great mastership.
But he had many years of struggle yet before this end was to be achieved. His early lyric compositions fell dead. Score after score was rejected by the managers. No one cared to hazard the risk of producing an opera by this unknown composer. His first essay was a pastoral opera, "Philemon and Baucis," and it did not escape from the manuscript for many a long year, though it has in more recent times been received by critical German audiences with great applause. A catalogue of Gounod's failures would have no significance except as showing that his industry and energy were not relaxed by public neglect. His first decided encouragement came in 1851, when "Sappho" was produced at the French Opera through the influence of Madame Pauline Viardot, the sister of Malibran, who had a generous belief in the composer's future, and such a position in the musical world of Paris as to make her requests almost mandatory. This opera, based on the fine poem of Emile Augier, was well received, and cheered Gounod's heart to make fresh efforts. In 1852 he composed the choruses for Poussard's classical tragedy of "Ulysse," performed at the Theatre Francais. The growing recognition of the world was evidenced in his appointment as director of the Normal Singing School of Paris, the primary school of the Conservatory. In 1854 a five-act opera, with a libretto from the legend of the "Bleeding Nun," was completed and produced, and Gounod was further gratified to see that musical authorities were willing to grant him a distinct place in the ranks of art, though as yet not a very high one.
For years Gounod's serious and elevated mind had been pondering on Goethe's great poem as the subject of an opera, and there is reason to conjecture that parts of it were composed and arranged, if not fully elaborated, long prior to its final crystallization. But he was not yet quite ready to enter seriously on the composition of the masterpiece. He must still try his hand on lesser themes. Occasional pieces for the orchestra or choruses strengthened his hold on these important elements of lyric composition, and in 1858 he produce "Le Medecin malgre lui," based on Moliere's comedy, afterward performed as an English opera under the title of "The Mock Doctor." Gounod's genius seems to have had no affinity for the graceful and sparkling measures of comic music, and his attempt to rival Rossini and Auber in the field where they were preeminent was decidedly unsuccessful, though the opera contained much fine music.
The year of his triumph had at last arrived. He had waited and toiled for years over "Faust," and it was now ready to flash on the world with an electric brightness that was to make his name instantly famous. One day saw him an obscure, third-rate composer, the next one of the brilliant names in art. "Faust," first performed March 19, 1859, fairly took the world by storm. Gounod's warmest friends were amazed by the beauty of the masterpiece, in which exquisite melody, great orchestration, and a dramatic passion never surpassed in operatic art, were combined with a scientific skill and precision which would vie with that of the great masters of harmony. Carvalho, the manager of the Theatre Lyrique, had predicted that the work would have a magnificent reception by the art world, and lavished on it every stage resource. Madame Miolan-Carvalho, his brilliant wife, one of the leading sopranos of the day, sang the role of the heroine, though five years afterward she was succeeded by Nilsson, who invested the part with a poetry and tenderness which have never been quite equaled.
"Faust" was received at Berlin, Vienna, Milan, St. Petersburg, and London, with an enthusiasm not less than that which greeted its Parisian debut. The clamor of dispute between the different schools was for the moment hushed in the delight with which the musical critics and public of universal Europe listened to the magical measures of an opera which to classical chasteness and severity of form and elevation of motive united such dramatic passion, richness of melody, and warmth of orchestral color. From that day to the present "Faust" has retained its place as not only the greatest but the most popular of modern operas. The proof of the composer's skill and sense of symmetry in the composition of "Faust" is shown in the fact that each part is so nearly necessary to the work, that but few "cuts" can be made in presentation without essentially marring the beauty of the work; and it is therefore given with close faithfulness to the author's score.
After the immense success of "Faust," the doors of the Academy were opened wide to Gounod. On February 28, 1862, the "Reine de Saba" was produced, but was only a succes d'estime, the libretto by Gerard de Nerval not being fitted for a lyric tragedy.*
* It has been a matter of frequent comment by the ablest musical critics that many noble operas, now never heard, would have retained their place in the repertoires of modern dramatic music, had it not been for the utter rubbish to which the music has been set.
Many numbers of this fine work, however, are still favorites on concert programmes, and it has been given in English under the name of "Irene." Gounod's love of romantic themes, and the interest in France which Lamartine's glowing eulogies had excited about "Mireio," the beautiful national poem of the Provencal, M. Frederic Mistral, led the former to compose an opera on a libretto from this work, which was given at the Theatre Lyrique, March 19, 1864, under the name of "Mireille." The music, however, was rather descriptive and lyric than dramatic, as befitted this lovely ideal of early French provincial life; and in spite of its containing some of the most captivating airs ever written, and the fine interpretation of the heroine by Miolan-Carvalho, it was accepted with reservations. It has since become more popular in its three-act form to which it was abridged. It is a tribute to the essential beauty of Gounod's music that, however unsuccessful as operas certain of his works have been, they have all contributed charming morceaux for the enjoyment of concert audiences. Not only did the airs of "Mireille" become public favorites, but its overture is frequently given as a distinct orchestral work.
The opera of "La Colombe," known in English as "The Pet Dove," followed in 1866; and the next year was produced the five-act opera of "Romeo et Juliette," of which the principal part was again taken by Madame Miolan-Carvalho. The favorite pieces in this work, which is a highly poetic rendering of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy, are the song of Queen Mab, the garden duet, a short chorus in the second act, and the duel scene in the third act. For some occult reason, "Romeo et Juliette," though recognized as a work of exceptional beauty and merit, and still occasionally performed, has no permanent hold on the operatic public of to-day.
The evils that fell on France from the German war and the horrors of the Commune drove Gounod to reside in London, unlike Auber, who resolutely refused to forsake the city of his love, in spite of the suffering and privation which he foresaw, and which were the indirect cause of the veteran composer's death. Gounod remained several years in England, and lived a retired life, seemingly as if he shrank from public notice and disdained public applause. His principal appearances were at the Philharmonic, the Crystal Palace, and at Mrs. Weldon's concerts, where he directed the performances of his own compositions. The circumstances of his London residence seem to have cast a cloud over Gounod's life and to have strangely unsettled his mind. Patriotic grief probably had something to do with this at the outset. But even more than this as a source of permanent irritation may be reckoned the spell cast over Gounod's mind by a beautiful adventuress, who was ambitious to attain social and musical recognition through the eclat of the great composer's friendship. Though newspaper report may be credited with swelling and distorting the naked facts, enough appears to be known to make it sure that the evil genius of Gounod's London life was a woman, who traded recklessly with her own reputation and the French composer's fame.
However untoward the surroundings of Gounod, his genius did not lie altogether dormant during this period of friction and fretfulness, conditions so repressive to the best imaginative work. He composed several masses and other church music; a "Stabat Mater" with orchestra; the oratorio of "Tobie"; "Gallia," a lamentation for France; incidental music for Legouve's tragedy of "Les Deux Reines," and for Jules Barbier's "Jeanne d'Arc"; a large number of songs and romances, both sacred and secular, such as "Nazareth," and "There is a Green Hill"; and orchestral works, a "Salterello in A," and the "Funeral March of a Marionette."
At last he broke loose from the bonds of Delilah, and, remembering that he had been elected to fill the place of Clapisson in the Institute, he returned to Paris in 1876 to resume the position which his genius so richly deserved. On the 5th of March of the following year his "Cinq-Mars" was brought out at the Theatre de l'Opera Comique; but it showed the traces of the haste and carelessness with which it was written, and therefore commanded little more than a respectful hearing. His last opera, "Polyeucte," produced at the Grand Opera, October 7, 1878, though credited with much beautiful music, and nobly orchestrated, is not regarded by the French critics as likely to add anything to the reputation of the composer of "Faust." Gounod, now at the age of sixty, if we judge him by the prolonged fertility of so many of the great composers, may be regarded as not having largely passed the prime of his powers. The world still has a right to expect much from his genius. Conceded even by his opponents to be a great musician and a thorough master of the orchestra, more generous critics in the main agree to rank Gounod as the most remarkable contemporary composer, with the possible exception of Richard Wagner. The distinctive trait of his dramatic conceptions seems to be an imagination hovering between sensuous images and mystic dreams. Originally inspired by the severe Greek sculpture of Gluck's music, he has applied that master's laws in the creation of tone-pictures full of voluptuous color, but yet solemnized at times by an exaltation which recalls the time when as a youth he thought of the spiritual dignity of the priesthood. The use he makes of his religious reminiscences is familiarly illustrated in "Faust." The contrast between two opposing principles is marked in all of Gounod's dramatic works, and in "Faust" this struggle of "a soul which invades mysticism and which still seeks to express voluptuousness" not only colors the music with a novel fascination, but amounts to an interesting psychological problem.
Gounod's genius fills too large a space in contemporary music to be passed over without a brief special study. In pursuit of this no better method suggests itself than an examination of the opera of "Faust," into which the composer poured the finest inspirations of his life, even as Goethe embodied the sum and flower of his long career, which had garnered so many experiences, in his poetic masterpiece.
The story of "Faust" has tempted many composers. Prince Radziwill tried it, and then Spohr set a version of the theme at once coarse and cruel, full of vulgar witchwork and love-making only fit for a chambermaid. Since then Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz have treated the story orchestrally with more or less success. Gounod's treatment of the poem is by far the most intelligible, poetic, and dramatic ever attempted, and there is no opera since the days of Gluck with so little weak music, except Beethoven's "Fidelio."
In the introduction the restless gloom of the old philospher and the contrasted joys of youth engaged in rustic revelry outside are expressed with graphic force; and the Kirmes music in the next act is so quaint and original, as well as melodious, as to give the sense of delightful comedy. When Marguerite enters on the scene, we have a waltz and chorus of such beauty and piquancy as would have done honor to Mozart. Indeed, in the dramatic use of dance music Gounod hardly yields in skill and originality to Meyerbeer himself, though the latter composer specially distinguished himself in this direction. The third and fourth acts develop all the tenderness and passion of Marguerite's character, all the tragedy of her doom.
After Faust's beautiful monologue in the garden come the song of the "King of Thule" and Marguerites delight at finding the jewels, which conjoined express the artless vanity of the child in a manner alike full of grace and pathos. The quartet that follows is one of great beauty, the music of each character being thoroughly in keeping, while the admirable science of the composer blends all into thorough artistic unity. It is hardly too much to assert that the love scene which closes this act has nothing to surpass it for fire, passion, and tenderness, seizing the mind of the hearer with absorbing force by its suggestion and imagery, while the almost cloying sweetness of the melody is such as Rossini and Schubert only could equal. The full confession of the enamored pair contained in the brief adagio throbs with such rapture as to find its most suggestive parallel in the ardent words commencing "Gallop apace, ye fiery-looted steeds," placed by Shakespeare in the mouth of the expectant Juliet.
Beauties succeed each other in swift and picturesque succession, fitting the dramatic order with a nicety which forces the highest praise of the critic. The march and chorus marking the return of Valentine's regiment beat with a fire and enthusiasm to which the tramp of victorious squadrons might well keep step. The wicked music of Mephistopheles in the sarcastic serenade, the powerful duel trio, and Valentine's curse are of the highest order of expression; while the church scene, where the fiend whispers his taunts in the ear of the disgraced Marguerite, as the gloomy musical hymn and peals of the organ menace her with an irreversible doom, is a weird and thrilling picture of despair, agony, and devilish exultation.
Gounod has been blamed for violating the reverence due to sacred things, employing portions of the church service in this scene, instead of writing music for it. But this is the last resort of critical hostility, seeking a peg on which to hang objection. Meyerbeer's splendid introduction of Luther's great hymn, "Ein' feste Burg," in "Les Huguenots," called forth a similar criticism from his German assailants. Some of the most dramatic effects in music have been created by this species of musical quotation, so rich in its appeal to memory and association. Who that has once heard can forget the thrilling power of "La Marseillaise" in Schumann's setting of Heinrich Heine's poem of "The Two Grenadiers"? The two French soldiers, weary and broken-hearted after the Russian campaign, approach the German frontier. The veterans are moved to tears as they think of their humiliated Emperor. Up speaks one suffering with a deadly hurt to the other: "Friend, when I am dead, bury me in my native France, with my cross of honor on my breast, and my musket in my hand, and lay my good sword by my side." Until this time the melody has been a slow and dirge-like stave in the minor key. The old soldier declares his belief that he will rise again from the clods when he hears the victorious tramp of his Emperor's squadrons passing over his grave, and the minor breaks into a weird setting of the "Marseillaise" in the major key. Suddenly it closes with a few solemn chords, and, instead of the smoke of battle and the march of the phantom host, the imagination sees the lonely plain with its green mounds and moldering crosses.
Readers will pardon this digression illustrating an artistic law, of which Gounod has made such effective use in the church scene of his "Faust" in heightening its tragic solemnity. The wild goblin symphony in the fifth act has added some new effects to the gamut of deviltry in music, and shows that Weber in the "Wolf's Glen" and Meyerbeer in the "Cloisters of St. Rosalie" did not exhaust the somewhat limited field. The whole of this part of the act, sadly mutilated and abridged often in representation, is singularly picturesque and striking as a musical conception, and is a fitting companion to the tragic prison scene. The despair of the poor crazed Marguerite; her delirious joy in recognizing Faust; the temptation to fly; the final outburst of faith and hope, as the sense of Divine pardon sinks into her soul—all these are touched with the fire of genius, and the passion sweeps with an unfaltering force to its climax. These references to the details of a work so familiar as "Faust," conveying of course no fresh information to the reader, have been made to illustrate the peculiarities of Gounod's musical temperament, which sways in such fascinating contrast between the voluptuous and the spiritual. But whether his accents belong to the one or the other, they bespeak a mood flushed with earnestness and fervor, and a mind which recoils from the frivolous, however graceful it may be.
In the Franco-German school, of which Gounod is so high an exponent, the orchestra is busy throughout developing the history of the emotions, and in "Faust" especially it is as busy a factor in expressing the passions of the characters as the vocal parts. Not even in the "garden scene" does the singing reduce the instruments to a secondary importance. The difference between Gounod and Wagner, who professes to elaborate the importance of the orchestra in dramatic music, is that the former has a skill in writing for the voice which the other lacks. The one lifts the voice by the orchestration, the other submerges it. Gounod's affluence of lovely melody can only be compared with that of Mozart and Rossini, and his skill and ingenuity in treating the orchestra have wrung reluctant praise from his bitterest opponents.
The special power which makes Gounod unique in his art, aside from those elements before alluded to as derived from temperament, is his unerring sense of dramatic fitness, which weds such highly suggestive music to each varying phase of character and action. To this perhaps one exception may be made. While he possesses a certain airy playfulness, he fails in rich broad humor utterly, and situations of comedy are by no means so well handled as the more serious scenes.
A good illustration of this may be found in "Le Medecin malgre lui," in the couplets given to the drunken Sganarelle. They are beautiful music, but utterly unflavored with the vis comica.
Had Gounod written only "Faust," it should stamp him as one of the most highly gifted composers of his age. Noticeably in his other works, preeminently in this, he has shown a melodic freshness and fertility, a mastery of musical form, a power of orchestration, and a dramatic energy, which are combined to the same degree in no one of his rivals. Therefore it is just to place him in the first rank of contemporary composers.
Among contemporary French composers there is no name which suggests itself in comparison with that of Gounod so worthily as that of Ambroise Thomas, famous in every country where the opera is a favorite form of public amusement, as the author of "Mignon" and "Hamlet." Lacking the depth and passion of Gounod, he is distinguished by a peculiar sparkle, grace, and Gallic lightness of touch; and if we do not find in him the earnestness and spiritual significance of his rival's conceptions, there is, on the other hand, in the works of Thomas, a glow of poetic sentiment which invests them with a charming atmosphere, peculiarly their own. Perhaps in his own country Thomas enjoys a repute still higher than that of Gounod, for his genius is more peculiarly French, while the composer of "Faust" shows the radical influence of the German school, not only in the cast of his thoughts and temperament, but in his technical musical methods. Still, as all artists are profoundly moved by the tendencies of their age, it would not be difficult to find in the later works of Thomas, on which his celebrity is based, some unconscious modeling of form wrought by that musical school of which Richard Wagner is the most advanced type.
Ambroise Thomas was born at Metz, France, on August 5, 1811, and is therefore by seven years the senior of Charles Gounod. His aptitudes for music were so strong that he learned the notes as quickly as he acquired the letters of the alphabet. At the age of four he was instructed in his solfeggi by his father, who was a professor of music, and three years later he began to take lessons on the violin and piano. When he was seventeen he was thoroughly proficient in all the preparatory studies demanded for admission to the Paris Conservatoire, and he easily obtained admission into that great institution. He first studied under Zimmermann and Kalkbrenner, and afterward under Dourlen, Barbereau, Le Sueur, and Reicha. For successive years he carried off first prizes: for the piano in 1829; for harmony, in 1830; and in 1832 the highest honor in composition was awarded him, the Prix de Rome, which allowed him to go to Italy as a government stipendiary.
Our young laureate passed three years in Italy, spending most of his time at Rome and Naples. The special result of his Italian studies was a requiem mass, which was performed with great approbation from its musical judges at Paris and Rome. After traveling in Germany, Thomas returned to Paris in 1836, thoroughly equipped for his career as composer, for he had been an indefatigable student, and neglected no opportunity of perfecting his knowledge. The first step in the brilliant career of Thomas was the production of a comic opera in one act, "La Double Echelle," produced in 1837. This met with a good reception, and it was promptly followed by the production of several other light scores, that further enhanced his reputation for talent. He was not generally recognized by musicians as a man of marked promise till he produced "Mina," a comic opera in three acts, which was represented in 1843. The beauty of the instrumentation and the melodious richness of the work were unmistakable, and henceforth every production of the young composer was watched with great interest.
Ambroise Thomas could not be said to have reached a great popular success until he produced "Le Caid," a work of the opera-boitffe type, which instantly became an immense public favorite. This was first represented in 1849, and it has always held its place on the French stage as one of the most delightful works of its class, in spite of the competition of such later outgrowths of the opera-bouffe, school as Offenbach, Lecocq, and others. The score of this work proved to be immensely amusing and brightly melodious, and it was such a pecuniary success that the more judicious friends of Thomas feared that he might be seduced into cultivating a field far below the powers of his poetic imagination and thorough musical science. Strong heads might easily be turned by such lavish applause, and it would not have been wonderful had Thomas, dazzled by the reception of "Le Caid," remained for a long time a wanderer from the path which lay open to his great talents. The composer's ambition, however, proved to be too high to content itself with ephemeral success, or cultivating the more frivolous forms of his art, however profitable aid pleasant these might be.
In 1850 Ambroise Thomas produced two operas: "Le Songe d'une Nuit d'Ete," resembling in style somewhat that masterpiece produced in after-years, "Mignon," and a somber work based on the legend of "The Man with the Iron Mask," "Le Secret de la Reine." The melodramatic character of this latter work seems to have been imitated from the highly accented and artificial style of Verdi, instead of possessing the bright and airy charm natural to Thomas. The vacancy left by Spontini's death in the French Institute was filled by the election of M. Thomas, who was deemed most worthy, among all the musical names offered, of taking the place of the author of "La Vestale." He justified the taste of his co-members by his production in 1853 of the comic opera of "La Tonelli," a work which, though not greatly successful with "hoi polloi," was an admirable specimen of light and graceful opera at its best. The new academician was recompensed for the public indifference by the cordial appreciation which connoisseurs gave this tasteful and scientific production. Another comic opera, "Psyche," which soon appeared, though full of witty burlesque and humor in the libretto, and marked by delicious melody in every part, failed to please, perhaps on account of the predominance of feminine roles, and the absence of a good tenor part. Still a third comic opera, the "Carnaval de Venise" saw the light the same season, which was written in large measure to show the marvelous flexibility of Mme. Cabal's voice. Very few singers have been able to sing the role of Sylvia, who warbles a violin concerto from beginning to end, under the title of an "Ariette without Words."
Ambroise Thomas remained silent now for half a dozen years, aside from the composition of a few charming songs. It is natural to suppose that he was brooding over the conception of his greatest work, which was next to see the light of day, and add one more to the great operas of the world. Such compositions are not hastily manufactured, but grow for years out of the travail of heart and brain, deep thought, high imaginings, passionate sensibilities, elaborately wrought by time and patience, till at last they are crystallized into form.
"Mignon," a comic opera in three acts, was first represented at the Theatre Lyrique, on November 17, 1866, before one of the most brilliant and enthusiastic audiences ever gathered in Paris. Its success was magnificent. This was seven years after Gounod had made such a great stride among the composers of the age, by the production of "Faust"; and it is within bounds to say that, since "Faust," no opera had been produced in Paris so vital with the breath of genius and great purpose, so full of sentiment and poetry, so symmetrical and balanced in its differentiation of music measured by its dramatic value, so instantly and splendidly recognized by the public, cultured and ignorant, gentle and simple.
Like "Faust," too, the opera of Thomas was based on a creation of Goethe. Without the pathetic episode of "Mignon," the novel of "Wilhelm Meister" would lose much of its dramatic strength and quality. Of course, every libretto must part with some of the charm of the story on which it is built; but in this instance the author succeeds in preserving nearly all the intrinsic worth of the Mignon episode. The music is admirably suited to a noble theme. There is hardly a weak bar in it from beginning to end; and some of the work here done by the composer will compare favorably with any operatic music ever hoard. In this opera melodic phrase goes hand in hand with character and motive, and Mignon, Philina, Wilhelm Meister, and Lothario, are distinguished in the music with the finest dramatic discrimination.
Among the operas of recent years, "Mignon" ranks among the first for its taste, grace, and poetry. The first act is vigorous, bright, and picturesque; the second, touched with the finest points of passion and humor; the third is inspired with a pathos and poetic ardor which lift the composer to do his most magnificent work. But to describe "Mignon" to the public of today, which has heard it almost an innumerable number of times, is, as much as in the case of Gounod's "Faust," "carrying coals to Newcastle."
In 1868 Thomas produced "Hamlet," and it was represented at the Grand Opera, with Mile. Christine Nilsson in the role of Ophelia, the same singer having, if we mistake not, created the role of Mignon. "Hamlet," though a marked artistic success, has failed to make the same popular impression as "Mignon," possibly because the theme is less suited to operatic treatment; for the music per se is of a fine type, and full of the genuine accents of passion.
In addition to the works named above, Ambroise Thomas has written "La Gypsy," "Le Panier Fleuri," "Carline," "Le Roman d'Elvire," several fine masses, many beautiful songs, a requiem, and miscellaneous church-pieces. Thomas is famous in France for the generous encouragement and help which he extends to all young musicians, assistance which his position in the Paris Conservatoire helps to make most valuable. He is now seventy-one years old, and, should he add nothing more to the musical treasures of the present generation, much of what he has already done will give him a permanent place in the temple of lyric music.
In the long list of brilliant names which have illustrated the fine arts, there is none attached to a personality more interesting and impressive than that of Hector Berlioz. He stands solitary, a colossus in music, with but few admirers and fewer followers. Original, puissant in faculties, fiercely dogmatic and intolerant, bizarre, his influence has impressed itself profoundly on the musical world both for good and evil, but has failed to make disciples or to rear a school. Notwithstanding the defects and extravagances of Berlioz, it is safe to assert that no art or philosophy can boast of an example of more perfect devotion to an ideal. The startling originality of Berlioz as a musician rests on a mental and emotional organization different from and in some respects superior to that of any other eminent master. He possessed an ardent temperament; a gorgeous imagination, that knew no rest in its working, and at times became heated to the verge of madness; a most subtile sense of hearing; an intellect of the keenest analytic turn; a most arrogant will, full of enterprise and daring, which clung to its purpose with unrelenting tenacity; and passions of such heat and fervor that they rarely failed when aroused to carry him beyond all bounds of reason. His genius was unique, his character cast in the mold of a Titan, his life a tragedy. Says Blaze de Bussy: "Art has its martyrs, its forerunners crying in the wilderness, and feeding on roots. It has also its spoiled children sated with bonbons and dainties." Berlioz belongs to the former of these classes, and, if ever a prophet lifted up his voice with a vehement and incessant outcry, it was he.
Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803, at Cote Saint Andre, a small town between Grenoble and Lyons. His father was an excellent physician of more than ordinary attainments, and he superintended his son's studies with great zeal in the hope that the lad would also become an ornament of the healing profession. But young Hector, though an excellent scholar in other branches, developed a special aptitude for music, and at twelve he could sing at sight, and play difficult concertos on the flute. The elder regarded music only as a graceful ornament to life, and in no wise encouraged his son in thinking of music as a profession. So it was not long before Hector found his attention directed to anatomy, physiology, osteology, etc. In his father's library he had already read of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, etc., and had found a manuscript score of an opera which he had committed to memory. His soul revolted more and more from the path cut out for him. "Become a physician!" he cried, "study anatomy; dissect; take part in horrible operations? No! no! That would be a total subversion of the natural course of my life."
But parental resolution carried the day, and, after he had finished the preliminary course of study, he was ordered up to Paris to join the army of medical students. So at the age of nineteen we find him lodged in the Quartier Latin. His first introduction to medical studies had been unfortunate. On entering a dissecting-room he had been so convulsed with horror as to leap from the window, and rush to his lodgings in an agony of dread and disgust, whence he did not emerge for twenty-four hours. At last, however, by dint of habit he became somewhat used to the disagreeable facts of his new life, and, to use his own words, "bade fair to add one more to the army of bad physicians," when he went to the opera one night and heard "Les Danaides," Salieri's opera, performed with all the splendid completeness of the Academie Royale. This awakened into fresh life an unquenchable thirst for music, and he neglected his medical studies for the library of the Conservatoire, where he learned by heart the scores of Gluck and Rameau. At last, on coming out one night from a performance of "Iphigenie," he swore that henceforth music should have her divine rights of him, in spite of all and everything. Henceforth hospital, dissecting-room, and professor's lectures knew him no more.
But to get admission to the Conservatoire was now the problem; Berlioz set to work on a cantata with orchestral accompaniments, and in the mean time sent the most imploring letters home asking his father's sanction for this change of life. The inexorable parent replied by cutting off his son's allowance, saying that he would not help him to become one of the miserable herd of unsuccessful musicians. The young enthusiast's cantata gained him admission to the classes of Le Sueur and Reicha at the Conservatoire, but alas! dire poverty stared him in the face. The history of his shifts and privations for some months is a sad one. He slept in an old, unfurnished garret, and shivered under insufficient bedclothing, ate his bread and grapes on the Pont Neuf, and sometimes debated whether a plunge into the Seine would not be the easiest way out of it all. No mongrel cur in the capital but had a sweeter bone to crunch than he. But the young fellow for all this stuck to his work with dogged tenacity, managed to get a mass performed at St. Roch church, and soon finished the score of an opera, "Les Francs Juges." Flesh and blood would have given way at last under this hard diet, if he had not obtained a position in the chorus of the Theatre des Noveauteaus. Berlioz gives an amusing account of his going to compete with the horde of applicants—butchers, bakers, shop-apprentices, etc.—each one with his roll of music under his arm.
The manager scanned the raw-boned starveling with a look of wonder. "Where's your music?" quoth the tyrant of a third-class theatre. "I don't want any, I can sing anything you can give me at sight," was the answer. "The devil!" rejoined the manager; "but we haven't any music here." "Well, what do you want?" said Berlioz. "I sing every note of all the operas of Gluck, Piccini, Salieri, Rameau, Spontini, Gretry, Mozart, and Cimarosa, from memory." At hearing this amazing declaration, the rest of the competitors slunk away abashed, and Berlioz, after singing an aria from Spontini, was accorded the place, which guaranteed him fifty francs per month—a pittance, indeed, and yet a substantial addition to his resources. This pot-boiling connection of Berlioz was never known to the public till after he became a distinguished man, though he was accustomed to speak in vague terms of his early dramatic career as if it were a matter of romantic importance.
At last, however, he was relieved of the necessity of singing on the stage to amuse the Paris bourgeoisie, and in a singular fashion. He had been put to great straits to get his first work, which had won him his way into the Conservatoire, performed. An application to the great Chateaubriand, who was noted for benevolence, had failed, for the author of "La Genie de Christianisme" was then almost as poor as Berlioz. At last a young friend, De Pons, advanced him twelve hundred francs. Part of this Berlioz had repaid, but the creditor, put to it for money, wrote to Berlioz pere, demanding a full settlement of the debt. The father was thus brought again into communication with his son, whom he found nearly sick unto death with a fever. His heart relented, and the old allowance was resumed again, enabling the young musician to give his whole time to his beloved art, instantly he convalesced from his illness.