Daniel McAdam's Guide to Music

 

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 Meyerbeer and French Opera

(This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.)

Meyerbeer

HÉROLD—MEYERBEER—BERLIOZ—HALÉVY—AUBER

The romantic movement was essentially German in its origin, but its influence was not bounded by the Rhine. As early as 1824 Weber's 'Freischütz' was performed in Paris, followed a few years later by 'Oberon' and 'Euryanthe.' French musicians, always susceptible to external influences, could not but acknowledge the fascination of the romantic school, and the works of Hérold (1791-1833) show how powerfully the new leaven had acted. But Weber was not the only foreigner at this time who helped to shape the destiny of French music. The spell of Rossini was too potent for the plastic Gauls to resist, and to his influence may be traced the most salient features of the school of opéra comique which is best represented by Auber. Hérold, though divided between the camps of Germany and Italy, had individuality enough to write music which was independent of either. Yet it is significant that his last two works—the only two, in fact, which have survived—represent with singular completeness the two influences which affected French music most potently during his day. 'Zampa' has been called a French 'Don Giovanni,' but the music owes far more to Weber than to Mozart, while the fantastic and absurd incidents of the plot have little of the supernatural terror of Mozart's opera. Zampa is a famous pirate, who, after having dissipated his fortune and made Italy, generally speaking, too hot to hold him, has taken to the high seas in self-defence. In his early days he had seduced a girl named Alice Manfredi, who after his desertion found a home in the house of a Sicilian merchant named Lugano. There she died, and there Lugano caused a statue to be set up in her honour. When the story of the opera begins, Lugano is a prisoner in the hands of the redoubtable Zampa. The pirate himself comes to Sicily to obtain his prisoner's ransom, bringing directions to Lugano's daughter Camilla to pay him whatever he may ask. Zampa at once falls a victim to the beaux yeux of Camilla, and demands her hand as the price of her father's safety. Camilla loves Alfonso, a Sicilian officer, but is prepared to sacrifice herself to save her father. At the marriage feast, Zampa, recognising the statue of the betrayed Alice, jokingly puts his ring upon her finger, which immediately closes upon it. The opera ends by the statue claiming Zampa as her own, snatching him from the arms of Camilla, and descending with him into the abyss.

It would be in vain to look in Hérold's score for an echo of the passion and variety of Mozart, but much of the music of 'Zampa' is picturesque and effective. Hérold's tunes sound very conventional after Weber, but there is a good deal of skill in the way they are presented. His orchestration is of course closely modelled on that of his German prototype, and if it is impossible to say much for his originality, we can at any rate admire his taste in choosing a model.

'Le Pré aux Clercs' is more popular at the present moment than 'Zampa,' though it is far inferior in musical interest. If 'Zampa' showed the influence of Weber, 'Le Pré aux Clercs' is redolent of Rossini. The overture, with its hollow ring of gaiety, strikes the note of Italianism which echoes throughout the opera. The plot is full of intrigues and conspiracies, and is decidedly confusing. Mergy, a young Bernese gentleman, aspires to the hand of Isabelle, who is one of the Queen of Navarre's maids of honour. The Queen favours their love, but the King wishes Isabelle to marry Comminges, a favourite of his own. The young couple gain their point, and are married secretly in the chapel of the Pré aux Clercs, but only at the expense of as much plotting and as many disguises as would furnish the stock-in-trade of half-a-dozen detective romances.

French music, as has often been pointed out, owes much to foreign influence, but very few of the strangers to whom the doors of Parisian opera-houses were opened left a deeper impression upon the music of their adopted country than Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Giacomo Meyerbeer, to give him the name by which he is now best known, underwent the same influence as Hérold. As a youth he was intimate with Weber, and his first visit to Italy introduced him to Rossini, whose brilliant style he imitated successfully in a series of Italian works which are now completely forgotten. From Italy Meyerbeer came to Paris, and there identified himself with the French school so fully that he is now regarded with complete propriety as a French composer pure and simple. Meyerbeer's music is thoroughly eclectic in type. He was a careful student of contemporary music, and the various phases through which he passed during the different stages of his career left their impress upon his style. It says much for the power of his individuality that he was able to weld such different elements into something approaching an harmonious whole. Had he done more than he did, he would have been a genius; as it is, he remains a man of exceptional talent, whose influence on the history of modern music is still important, though his own compositions are now slightly superannuated. 'Robert le Diable,' the first work of his third or French period, was produced in 1831. The libretto, which, like those of all the composer's French operas, was by Eugène Scribe, is a strange tissue of absurdities, though from the merely scenic point of view it may be thought fairly effective. Robert, Duke of Normandy, the son of the Duchess Bertha by a fiend who donned the shape of man to prosecute his amour, arrives in Sicily to compete for the hand of the Princess Isabella, which is to be awarded as the prize at a magnificent tournament. Robert's daredevil gallantry and extravagance soon earn him the sobriquet of 'Le Diable,' and he puts the coping-stone to his folly by gambling away all his possessions at a single sitting, even to his horse and the armour on his back. Robert has an âme damnée in the shape of a knight named Bertram, to whose malign influence most of his crimes and follies are due. Bertram is in reality his demon-father, whose every effort is directed to making a thorough-paced villain of his son, so that he may have the pleasure of enjoying his society for all eternity. In strong contrast to the fiendish malevolence of Bertram stands the gentle figure of Alice, Robert's foster-sister, who has followed him from Normandy with a message from his dead mother. Isabella supplies Robert with a fresh horse and arms; nevertheless he is beguiled away from Palermo by some trickery of Bertram's, and fails to put in an appearance at the tournament. The only means, therefore, left to him of obtaining the hand of Isabella is to visit the tomb of his mother, and there to pluck a magic branch of cypress, which will enable him to defeat his rivals. The cypress grows in a deserted convent haunted by the spectres of profligate nuns, and there, amidst infernal orgies, Robert plucks the branch of power. By its aid he sends the guards of the Princess into a deep sleep, and is only prevented by her passionate entreaties from carrying her off by force. Yielding to her prayers, he breaks the branch, and his magic power at once deserts him. He seeks sanctuary from his enemies in the cathedral, and there the last and fiercest strife for the possession of his soul is waged between the powers of good and evil. On the one hand is Bertram, whose term of power on earth expires at midnight. He has now discovered himself as Robert's father, and produces an infernal compact of union which he entreats his son to sign. On the other is Alice, pleading and affectionate, bearing the last words of Robert's dead mother, warning him against the fiend who had seduced her. While Robert is hesitating between the two, midnight strikes, and Bertram sinks with thunder into the pit. The scene changes, and a glimpse is given of the interior of the cathedral, where the marriage of Robert and Isabella is being celebrated.

'Robert le Diable' was an immense success when first produced. The glitter and tinsel of the story suited Meyerbeer's showy style, and besides, even when the merely trivial and conventional had been put aside, there remains a fair proportion of the score which has claims to dramatic power. The triumph of 'Robert' militated against the success of 'Les Huguenots' (1836), which was at first rather coldly received. Before long, however, it rivalled the earlier work in popularity, and is now generally looked upon as Meyerbeer's masterpiece. The libretto certainly compares favourably with the fatuities of 'Robert le Diable.'

Marguerite de Valois, the beautiful Queen of Navarre, who is anxious to reconcile the bitterly hostile parties of Catholics and Huguenots, persuades the Comte de Saint Bris, a prominent Catholic, to allow his daughter Valentine to marry Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot noble. Valentine is already betrothed to the gallant and amorous Comte de Nevers, but she pays him a nocturnal visit in his own palace, and induces him to release her from her engagement. During her interview with Nevers she is perceived by Raoul, and recognised as a lady whom he lately rescued from insult and has loved passionately ever since. In his eyes there is only one possible construction to be put upon her presence in Nevers' palace, and he hastens to dismiss her from his mind. Immediately upon his decision comes a message from the Queen bidding him hasten to her palace in Touraine upon important affairs of state. When he arrives she unfolds her plan, and he, knowing Valentine only by sight, not by name, gladly consents. When, in the presence of the assembled nobles, he recognises in his destined bride the presumed mistress of Nevers, he casts her from him, and vows to prefer death to such intolerable disgrace.

The scene of the next act is in the Pré aux Clercs, in the outskirts of Paris. Valentine, who is to be married that night to Nevers, obtains leave to pass some hours in prayer in a chapel. While she is there she overhears the details of a plot devised by Saint Bris for the assassination of Raoul, in order to avenge the affront put upon himself and his daughter. Valentine contrives to warn Marcel, Raoul's old servant, of this, and he assembles his Huguenot comrades hard by, who rush in at the first clash of steel and join the combat. The fight is interrupted by the entrance of the Queen. When she finds out who are the principal combatants, she reproves them sharply and tells Raoul the real story of Valentine's visit to Nevers. The act ends with the marriage festivities, while Raoul is torn by an agony of love and remorse.

In the next act Raoul contrives to gain admittance to Nevers' house, and there has an interview with Valentine. They are interrupted by the entrance of Saint Bris and his followers, whereupon Valentine conceals Raoul behind the arras. From his place of concealment he hears Saint Bris unfold the plan of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, which is to be carried out that night. The conspirators swear a solemn oath to exterminate the Huguenots, and their daggers are consecrated by attendant priests. Nevers alone refuses to take part in the butchery. When they all have left, Raoul comes out of his hiding-place, and in spite of the prayers and protestations of Valentine, leaps from the window at the sound of the fatal tocsin, and hastens to join his friends. In the last act, which is rarely performed in England, Raoul first warns Henry of Navarre and the Huguenot nobles, assembled at the Hôtel de Sens, of the massacre, and then joins the mélée in the streets. Valentine has followed him, and after vainly endeavouring to make him don the white scarf which is worn that night by all Catholics, she throws in her lot with his, and dies in his arms, after they have been solemnly joined in wedlock by the wounded and dying Marcel.

'Les Huguenots' shows Meyerbeer at his best Even Wagner, his bitterest enemy, admitted the dramatic power of the great duet in the fourth act, and several other scenes are scarcely inferior to it in sustained inspiration. The opera is marred as a whole by Meyerbeer's invincible self-consciousness. He seldom had the courage to give his genius full play. He never lost sight of his audience, and wrote what he thought would be effective rather than what he knew was right. Thus his finest moments are marred by lapses from sincerity into the commonplace conventionality of the day. Yet the dignity and power of 'Les Huguenots' are undeniable, and it is unfortunate that its excessive length should prevent it from ever being heard in its entirety.

In 'Le Prophète' Meyerbeer chose a subject which, if less rich in dramatic possibility than that of 'Les Huguenots,' has a far deeper psychological interest. Unfortunately, Scribe, with all his cleverness, was quite the worst man in the world to deal with the story of John of Leyden. In the libretto which he constructed for Meyerbeer's benefit the psychological interest is conspicuous only by its absence, and the character of the young leader of the Anabaptists is degraded to the level of the merest puppet. John, an innkeeper of Leyden, loves Bertha, a village maiden who dwells near Dordrecht. Unfortunately, her liege lord, the Count of Oberthal, has designs upon the girl himself, and refuses his consent to the marriage. Bertha escapes from his clutches and flies to the protection of her lover, but Oberthal secures the person of Fidès, John's old mother, and by threats of putting her to death, compels him to give up Bertha. Wild with rage against the vice and lawlessness of the nobles, John joins the ranks of the Anabaptists, a revolutionary sect pledged to the destruction of the powers that be. Their leaders recognise him as a prophet promised by Heaven, and he is installed as their chief. The Anabaptists lay siege to Munster, which falls into their hands, and in the cathedral John is solemnly proclaimed the Son of God. During the ceremony he is recognised by Fidès, who, believing him to have been slain by the false prophet, has followed the army to Munster in hopes of revenge. She rushes forward to claim her son, but John pretends not to know her. To admit an earthly relationship would be to prejudice his position with the populace, and he compels her to confess that she is mistaken. The coronation ends with John's triumph, while the hapless Fidès is carried off to be immured in a dungeon. John visits her in her cell, and obtains her pardon by promising to renounce his deceitful splendour and to fly with her. Later he discovers that a plot against himself has been hatched by some of the Anabaptist leaders, and he destroys himself and them by blowing up the palace of Munster. Meyerbeer's music, fine as much of it is, suffers chiefly from the character of the libretto. The latter is merely a string of conventionally effective scenes, and the music could hardly fail to be disjointed and scrappy. Meyerbeer had little or no feeling for characterisation, so that the opportunities for really dramatic effect which lay in the character of John of Leyden have been almost entirely neglected. Once only, in the famous cantique 'Roi du Ciel,' did the composer catch an echo of the prophetic rapture which animated the youthful enthusiast. Meyerbeer's besetting sin, his constant search for the merely effective, is even more pronounced in 'Le Prophète' than in 'Les Huguenots.' The coronation scene has nothing of the large simplicity necessary for the proper manipulation of a mass of sound. The canvas is crowded with insignificant and confusing detail, and the general effect is finicking and invertebrate rather than solid and dignified.

Meyerbeer was constantly at work upon his last opera, 'L'Africaine,' from 1838 until 1864, and his death found him still engaged in retouching the score. It was produced in 1865. With a musician of Meyerbeer's known eclecticism, it might be supposed that a work of which the composition extended over so long a period would exhibit the strangest conglomeration of styles and influences. Curiously enough, 'L'Africaine' is the most consistent of Meyerbeer's works. This is probably due to the fact that in it the personal element is throughout outweighed by the picturesque, and the exotic fascination of the story goes far to cover its defects.

Vasco da Gama, the famous discoverer, is the betrothed lover of a maiden named Inez, the daughter of Don Diego, a Portuguese grandee. When the opera opens he is still at sea, and has not been heard of for years. Don Pedro, the President of the Council, takes advantage of his absence to press his own suit for the hand of Inez, and obtains the King's sanction to his marriage on the ground that Vasco must have been lost at sea. At this moment the long-lost hero returns, accompanied by two swarthy slaves, Selika and Nelusko, whom he has brought home from a distant isle in the Indian Ocean. He recounts the wonders of the place, and entreats the government to send out a pioneer expedition to win an empire across the sea. His suggestions are rejected, and he himself, through the machinations of Don Pedro, is cast into prison. There he is tended by Selika, who loves her gentle captor passionately, and has need of all her regal authority—for in the distant island she was a queen—to prevent the jealous Nelusko from slaying him in his sleep. Inez now comes to the prison to announce to Vasco that she has purchased his liberty at the price of giving her hand to Don Pedro. In the next act, Don Pedro, who has stolen a march on Vasco, is on his way to the African island, taking with him Inez and Selika. The steering of the vessel is entrusted to Nelusko. Vasco da Gama, who has fitted out a vessel at his own expense, overtakes Don Pedro in mid-ocean, and generously warns his rival of the treachery of Nelusko, who is steering the vessel upon the rocks of his native shore. Don Pedro's only reply is to order Vasco to be tied to the mast and shot, but before the sentence can be carried out the vessel strikes upon the rocks, and the aborigines swarm over the sides. Selika, once more a queen, saves the lives of Vasco and Inez from the angry natives. In the next act the nuptials of Selika and Vasco are on the point of being celebrated with great pomp, when the hero, who has throughout the opera wavered between the two women who love him, finally makes up his mind in favour of Inez. Selika thereupon magnanimously despatches them home in Vasco's ship, and poisons herself with the fragrance of the deadly manchineel tree. The characters of 'L'Africaine,' with the possible exception of Selika and Nelusko, are the merest shadows, but the music, though less popular as a rule than that of 'Les Huguenots,' or even 'Le Prophète,' is undoubtedly Meyerbeer's finest effort. In his old age Meyerbeer seems to have looked back to the days of his Italian period, and thus, though occasionally conventional in form, the melodies of 'L'Africaine' have a dignity and serenity which are rarely present in the scores of his French period. There is, too, a laudable absence of that ceaseless striving after effect which mars so much of Meyerbeer's best work.

Besides the great works already discussed, Meyerbeer wrote two works for the Opéra Comique, 'L'Étoile du Nord' and 'Le Pardon de Ploërmel.' Meyerbeer was far too clever a man to undertake anything he could not carry through successfully, and in these operas he caught the trick of French opéra comique very happily.

'L'Étoile du Nord' deals with the fortunes of Peter the Great, who, when the opera opens, is working as a shipwright at a dockyard in Finland. He wins the heart of Catherine, a Cossack maiden, who has taken up her quarters there as a kind of vivandière. Catherine is a girl of remarkable spirit, and after repulsing an incursion of Calmuck Tartars single-handed, goes off to the wars in the disguise of a recruit, in order to enable her brother to stay at home and marry Prascovia, the daughter of the innkeeper. The next act takes place in the Russian camp. Catherine, whose soldiering has turned out a great success, is told off to act as sentry outside the tent occupied by two distinguished officers who have just arrived. To her amazement she recognises them as Peter and his friend Danilowitz, a former pastry-cook, now raised by the Czar to the rank of General. Catherine's surprise and pleasure turn to indignation when she sees her lover consoling himself for her absence with the charms of a couple of pretty vivandières, and when her senior officer reprimands her for eavesdropping, she bestows upon him a sound box on the ears. For this misdemeanour she is condemned to be shot, but she contrives to make her escape, first sending a letter to Peter blaming him for his inconstancy, and putting in his hand the details of a conspiracy against his person which she has been fortunate enough to discover. Peter's anguish at the loss of his loved one is accentuated by the nobility of her conduct. At first it is supposed that Catherine is dead, but by the exertions of Danilowitz she is at length discovered, though in a lamentable plight, for her troubles have cost her her reason. She is restored to sanity by the simple method of reconstructing the scene of the Finnish dockyard in which she first made Peter's acquaintance, and peopling it with the familiar forms of the workmen. Among the latter are Peter and Danilowitz, in their old dresses of labourer and pastry-cook, and, to crown all, two flutes are produced upon which Peter and her brother play a tune known to her from childhood. The last charm proves effectual, and all ends happily.

The lighter parts of 'L'Étoile du Nord' are delightfully arch and vivacious, and much of the concerted music is gay and brilliant. The weak point of the opera is to be found in the tendency from which Meyerbeer was never safe, to drop into mere pretentiousness when he meant to be most impressive. In some of the choruses in the camp scene there is a great pretence at elaboration, with very scanty results, and the closing scena, which is foolish and wearisome, is an unfortunate concession to the vanity of the prima donna. But on the whole 'L'Étoile du Nord' is one of Meyerbeer's most attractive works, besides being an extraordinary example of his inexhaustible versatility.

'Le Pardon de Ploërmel,' known in Italy and England as 'Dinorah,' shows Meyerbeer in a pastoral and idyllic vein. The story is extremely silly in itself, and most of the incidents take place before the curtain rises. The overture is a long piece of programme music, which is supposed to depict the bridal procession of Hoel and Dinorah, two Breton peasants, to the church where they are to be married. Suddenly a thunderstorm breaks over their heads and disperses the procession, while a flash of lightning reduces Dinorah's homestead to ashes. Hoel, in despair at the ruin of his hopes, betakes himself to the village sorcerer, who promises to tell him the secret of the hidden treasure of the local gnomes or Korriganes if he will undergo a year of trial in a remote part of the country. On hearing that Hoel has abandoned her Dinorah becomes insane, and spends her time in roving through the woods with her pet goat in search of her lover. The overture is a picturesque piece of writing enough, though much of it would be entirely meaningless without its programme. When the opera opens, Hoel has returned from his probation in possession of the important secret. His first care is to find some one to do the dirty work of finding the treasure, for the oracle has declared that the first man who shall lay hands upon it will die. His choice falls upon Corentin, a country lout, whom he persuades to accompany him to the gorge where the treasure lies hidden. Corentin is not so stupid as he seems, and, suspecting something underhand, he persuades the mad Dinorah to go down into the ravine in his place. Dinorah consents, but while she is crossing a rustic bridge, preparatory to the descent, it is struck by lightning, and she tumbles into the abyss. She is saved by Hoel in some inexplicable way, and, still more inexplicably, regains her reason. The music is bright and tuneful, and the reaper's and hunter's songs (which are introduced for no apparent reason) are delightful; but the libretto is so impossibly foolish that the opera has fallen into disrepute, although the brilliant music of the heroine should make it a favourite rôle with competent singers.

Meyerbeer was extravagantly praised during his lifetime; he is now as bitterly decried. The truth seems to lie, as usual, between the two extremes. He was an unusually clever man, with a strong instinct for the theatre. He took immense pains with his operas, often rewriting the entire score; but his efforts were directed less towards ideal perfection than to what would be most effective, so that there is a hollowness and a superficiality about his best work which we cannot ignore, even while we admit the ingenuity of the means employed. His influence upon modern opera has been extensive. He was the real founder of the school of melodramatic opera which is now so popular. Violent contrasts with him do duty for the subtle characterisation of the older masters. His heroes rant and storm, and his heroines shriek and rave, but of real feeling, and even of real expression, there is little in his scores.

The career of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was in striking contrast to that Meyerbeer. While Meyerbeer was earning the plaudits of crowded theatres throughout the length and breadth of Europe, Berlioz sat alone, brooding over the vast conceptions to which it taxed even his gigantic genius to give musical shape. Even now the balance has scarcely been restored. Though Meyerbeer's popularity is on the wane, the operas of Berlioz are still known for the most part only to students. Before the Berlioz cycle at Carlsruhe in 1893, 'La Prise de Troie' had never been performed on any stage, and though the French master's symphonic works now enjoy considerable popularity, his dramatic works are still looked at askance by managers. There is a reason for this other than the hardness of our hearts. Berlioz was essentially a symphonic writer. He had little patience with the conventions of the stage, and his attempts to blend the dramatic and symphonic elements, as in 'Les Troyens,' can scarcely be termed a success. Yet much may be pardoned for the sake of the noble music which lies enshrined in his works. 'Benvenuto Cellini' and 'Béatrice et Bénédict,' which were thought too advanced for the taste of their day, are now perhaps a trifle old-fashioned for our times. The first is a picturesque story of Rome in Carnival time. The interest centres in the casting of the sculptor's mighty Perseus, which wins him the hand of the fair Teresa. The Carnival scenes are gay and brilliant, but the form of the work belongs to a bygone age, and it is scarcely possible that a revival of it would meet with wide acceptance. 'Béatrice et Bénédict' is a graceful setting of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado about Nothing.' It is a work of the utmost delicacy and refinement. Though humour is not absent from the score, the prevailing impression is one of romantic charm, passing even to melancholy. Very different is the double drama 'Les Troyens.' Here Berlioz drew his inspiration directly from Gluck, and the result is a work of large simplicity and austere grandeur, which it is not too much to hope will some day take its place in the world's repertory side by side with the masterpieces of Wagner. The first part, 'La Prise de Troie,' describes the manner in which the city of Priam fell into the hands of the Greeks. The drama is dominated by the form of the sad virgin Cassandra. In vain she warns her people of their doom. They persist in dragging up the wooden horse from the sea-beach, where it was left by the Greeks. The climax of the last act is terrific. Æneas, warned by the ghost of Hector of the approaching doom of Troy, escapes; but the rest of the Trojans fall victims to the swords of the Greeks in a scene of indescribable carnage and terror. Cassandra and the Trojan women, driven to take shelter in the temple of Cybele, slay themselves rather than fall into the hands of their captors. 'La Prise de Troie' is perhaps epic rather than dramatic, but as a whole it leaves an impression of severe and spacious grandeur, which can only be paralleled in the finest inspirations of Gluck. In the second division of the work, 'Les Troyens à Carthage,' human interest is paramount. Berlioz was an enthusiastic student of Virgil, and he follows the tragic tale of the Æneid closely. The appearance of Æneas at Carthage, the love of Dido, the summons of Mercury, Æneas' departure and the passion and death of Dido, are depicted in a series of scenes of such picturesqueness and power, such languor and pathos, as surely cannot be matched outside the finest pages of Wagner. A time will certainly come when this great work, informed throughout with a passionate yearning for the loftiest ideal of art, will receive the recognition which is its due. Of late indeed there have been signs of a revival of interest in Berlioz's mighty drama, and the recent performances of 'Les Troyens' in Paris and Brussels have opened the eyes of many musicians to its manifold beauties. Some years ago the experiment was made of adapting Berlioz's cantata, 'La Damnation de Faust,' for stage purposes. The work is of course hopelessly undramatic, but the beauty of the music and the opportunities that it affords for elaborate spectacular effects have combined to win the work a certain measure of success, especially in Italy where Gounod's 'Faust' has never won the popularity that it enjoys north of the Alps. 'La Damnation de Faust' is hardly more than a string of incidents, with only the most shadowy semblance of connection, but several of the scenes are effective enough on the stage, notably that in Faust's study with the march of Hungarian warriors in the distance, the exquisite dance of sylphs and the ride to the abyss. Nevertheless, when the success of curiosity is over, the work is hardly likely to retain its place in the repertory.

Unperformed as he was, Berlioz of course could not be expected to found a school; but Meyerbeer's success soon raised him up a host of imitators. Halévy (1799-1862) drew his inspiration in part from Hérold and Weber; but 'La Juive,' the work by which he is best known, owes much to Meyerbeer, whose 'Robert le Diable' had taken the world of music in Paris by storm a few years before the production of Halévy's work. In turn Halévy reacted upon Meyerbeer. Many passages in 'Les Huguenots' reflect the sober dignity of 'La Juive'; indeed, it is too often forgotten that the production of Halévy's opera preceded its more famous contemporary by a full year.

The scene of 'La Juive' is laid in Constance, in the fifteenth century. Leopold, a Prince of the Empire, in the disguise of a young Israelite, has won the heart of Rachel, the daughter of the rich Jew Eleazar. When the latter discovers the true nationality of his prospective son-in-law he forbids him his house, but Rachel consents, like another Jessica, to fly with her lover. Later she discovers that Leopold is a Prince, and betrothed to the Princess Eudoxia. Her jealousy breaks forth, and she accuses him of having seduced her—a crime which in those days was punishable by death. Rachel, Leopold, and Eleazar are all thrown into prison. There Rachel relents, and retracts her accusation. Leopold is accordingly released, but the Jew and his daughter are condemned to be immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil. There is a rather meaningless underplot which results in a confession made by Eleazar on the scaffold, that Rachel is not a Jewess at all, but the daughter of a Cardinal who has taken a friendly interest in her fortunes throughout the drama.

Halévy's music is characterised by dignity and sobriety, but it rarely rises to passion. He represents to a certain extent a reaction towards the pre-Rossinian school of opera, but, to be frank, most of 'La Juive' is exceedingly long-winded and dull. Besides his serious operas, Halévy wrote works of a lighter cast, which enjoyed popularity in their time. But the prince of opéra comique at this time was Auber (1782-1871). Auber began his career as a musician comparatively late in life, but en revanche age seemed powerless to check his unflagging industry. His last work, 'Le Rêve d'Amour,' was produced in the composer's eighty-eighth year. Auber is a superficial Rossini. He borrowed from the Italian master his wit and gaiety; he could not catch an echo of his tenderness and passion. Auber has never been so popular in England as abroad, and the only two works of his which are now performed in this country—'Fra Diavolo' and 'Masaniello'—represent him, curiously enough, at his best and worst respectively. The scene of 'Fra Diavolo' is laid at a village inn in Italy. Lord and Lady Rocburg, the conventional travelling English couple, arrive in great perturbation, been stopped by brigands and plundered of some of their property. At the inn they fall in with a distinguished personage calling himself the Marquis di San Marco, who is none other than the famous brigand chief Fra Diavolo. He makes violent love to the silly Englishwoman, and soon obtains her confidence. Meanwhile Lorenzo, the captain of a body of carabineers, who loves the innkeeper's daughter Zerlina, has hurried off after the brigands. He comes up with them and kills twenty, besides getting back Lady Rocburg's stolen jewels. Fra Diavolo is furious at the loss of his comrades, and vows vengeance on Lorenzo. That night he conceals himself in Zerlina's room, and, when all is still, admits two of his followers into the house. Their nocturnal schemes are frustrated by the return of Lorenzo and his soldiers, who have been out in search of the brigand chief. Fra Diavolo is discovered, but pretends that Zerlina has given him an assignation. Lorenzo is furious at this accusation, and challenges the brigand to a duel. Before this comes off, however, Fra Diavolo's identity is discovered, and he is captured by Lorenzo and his band. 'Fra Diavolo' shows Auber in his happiest vein. The music is gay and tuneful, without dropping into commonplace; the rhythms are brilliant and varied, and the orchestration neat and appropriate.

'La Muette de Portici,' which is known in the Italian version as 'Masaniello,' was written for the Grand Opéra. Here Auber vainly endeavoured to suit his style to its more august surroundings. The result is entirely unsatisfactory; the more serious parts of the work are pretentious and dull, and the pretty little tunes, which the composer could not keep out of his head, sound absurdly out of place in a serious drama. Fenella, the dumb girl of Portici, has been seduced by Alfonso, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. She escapes from the confinement to which she had been subjected, and denounces him on the day of his marriage to the Spanish princess Elvira. Masaniello, her brother, maddened by her wrongs, stirs up a revolt among the people, and overturns the Spanish rule. He contrives to save the lives of Elvira and Alfonso, but this generous act costs him his life, and in despair Fenella leaps into the stream of boiling lava from an eruption of Vesuvius. The part of Fenella gives an opportunity of distinction to a clever pantomimist, and has been associated with the names of many famous dancers; but the music of the opera throughout is one of the least favourable examples of Auber's skill. Auber had many imitators, among whom perhaps the most successful was Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), whose 'Châlet' and 'Postillon de Longjumeau' are still occasionally performed. They reproduce the style of Auber with tolerable fidelity, but have no value as original work. The only other composer of this period who deserves to be mentioned is Félicien David (1810-1876). His 'Lalla Rookh,' a setting of Moore's story, though vastly inferior to his symphonic poem 'Le Désert,' is a work of distinction and charm. To David belongs the credit of opening the eyes of musicians to the possibilities of Oriental colour. Operas upon Eastern subjects have never been very popular in England, but in France many of them have been successful. 'Le Désert' founded the school, of which 'Les Pêcheurs de Perles,' 'Djamileh,' 'Le Roi de Lahore,' and 'Lakmé' are well-known representatives. The career of the other musicians—many in number—of this facile and thoughtless epoch may be summed up in a few words. They were one and all imitators; Clapisson (1808-1866), Grisar (1808-1869), and Maillart (1817-1871), clung to the skirts of Auber; Niedermeyer (1802-1861), threw in his lot with Halévy. So far as they succeeded in reproducing the external and superficial features of the music of their prototypes, they enjoyed a brief day of popularity. But with the first change of public taste they lapsed into oblivion, and their works nowadays sound far more old-fashioned than those of the generation which preceded them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

© 2008 Daniel McAdam.  All rights reserved.  This information may not be copied, reprinted, or used without express written permission.