History and Mythology in Opera

By Camille Saint-Saens.

Oceans of ink have been spilled in discussing the question of whether the subjects of operas should be taken from history or mythology, and the question is still a mooted one. To my mind it would have been better if the question had never been raised, for it is of little consequence what the answer is. The only things worth while are whether the music is good and the work interesting. But Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Siegfried appeared and the question sprang up. The heroes of mythology, we are told, are invested with a prestige which historical characters can never have. Their deeds lose significance and in their place we have their feelings, their emotions, to the great benefit of the operas. After these works, however, Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger) appeared, and although he is not mythical at all he is a fine figure nevertheless. But in this case the plot is of little account, for the interest lies mainly in the emotions—the only thing, it appears, which music with its divine language ought to express.

It is true that music makes it possible to simplify dramatic action and it gives a chance, as well, for the free expression and play of sentiments, emotions and passions. In addition, music makes possible pantomimic scenes which could not be done otherwise, and the music itself flows more easily under such conditions. But that does not mean that such conditions are indispensable for music. Music in its flexibility and adaptability offers inexhaustible resources. Give Mozart a fairy tale like the Magic Flute or a lively comedy such as Le Nozze di Figaro and he creates without effort an immortal masterpiece.

There is a question as to whether there is any essential difference between history and mythology. History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myths. Mythology is merely the old form of history.  Every myth is rooted in truth. And we have to seek for this truth in the fable, just as we try to reconstruct extinct animals from the remains Time has preserved to us. Behind the story of Prometheus we see the invention of fire; behind the loves of Ceres and Triptolemus the invention of the plow and the beginnings of agriculture. The adventures of the Argonauts show us the first attempts at voyages of exploration and the discovery of gold mines. Volumes have been written about the truths behind the fables, and explanations have been found for the strangest facts of mythology, even for the metamorphoses which Ovid described so poetically.

Halfway between history and mythology come the sacred writings. Each race has its own. Ours are the Old and New Testament. Many believe that these books are myths; a larger number—the Believers—that they are history, Sacred History, the only true history—the only one about which it is not permitted to express a doubt. If you want a proof of this, recall that not so many years ago a clergyman in the Church of England was censured by his ecclesiastical superiors for daring to say in a sermon that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden was symbolical and not a real creature.

And the ecclesiastical authorities were right. The basis of Christianity is the Redemption—the incarnation and sacrifice of God himself to blot out the stain of the first great sin and also to open the Kingdom of Heaven to men. That original sin was Adam’s fall, when he followed the example of Eve, a victim of the Serpent’s treacherous counsels, and disobeyed the command not to taste the Forbidden Fruit. Eliminate the Garden of Eden, the Serpent, the Forbidden Fruit, and the entire fabric of Christianity crumbles.

If we turn to profane history and take any historical work, we find that the facts are told in such a way that they seem to us beyond dispute.  But if we see the same facts from the pen of another historian, we no longer recognize them. The reason is that a writer almost never undertakes the task of wrestling with the giant, History, unless he is impelled to do so by a preconceived idea, by a general conception, or a system he wants to establish. And whether he wants to or not, he sees the facts in a light favorable to his preconceived idea, and observes them through prisms which increase or diminish their importance at his will. Then, however great his discernment and however strong his desire to reach the truth, it is doubtful if he ever will. In history, as elsewhere, absolute truth escapes mankind. Louis XIV, Louis XV, Madame de Maintenon, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XVI, even Napoleon and Josephine, so near our own times, are already quasi-mythical characters.  The Louis XIII of Marion de Lorme seemed until very lately to be accurate, but recent discoveries show us that he was quite different.

Napoleon III reigned only yesterday, but his picture is already painted in different tints. My entire youth was passed in his reign and my recollections represent him neither as the monster depicted by Victor Hugo nor the kind sympathetic sovereign of present-day stories.

There has been a great deal of discussion of the causes which brought on the War of 1870. We know all that was said and done during the last days of that crisis, but will anyone ever know what was hidden in the minds of the sovereigns, the ministers, and the ambassadors? Will it ever be known whether the Emperor provoked Gramont or Gramont the Emperor? Did they even know themselves? There is one thing the most discerning historian can never reach—the depths of the human soul.

We may, however, learn the secrets of the tomb. It was asserted for a long time that the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau had been exhumed, desecrated, and thrown into the sewers. Victor Hugo wrote a wonderful account of this—an account such as only he could write. One fine day doubt about this occurrence popped up unexpectedly. After waiting a long time it was decided to get to the heart of the matter, and they finally opened the coffins of the two great men. They were peacefully sleeping their last sleep. The deed never took place; its history was a myth.

In this connection Victor Hugo’s credulity may be mentioned, for it was astonishing in a man of such colossal genius. He believed in the most incredible things, as the “Man in the Iron Mask,” the twin brother of Louis XIV; in the octopus that has no mouth and feeds itself through its arms; and in the reality of the Japanese sirens which the Japanese were said to make out of an ape and a fish. He had some excuse for the sirens as the Academie des Sciences believed in them for a short time.

If what is called history is so near mythology as, many times, to be confounded with it, what about romance and the historical drama in which events, entirely imaginative, must of necessity find a place? What about the long-drawn-out conversations in books and on the stage that are attributed to historical persons? What about the actions attributed to them, which need not be true but only seem to be so? The supernatural element is the only thing lacking to make such works mythological in every way.

Now the supernatural lends itself admirably to expression in music and music finds in the supernatural a wealth of resources. But these resources are by no means indispensable. What music must have above all are emotions and passions laid bare and set in action by what we term the situation. And where can one find more or better situations than in history?


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From the time of Lulli until the end of the Eighteenth Century French opera was legendary, that is to say, it was mythological in character and was not, as has been pretended, limited to the depiction of emotion and the inner feelings in order to avoid contingencies. The real motive was to find in fables material for a spectacle. Tragedy, as we know, does not do this, for it can be developed only with considerable difficulty when the stage is crowded with actors. On the contrary, opera, which is free in its movements and can fill a vast stage, seeks for pomp, display and haloes in which gods and goddesses appear, in fact all that can be put into a stage-setting. If they did not use local color, it was because local color had not been invented. Finally, as we all get tired of everything, so they tired of mythology. Then the historical work was adopted and appeared on the stage with success, as is well known. The historical method had no rival until Robert le Diable rather timidly brought back the legendary element which triumphed later in the work of Richard Wagner.

In the meantime Les Huguenots succeeded Robert le Diable and for half a century this was the bright particular star of historical opera.  Even now, although its traditions have largely been forgotten and although its workmanship is rather inferior to that of a later time, this memorable work nevertheless shines, like the setting sun, surprisingly brilliantly. The several generations who admired this work were not altogether wrong. There is no necessity to class this brilliant success as a failure, because Robert Schumann, who knew nothing about the stage, denied its worth. It is surprising that Berlioz’s judgment has not been set against Schumann’s. Berlioz showed his enthusiasm for Les Huguenots in his famous treatise on instrumentation.

The great public is little interested in technical polemics and is faithful to the old successes. Although little by little success has come to operas based on legends, there still remains a taste for operas with a historical background. This is not without a reason for as an authoritative critic has said: “A historical drama may contain lyric possibilities far greater than most of the poor, weak mythological librettos on which composers waste their strength, fully persuaded that by doing so they cause ‘the holy spirit of Bayreuth to descend upon them.’”

And they never would have dreamed of being mythological, if their god, instead of turning to Scandinavian mythology, had followed his original intention of dramatizing the exploits of Frederick Barbarossa. In his youth he was not opposed to historical opera, for he eulogized La Musette de Portici, La Juive, and La Reine de Chypre. He made some justifiable criticisms of the libretto of the last work, although he admitted that the composer had contrived to write beautiful passages.

“We cannot praise Halevy too highly,” he wrote, “for the firmness with which he resists every temptation, to which many of his contemporaries succumb, to steal easy applause by relying blindly on the talent of the singers. On the contrary, he demands that his virtuosi, even the most famous of them, shall subordinate themselves to the lofty inspiration of his Muse. He attains this result by the simplicity and truth he knows how to stamp on dramatic melodies.”

This is what Richard Wagner said about La Juive in 1842.

Fortunately we no longer demand that operas be mythological, for if we did we should have to condemn the famous Russian operas and that is out of the question. However, the method of treatment is still in dispute and this question is involved. One method of treatment is admitted and another is not and it is extremely difficult to tell what is what.

I am now going to do a little special pleading for my Henri VIII, which, it would seem, is not in the proper manner. Not that I want to defend the music or to protest against the criticisms it has inspired, for that is not done. But I may, perhaps, be permitted to speak of the piece itself and to tell how the music was adapted to it.

According to the critics it would seem that the whole of Henri VIII is superficial and without depth, en facade; that the souls of the characters are not revealed, and that the King, at first all sugary sweetness, suddenly becomes a monster without any preparation for, or explanation of, the change.

In this connection let us consider Boris Godounof, for there is a historical drama suited to its music. I saw Boris Godounof with considerable interest. I heard pleasant and impressive passages, and others less so. In one scene I saw an insignificant friar who suddenly becomes the Emperor in the next scene. One entire act is made up of processions, the ringing of bells, popular songs, and dazzling costumes.  In another scene a nurse tells pretty stories to the children in her charge. Then there is a love duet, which is neither introduced nor has any relationship to the development of the work; an incomprehensible evening entertainment, and, finally, funeral scenes in which Chaliapine was admirable. It was not my fault if I did not discover in all that the inner life, the psychology, the introductions, and the explanations which they complain they do not find in Henri VIII.

“To Henry VIII,” it is stated at the beginning of the work, “nothing is sacred, neither friendship, love nor his word—ill are playthings of his mad whims. He knows neither law nor justice.” And when, a little later, smiling, the King hands the holy water to the ambassador he is receiving, the orchestra reveals the working of his mind by repeating the music of the preceding scene. From beginning to end the work is written in this way. But dissertations on such details have not been given the public; the themes of felony, cruelty, and duplicity, and of this and that, have not, as is the fashion of the day, been underlined, so that the critics are excusable for not seeing them.

Not a scene, not a word, they say, shows the soul of Henry VIII. I would like to ask if it is not revealed in the great scene between Henry and Catharine, where he plays with her as a cat with a mouse, where he veils his desire to be rid of her under his religious scruples, and where he heaps on her constantly vile and cruel insinuations, or even in the last scene with its cruel hypocrisies. It is difficult to see why all his passions and all his feelings are not brought into play here. The Russian librettos do no more, nor the operas based on mythology.

But to continue. From the point of view of opera mythology offers one advantage in the use of the miraculous. But the rest of the mythical element offers, rather, difficulties. Characters who never existed and in whom no one believes cannot be made interesting in themselves. They do not sustain, as is sometimes supposed, the music and poetry. On the contrary, the music and poetry give them such reality as they possess.  We could not endure the interminable utterances of the mournful Wotan, if it were not for the wonderful music that accompanies them. Orpheus weeping over Eurydice would not move us greatly, if Gluck had not known how to captivate us by his first notes. If it were not for Mozart’s music, the puppets of the Magic Flute would amount to nothing.

Musicians should, as a matter of fact, be allowed to choose both the subject and motives for their operas according to their temperaments and their feelings. Much youthful talent is lost to-day because the young composers believe that they must obey set rules instead of obeying their own inspiration. All great artists, the illustrious Richard more than any other, mocked the critics.

As I have spoken of Richard Wagner’s youth, I will take advantage of the opportunity to reveal a secret of one of his own works which is known to me alone. When Wagner was young, I was a child and I attended constantly the sessions of the Societe des Concerts. The kettledrummer of that day had a peculiar habit of breaking in before the rest of the orchestra.  When the others began, it produced an effect which the authors had hardly foreseen and which was certain to be condemned. But the effect had a rather distinctive character and I thought it might be possible to use it. Richard Wagner lived in Paris at the time and frequented the famous concerts. There is no doubt that he noted this effect and used it in his overture to Faust.





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