By Camille Saint-Saens.
As Dejanire, cast in a new form, has again appeared in the vast frame of the Opera stage, I may be allowed to recall my recollections of my friend and collaborator, Louis Gallet, the diligent and chosen companion of my best years, whose support was so dear and precious to me. Collaboration for some reason unknown to me is deprecated. Opera, it is said, should spring from the brain like Minerva, fully armed. So much the better if such divine intellects can be found, but they are rare and always will be. For dramatic and literary art on the one hand and musical art on the other require different powers, which are not ordinarily found in the same person.
I first met Louis Gallet in 1871. Camille du Locle, who was the manager of the Opera-Comique at the time, could not put on Le Timbre d’Argent, and while he waited for better days, which never came, to do that, he offered me a one-act work. He proposed Louis Gallet as my collaborator, although I had not known him until then. “You were made to understand each other,” he told me. Gallet was then employed in some capacity at the Beaujon hospital and lived near me in the Faubourg Saint-Honore. We soon formed the habit of seeing each other every day. Du Locle had judged aright. We had the same tastes in art and literature. We were equally averse to whatever is too theatrical and also to whatever is not sufficiently so, to the commonplace and the too extravagant. We both despised easy success and we understood each other wonderfully. Gallet was not a musician, but he enjoyed and understood music, and he criticised with rare good taste.
Japan had recently been opened to Europeans. Japan was fashionable; all they talked about was Japan, it was a real craze. So the idea of writing a Japanese piece occurred to us. We submitted the idea to du Locle, but he was afraid of an entirely Japanese stage setting. He wanted us to soften the Japanese part, and it was he, I think, who had the idea of making it half Japanese and half Dutch, the way the slight work La Princesse Jaune was cast.
That was only a beginning and in our daily talks we sketched the most audacious projects. The leading concerts of the time did not balk at performing large vocal works, as they too often do to-day to the great detriment of the variety of their programmes. We then thought that we were at the beginning of the prosperity of French oratorio which only needed encouragement to flourish. I read by chance in an old Bible this wonderful phrase, “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth,” and so I proposed to Gallet that we do a Deluge. At first he wanted to introduce characters. “No,” I said, “put the Bible narrative into simple verse, and I will do the rest.” We know with what care and success he accomplished his delicate task. Meanwhile he gave Massenet the texts for Marie-Madeleine and Le Roi de Lahore, and these two works created a great stir in the operatic world.
We had dreams of historical opera, for we were quite without the prejudice against this form of drama which afflicts the present school. But I was not precisely persona grata to the managers and I did not know at what door to knock, when one of my friends, Aime Gros, took the management of the Grand-Theatre at Lyons and asked me for a work. This was a fine opportunity and we grasped it. We put together, with difficulty but with infinite zest, our historical opera, Etienne Marcel, in which Louis Gallet endeavored to respect as far as is possible in a theatrical work the facts of history. Despite illustrious examples to the contrary he did not believe that it was legitimate to attribute to a character who has actually lived acts and opinions that are entirely fanciful. I was in full agreement with him in that as in so many other things. I go even farther and cannot accustom myself to the queer sauces in which legendary characters are often served. It seems to me that the legend is the interesting thing, and not the character, and that the latter loses all its value when the legend which surrounds it is destroyed. But everyone knows that I am a crank.
Some time after my Henri VIII, in which Vaucorbeil had imposed another collaborator on me, Ritt asked me for a new work. We were looking about for a subject, when Gallet came to my house and timidly, as if fearing a rebuff, proposed Benvenuto Cellini. I had thought of that for a long time, and the idea had come to me of putting into musical form that fine drama, which had had its hours of glory, where Melingue modeled the statue of Hebe before the populace. I, therefore, accepted the suggestion with pleasure. This enterprise brought me in touch with Paul Meurice, whom I had known in my childhood, when he was wooing Mlle. Granger, his first wife and an intimate friend of my mother’s. Paul Meurice revealed a secret to me: that the romance Ascanio, attributed to Alexander Dumas, had been entirely written by Meurice. The work met with a great success, and out of gratitude, Dumas offered to help Meurice in constructing a drama from the romance, which was to be signed by Meurice alone. So it is easy for one who knows Dumas’s dramas to find traces of his handiwork in Benvenuto Cellini.
It was not particularly easy to make an opera out of the play, and Gallet and I worked together at it with considerable difficulty. We soon saw that we should have to eliminate the famous scene of the casting of the statue. When we reached this point in the play, Benvenuto had already done a good deal of singing, and this scene with its violence seemed certain to exceed the strength of the most valiant artist. In connection with our Proserpine, I have been accused of supposing that Vacquerie had genius. It would be too much to say that he had genius, but he certainly had great talent. His prose showed a classical refinement, and his poetry, in spite of fantastic passages which no one could admire, was sonorous in tone, contained precious material, and was both interesting and highly individual. What allured me in Proserpine was the amount of inner emotion there was in the drama, which is very advantageous to the music. Music gives expression to feelings which the characters cannot express, and accentuates and develops the picturesqueness of the piece; it makes acceptable what would not even exist without it.
Vacquerie approved highly the convent scene which Gallet invented. This introduced a quiet and peaceful note amidst the violence of the original work. Gallet wrote a sonnet in Alexandrine verse for Sabatino’s declaration of his love. I was unable to set this to music, for the twelve feet embarrassed me and prevented my getting into my stride. As I did not know what else to do, I took the sonnet and by main force reduced the verse to ten feet with a caesura at the fifth foot. I took this to my dear collaborator in fear and trembling, and, as I had feared, he at once fell into the depths of despair.
“That was the best thing in my work,” he said. “I nursed and caressed that sonnet, and now you have ruined it.”
In the face of this despair, I screwed up my courage. As I had previously cut down the verse, I now tried lengthening out the music. Then, I sang both versions to the disconsolate poet.
And what a miracle! He was altogether reconciled, approved both versions, and did not know which one to choose. We ended with a patchwork. The two quatrains are in verses of ten feet, and the two tiercets in Alexandrine metre.
Outside of our work, too, our relations were delightful. We wrote to each other constantly in both prose and verse; we bombarded each other with sonnets; his letters were sometimes ornamented with water colors, for he drew very well and one of his joys was to cover white paper with color. Gallet drew the sketches for the desert in Le Roi de Lahore and the cloister in Proserpine.
When Madame Adam founded the Nouvelle Revue she offered me the position of musical critic, which I did not think I ought to accept. She did not know where to turn. “Take Gallet,” I advised her. “He is an accomplished man of letters. He is not a musician in the sense that he has studied music, but he has the soul of a musician, which is worth much more.” Madame Adam followed my advice and found it good.
At this period, under the guise of Wagnerism, the wildest theories and the most extravagant assertions were current in musical criticism. Gallet was naturally well poised and independent and he did not do as the rest did. Instead he opposed them, but from unwillingness to give needless offense he displayed marked tact and discretion in his criticisms. This did him no good, however, for it aroused no sentiment of gratitude, and without giving him credit for a literary style that was rare among librettists, his contemporaries received each of his works with a hostility entirely devoid of either justice or mercy. Gallet felt this hostility keenly. He felt that he did not deserve it, since he took so much care in his work and put so much courtesy into his criticism. The blank verse he used in Thais with admirable regard for color and harmony, counting on the music to take the place of the rhyme, was not appreciated. This verse was free from assonance and the banalities which it draws into operatic works, but it kept the rhythm and sonorous sound which is far removed from prose. That was the period when there was nothing but praise for Alfred Ernst’s gibberish, though that was an insult alike to the French language and the masterpieces he had the temerity to translate. Gallet used the same blank verse in Dejanire, although its use here was more debatable, but he handled it with surprising skill. Now that this text has been set to music, it shows its full beauty.
Louis Gallet devoted a large part of his time to administrative duties, for he was successively treasurer and manager of hospitals. Nevertheless he produced works in abundance. He left a record of no less than forty operatic librettos, plays, romances, memoirs, pamphlets, and innumerable articles. I wish I knew what to say about the man himself, his unwearying goodness, his loyalty, his scrupulousness, his good humor, his originality, his continual common sense, and his intellect, alert to everything unusual and interesting.
What good talks we used to have as we dined under an arbor in the large garden which was his delight at Lariboisiere! I used to take him seeds, and he made amusing botanical experiments with them.
He was seriously ill at one period of his life. He was wonderfully nursed by his wife—who was a saint—and he endured prolonged and atrocious sufferings with the patience of a saint. He watched the growth of his fatal disease with a stoicism worthy of the sages of antiquity and he had no illusion about the implacable illness which slowly but surely would result in his premature death. A constantly increasing deafness was his greatest trouble. This cruel infirmity had made frightful progress when, in 1899, the Arenes de Beziers opened its doors for the second time to Dejanire. In spite of everything, including his ill health which made the trip very painful, he wanted to see his work once more. He heard nothing, however—neither the artists, the choruses, nor even the applause of the several thousand spectators who encored it enthusiastically. A little later he passed on, leaving in his friends’ hearts and at the work-tables of his collaborators a void which it is impossible to fill.
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