by Camille Saint-Saens
Who would have predicted that the day would come when it would be necessary to come to the defense of the author of Les Huguenots and Le Prophete, of the man who at one time dominated every stage in Europe by a leadership which was so extraordinary that it looked as though it would never end? I could cite many works in which all the composers of the past are praised without qualification, and Meyerbeer, alone, is accused of numerous faults. However, others have faults, too, and, as I have said elsewhere, but it will stand repeating, it is not the absence of defects but the presence of merits which makes works and men great. It is not always well to be without blemish. A too regular face or too pure a voice lacks expression. If there is no such thing as perfection in this world, it is doubtless because it is not needed.
As I do not belong to that biased school which pretends to see Peter entirely white and Paul utterly black, I do not try to make myself think that the author of Les Huguenots had no faults.
The most serious, but the most excusable, is his contempt for prosody and his indifference to the verse entrusted to him. This fault is excusable for the French school of the time, heedless of tradition, set him a bad example. Rossini was, like Meyerbeer, a foreigner, but he was not affected in the same way. He even got fine effects through the combination of musical and textual rhythm. An instance of this is seen in the famous phrase in Guillaume Tell:
Ces jours qu’ils ont ose proscrire,
Je ne les ai pas defendus.
Mon pere, tu m’as du maudire!
If Rossini had not retired at an age when others are just beginning their careers and had given us two or three more works, his illustrious example would have restored the old principles on which French opera had been constructed from the time of Lulli. On the contrary, Auber carried with him an entire generation captivated by Italian music. He even went so far as to put French words into Italian rhythm. The famous duet Amour sacre de la Patrie is versified as if the text were Amore sacro della patria. This is seen only in reading it, for it is never sung as it is written.
Meyerbeer was, then, excusable to a certain extent, but he abused all indulgence in such matters. In order to preserve intact his musical forms—even in recitatives, which are, as a matter of fact, only declamation set to music—he accented the weak syllables and vice versa; he added words and made unnecessarily false verse, and transformed bad verse into worse prose. He might have avoided all these literary abominations without any harm to the effect by a slight modification of the music. The verses given to musicians were often very bad, for that was the fashion. The versifier thought he had done his duty by his collaborator by giving him verses like this:
Triomphe que j’aime!
Ta frayeur extreme
Va malgre toi-meme
Te livrer a moi!
But when Scribe abandoned his reed-pipes and essayed the lyre, he gave Meyerbeer this,
J’ai voulu les punir ...Tu les as surpasses!
And Meyerbeer made it,
J’ai voulu les punir ... Et tu les as surpasses!
which was hardly encouraging.
Meyerbeer had other manias as well. Perhaps the most notable was to give to the voice musical schemes which belong by rights to the instruments.
So in the first act of Le Prophete, after the chorus sings, Veille sur nous, instead of stopping to breathe and prepare for the following phrase, he makes it repeat abruptly, Sur nous! Sur nous! in unison with the orchestral notes which are, to say the least, a ritornello.
Again, in the great cathedral scene, instead of letting the orchestra bring out through the voices the musical expression of Fides sobs: Et toi, tu ne me connais pas, he puts both the instruments and the voices in the same time and on words which do not harmonize with the music at all.
I need not speak of his immoderate love for the bassoon, an admirable instrument, but one which it is hardly prudent to abuse.
But so far we have spoken only of trifles. Meyerbeer’s music, as a witty woman once remarked to me, is like stage scenery—it should not be scrutinized too closely. It would be hard to find a better characterization. Meyerbeer belonged to the theater and sought above everything else theatrical effects. But that does not mean that he was indifferent to details. He was a wealthy man and he used to indemnify the theaters for the extra expense he occasioned them. He multiplied rehearsals by trying different versions with the orchestra so as to choose between them. He did not cast his work in bronze, as so many do, and present it to the public ne varietur. He was continually feeling his way, recasting, and seeking the better which very often was the enemy of good. As the result of his continual researches he too frequently turned good ideas into inferior ones. Note for example, in L’Etoile du Nord, the passage, Enfants de l’Ukraine fils du desert. The opening passage is lofty, determined and picturesque, but it ends most disagreeably.
He always lived alone with no fixed place of abode. He was at Spa in the summer and on the Mediterranean in the winter; in large cities only as business drew him. He had no financial worries and he lived only to continue his Penelope-like work, which showed a great love of perfection, although he did not find the best way of attaining it. They have tried to place this conscientious artist in the list of seekers of success, but such men are not ordinarily accustomed to work like this.
Since I have used the word artist, it is proper to stop for a moment. Unlike Gluck and Berlioz, who were greater artists than musicians, Meyerbeer was more a musician than an artist. As a result, he often used the most refined and learned means to achieve a very ordinary artistic result. But there is no reason why he should be brought to task for results which they do not even remark in the works of so many others.
Meyerbeer was the undisputed leader in the operatic world when Robert Schumann struck the first blow at his supremacy. Schumann was ignorant of the stage, although he had made one unfortunate venture there. He did not appreciate that there is more than one way to practise the art of music. But he attacked Meyerbeer, violently, for his bad taste and Italian tendencies, entirely forgetting that when Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber did work for the stage they were strongly drawn towards Italian art. Later, the Wagnerians wanted to oust Meyerbeer from the stage and make a place for themselves, and they got credit for some of Schumann’s harsh criticisms,--this, too, despite the fact that at the beginning of the skirmish Schumann and the Wagnerians got along about as well as Ingres and Delacroix and their schools. But they united against the common enemy and the French critics followed. The critics entirely neglected Berlioz’s opinion, for, after opposing Meyerbeer for a long time, he admitted him among the gods and in his Traite d’Instrumentation awarded him the crown of immortality.
Parenthetically, if there is a surprising page in the history of music it is the persistent affectation of classing Berlioz and Wagner together. They had nothing in common save their great love of art and their distrust of established forms. Berlioz abhorred enharmonic modulations, dissonances resolved indefinitely one after another, continuous melody and all current practices of futuristic music. He carried this so far that he claimed that he understood nothing in the prelude to Tristan, which was certainly a sincere claim since, almost simultaneously, he hailed the overture of Lohengrin, which is conceived in an entirely different manner, as a masterpiece. He did not admit that the voice should be sacrificed and relegated to the rank of a simple unit of the orchestra. Wagner, for his part, showed at his best an elegance and artistry of pen which may be searched for in vain in Berlioz’s work. Berlioz opened to the orchestra the doors of a new world. Wagner hurled himself into this unknown country and found numerous lands to till there. But what dissimilarities there are in the styles of the two men! In their methods of treating the orchestra and the voices, in their musical architectonics, and in their conception of opera!
In spite of the great worth of Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz shone brightest in the concert hall; Wagner is primarily a man of the theater. Berlioz showed clearly in Les Troyens his intention of approaching Gluck, while Wagner freely avowed his indebtedness to Weber, and particularly to the score of Euryanthe. He might have added that he owed something to Marschner, but he never spoke of that.
The more we study the works of these two men of genius, the more we are impressed by the tremendous difference between them. Their resemblance is simply one of those imaginary things which the critics too often mistake for a reality. The critics once found local color in Rossini’s Semiramide!
Hans de Buelow once said to me in the course of a conversation, “After all Meyerbeer was a man of genius.”
If we fail to recognize Meyerbeer’s genius, we are not only unjust but also ungrateful. In every sense, in his conception of opera, in his treatment of orchestration, in his handling of choruses, even in stage setting, he gave us new principles by which our modern works have profited to a large extent.
Theophile Gautier was no musician, but he had a fine taste in music and he judged Meyerbeer as follows:
“In addition to eminent musical talents, Meyerbeer had a highly developed instinct for the stage. He goes to the heart of a situation, follows closely the meanings of the words, and observes both the historical and local color of his subject.... Few composers have understood opera so well.”
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The success of the Italian school appeared to have utterly ruined this understanding and care for local and historical color. Rossini in the last act of Otello and in Guillaume Tell began its renaissance with a boldness for which he deserves credit, but it was left to Meyerbeer to restore it to its former glory.
It is impossible to deny his individuality. The amalgamation of his Germanic tendencies with his Italian education and his French preferences formed an ore of new brilliancy and new depth of tone. His style resembled none other. Fetis, his great admirer and friend and the famous director of the Conservatoire at Brussels, insisted, and with reason, on this distinction. His style was characterized by the importance of the rhythmic element. His ballet music owes much of its excellence to the picturesque variety of the rhythms.
Instead of the long involved overture he gave us the short distinctive prelude which has been so successful. The preludes of Robert and Les Huguenots were followed by the preludes of Lohengrin, Faust, Tristan, Romeo, La Traviata, Aida, and many others which are less famous. Verdi in his last two works and Richard Strauss in Salome went even farther and suppressed the prelude—a none too agreeable surprise. It is like a dinner without soup.
Meyerbeer gave us a foretaste of the famous leit-motif. We find it in Robert in the theme of the ballad, which the orchestra plays again while Bertram goes towards the back of the stage. This should indicate to the listener his satanic character. We find it in the Luther chant in Les Huguenots and also in the dream of Le Prophete during Jean’s recitative. Here the orchestra with its modulated tone predicts the future splendor of the cathedral scene, while a lute plays low notes, embellished by a delicate weaving in of the violins, and produces a remarkable and unprecedented effect. He introduced on the stage the ensembles of wind instruments (I do not mean the brass) which are so frequent in Mozart’s great concertos. An illustration of this is the entrance of Alice in the second act of Robert. An echo of this is found in Elsa’s entrance in the second act of Lohengrin. Another illustration is the entrance of Berthe and Fides in the beginning of the Le Prophete. In this case the author indicated a pantomime. This is never played and so this pretty bit loses all its significance.
Meyerbeer ventured to use combinations in harmony which were considered rash at that time. They pretend that the sensitiveness of the ear has been developed since then, but in reality it has been dulled by having to undergo the most violent discords.
The beautiful “progression” of the exorcism in the fourth act of Le Prophete was not accepted without some difficulty. I can still see Gounod seated at a piano singing the debated passage and trying to convince a group of recalcitrant listeners of its beauty.
Meyerbeer developed the role of the English horn, which up to that time had been used only rarely and timidly, and he also introduced the bass clarinet into the orchestra. But the two instruments, as he used them, still appeared somewhat unusual. They were objects of luxury, strangers of distinction which one saluted respectfully and which played no great part. Under Wagner’s management they became a definite part of the household and, as we know, brought in a wealth of coloring.
It is an open question whether it was Meyerbeer or Scribe who planned the amazing stage setting in the cathedral scene in Le Prophete. It must have been Meyerbeer, for Scribe was not temperamentally a revolutionist, and this scene was really revolutionary. The brilliant procession with its crowd of performers which goes across the stage through the nave into the choir, constantly keeping its distance from the audience, is an impressive, realistic and beautiful scene. But directors who go to great expense for the costumes cannot understand why the procession should file anywhere except before the footlights as near the audience as possible, and it is extremely difficult to get any other method of procedure.
Furthermore, the amusing idea of the skating ballet was due to Meyerbeer. At the time there was an amusing fellow in Paris who had invented roller skates and who used to practise his favorite sport on fine evenings on the large concrete surfaces of the Place de la Concorde. Meyerbeer saw him and got the idea of the famous ballet. In the early days of the opera it certainly was charming to see the skaters come on accompanied by a pretty chorus and a rhythm from the violins regulated by that of the dancers. But the performance began at seven and ended at midnight. Now they begin at eight and to gain the hour they had to accelerate the pace. So the chorus in question was sacrificed. That was bad for Les Huguenots. The author tried to make a good deal out of the last act with its beautiful choruses in the church—a development of the Luther chant—and the terror of the approaching massacre. But this act has been cut, mutilated and made generally unrecognizable. They even go so far in some of the foreign houses as to suppress it entirely.
I once saw the last act in all its integrity and with six harps accompanying the famous trio. We shall never see the six harps again, for Garnier, instead of reproducing exactly the placing of the orchestra in the old Opera, managed so well in the new one that they are unable to put in the six harps of old or the four drums with which Meyerbeer got such surprising effects in Robert and Le Prophete. I believe, however, that recent improvements have averted this disaster in a certain measure, and that there is now a place for the drums. But we shall never hear the six harps again.
We must say something of the genesis of Meyerbeer’s works, for in many instances this was curious and few people know about it.
We might like to see works spring from the author’s brain as complete as Minerva was when she sprang from Jove’s, but that is infrequently the case. When we study the long series of operas which Gluck wrote, we are surprised to meet some things which we recognize as having seen before in the masterpieces which immortalize his name. And often the music is adapted to entirely different situations in the changed form. The words of a follower become the awesome prophecy of a high priest. The trio in Orphee with its tender love and expressions of perfect happiness fairly trembles with accents of sorrow. The music had been written for an entirely different situation which justified them. Massenet has told us that he borrowed right and left from his unpublished score, La Coupe du Roi de Thule. That is what Gluck did with his Elena e Paride which had little success. I may as well confess that one of the ballets in Henry VIII came from the finale of an opera-comique in one act. This work was finished and ready to go to rehearsal when the whole thing was stopped because I had the audacity to assert to Nestor Roqueplan, the director of Favart Hall, that Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro was a masterpiece.
Meyerbeer, even more than anyone, tried not to lose his ideas and the study of their transformation is extremely interesting. One day Nuitter, the archivist at the Opera, learned of an important sale of manuscripts in Berlin. He attended the sale and brought back a lot of Meyerbeer’s rough drafts which included studies for a Faust that the author never finished. These fragments give no idea what the piece would have been. We see Faust and Mephistopheles walking in Hell. They come to the Tree of Human Knowledge on the banks of the Styx and Faust picks the fruit. From this detail it is easy to imagine that the libretto is bizarre. The authorship of this amazing libretto is unknown, but it is not strange that Meyerbeer soon abandoned it. From this still-born Faust, Scribe, at the request of the author, constructed Robert le Diable. An aria sung by Faust on the banks of the Styx becomes the Valse Infernale.
The necessity of utilizing pre-existing fragments explains some of the incoherence of this incomprehensible piece. It also explains the creation of Bertram, half man, half devil, who was invented as a substitute for Mephistopheles. The fruit of the Tree of Human Knowledge became the Rameau Veneree in the third act, and the beautiful religious scene in the fifth act, which has no relation to the action, is a transposition of the Easter scene.
So Scribe should not be blamed for making a poor piece when he had so many difficulties to contend with. He must have lost his head a little for Robert’s mother was called Berthe in the first act and Rosalie in the third. However, the answer might be that she changed her name when she became religious.
Later, Scribe was put to another no less difficult test with L’Etoile du Nord. When Meyerbeer was the conductor at the Berlin Opera, he wrote on command Le Camp de Silesie with Frederick the Great as the hero and Jenny Lind as the musical star. As we know, Frederick was a musician, for he both composed music and played the flute, while Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, was a great singer. A contest between the nightingale and the flute was sure to follow or theatrical instinct is a vain phrase. But in the piece Scribe created, Peter the Great took Frederick the Great’s place and to give a motive for the grace notes in the last act it was necessary for the terrible Tsar, a half savage barbarian, to learn to play the flute.
It is not worth while telling how the Tsar took lessons on the flute from a young pastry cook who came on the stage with a basket of cakes on his head; how the cook later became a lord, and many other details of this absurd play. It is permitted to be absurd on the stage, if it is done so that the absurdity is forgotten. But in this instance it was impossible to forget the absurdities. The extravagance of the libretto led the musician into many unfortunate things. This extremely interesting score is very uneven, but there are a thousand details worth the attention of the professional musician. Beauty even appears in the score at moments, and there are charming and picturesque bits, as well as puerilities and shocking vulgarities.
Public curiosity was aroused for a long time by clever advance notices and had reached a high pitch when L’Etoile du Nord appeared. The work was carried by the exceptional talents of Bataille and Caroline Duprez and was enormously successful at the start, but this success has grown steadily less. Faure and Madame Patti gave some fine performances in London. We shall probably never see their equal again, and it is not desirable that we should either from the standpoint of art or of the author.
Les Huguenots was not an opera pieced together out of others, but it did not reach the public as the author wrote it. At the beginning of the first act there was a game of cup and ball on which the author had set his heart. But the balls had to strike at the exact moment indicated in the score and the players never succeeded in accomplishing that. The passage had to be suppressed but it is preserved in the library at the Opera. They also had to suppress the part of Catherine de Medici who should preside at the conference where the massacre of St. Bartholomew was planned. Her part was merged with that of St. Pris. They also suppressed the first scene in the last act, where Raoul, disheveled and covered with blood, interrupted the ball and upset the merriment by announcing the massacre to the astonished dancers.
But it is a question whether we should believe the legend that the great duet, the climax of the whole work, was improvised during the rehearsals at the request of Norritt and Madame Falcon. It is hard to believe that. The work, as is well known, was taken from Merimee’s Chronique du regne de Charles IX. This scene is in the romance and it is almost impossible that Meyerbeer had no idea of putting it into his opera. More probably the people at the theatre wanted the act to end with the blessing of the daggers, and the author with his duet in his portfolio only had to take it out to satisfy his interpreters. A beautiful scene like this with its sweep and pleasing innovation is not written hastily. This duet should be heard when the author’s intentions and the nuances which make a part of the idea are respected and not replaced by inventions in bad taste which they dare to call traditions. The real traditions have been lost and this admirable scene has lost its beauty.
The manner in which the duet ends has not been noted sufficiently. Raoul’s phrase, God guard our days. God of our refuge! remains in suspense and the orchestra brings it to an end, the first example of a practice used frequently in modern works.
We do not know how Meyerbeer got his idea of putting the schismatic John Huss on the stage under the name of John of Leyden. Whether this idea was original with him or was suggested by Scribe, who made a fantastic person out of John, we do not know. We only know that the role of the prophet’s mother was originally intended for Madame Stoltz, but she had left the Opera. Meyerbeer heard Madame Pauline Viardot at Vienna and found in her his ideal, so he created the redoubtable role of Fides for her. The part of Jean was given to the tenor Roger, the star of the Opera-Comique, and he played and sang it well. Levasseur, the Marcel of Les Huguenots and the Bertram of Robert, played the part of Zacharie.
Le Prophete was enormously successful in spite of the then powerful censer-bearers of the Italian school. We now see its defects rather than its merits. Meyerbeer is criticised for not putting into practice theories he did not know and no account is taken of his fearlessness, which was great for that period. No one else could have drawn the cathedral scene with such breadth of stroke and extraordinary brilliancy. The paraphrase of Domine salvum fac regem reveals great ingenuity. His method of treating the organ is wonderful, and his idea of the ritournello Sur le Jeu de hautbois is charming. This precedes and introduces the children’s chorus, and is constructed on a novel theme which is developed brilliantly by the choruses, the orchestra and the organ combined. The repetition of the Domine Salvum at the end of the scene, which bursts forth abruptly in a different key, is full of color and character.
The story of Le Pardon de Ploermel is interesting. It was first called Dinorah, a name which Meyerbeer picked up abroad. But Meyerbeer liked to change the titles of his operas several times in the course of the rehearsals in order to keep public curiosity at fever heat. He had the notion of writing an opera-comique in one act, and he asked his favorite collaborators, Jules Barbier and Michael Carre, for a libretto. They produced Dinorah in three scenes and with but three characters. The music was written promptly and was given to Perrin, the famous director, whose unfortunate influence soon made itself felt. A director’s first idea at that time was to demand changes in the piece given him. “A single act by you, Master? Is that permissible? What can we put on after that? A new work by Meyerbeer should take up the entire evening.” That was the way the insidious director talked, and there was all the more chance of his being listened to as the author was possessed by a mania for retouching and making changes. So Meyerbeer took the score to the Mediterranean where he spent the winter. The next spring he brought back the work developed into three acts with choruses and minor characters. Besides these additions he had written the words which Barbier and Carre should have done.
The rehearsals were quite tedious. Meyerbeer wanted Faure and Madame Carvalho in the leading roles but one was at the Opera-Comique and the other at her own house, the Theatre-Lyrique. The work went back and forth from the Place Favart to the Place du Chatelet. But the author’s hesitancy was at bottom only a pretext. What he wanted was to secure a postponement of Limnander’s opera Les Blancs et les Bleus. The action of this work and of Dinorah, as well, took place in Brittany. In the hope of being Meyerbeer’s choice, both theatres turned poor Limnander away. Finally, Dinorah fell to the Opera-Comique. After long hard work, which the author demanded, Madame Cabel and MM. Faure and Sainte-Foix gave a perfect performance.
There was a good deal of criticism of having the hunter, the reaper, and the shepherd sing a prayer together at the beginning of the third act. This was not considered theatrical; to-day that is a virtue.
There was a good deal of talk about L’Africanne, which had been looked for for a long time and which seemed to be almost legendary and mysterious; it still is for that matter. The subject of the opera was unknown. All that was known was that the author was trying to find an interpreter and could get none to his liking.
Then Marie Cruvelli, a German singer with an Italian training, appeared. With her beauty and prodigious voice she shone like a meteor in the theatrical firmament. Meyerbeer found his Africanne realized in her and at his request she was engaged at the Opera. Her engagement was made the occasion for a brilliant revival of Les Huguenots and Meyerbeer wrote new ballet music for it. To-day we have no idea of what Les Huguenots was then. Then the author went back to his Africanne and went to work again. He used to go to see the brilliant singer about it nearly every day, when she suddenly announced that she was going to leave the stage to become the Comtesse Vigier! Meyerbeer was discouraged and he threw his unfinished manuscript into a drawer where it stayed until Marie Sass had so developed her voice and talent that he made up his mind to entrust the role of Selika to her. He wanted Faure for the role of Nelusko and he was already at the Opera, so he had the management engage Naudin, the Italian tenor, as well.
But Scribe had died during the long period which had elapsed since the marriage of the Comtesse Vigier. Meyerbeer was now left to himself, and too much inclined to revisions of every kind as he was, re-made the piece to his fancy. When it was completed—it didn’t resemble anything and the author planned to finish it at the rehearsals.
As we know, Meyerbeer died suddenly. He realized that he was dying and as he knew how necessary his presence was for a performance of L’Africanne he forbade its appearance. But his prohibition was only verbal as he could no longer write. The public was impatiently awaiting L’Africanne, so they went ahead with it.
When Perrin and his nephew du Locle opened the package of manuscripts Meyerbeer had left, they were stupefied at finding no L’Africanne.
“Never mind,” said Perrin, “the public wants an Africanne and it shall have one.”
He summoned Fetis, Meyerbeer’s enthusiastic admirer, and the three, Fetis, Perrin and du Locle, managed to evolve the opera we know from the scraps the author had left in disorder. They did not accomplish this, however, without considerable difficulty, without some incoherences, numerous suppressions and even additions. Perrin was the inventor of the wonderful map on which Selika recognized Madagascar. They took the characters there in order to justify the term Africanne applied to the heroine. They also introduced the Brahmin religion to Madagascar in order to avoid moving the characters to India where the fourth act should take place. The first performance was imminent when they found that the work was too long. So they cut out an original ballet where a savage beat a tom-tom, and they cut and fitted together mercilessly. In the last act Selika, alone and dying, should see the paradise of the Brahmins appear as in a vision. But Faure wanted to appear again at the finale, so they had to adapt a bit taken from the third act and suppress the vision. This is the reason why Nelusko succumbs so quickly to the deadly perfume of the poisonous flowers, while Selika resists so long. The riturnello of Selika’s aria, which should be performed with lowered curtain as the queen gazes over the sea and at the departing vessel far away on the horizon, became a vehicle for encores—the last thing that was ever in Meyerbeer’s mind. But the worst was the liberty Fetis took in retouching the orchestration. As a compliment to Adolph Sax he substituted a saxaphone for the bass clarinet which the author indicated. This resulted in the suppression of that part of the aria beginning O Paradis sorti de l’onde as the saxophone did not produce a good effect. Fetis also allowed Perrin to make over a bass solo into a chorus, the Bishop’s Chorus. The great vocal range in this is poorly adapted for a chorus. Some barbarous modulations are certainly apocryphal....
We are unable to imagine what L’Africanne would have been if Scribe had lived and the authors had put it into shape. The work we have is illogical and incomplete. The words are simply monstrous and Scribe certainly would not have kept them. This is the case in the passage in the great duet:
O ma Selika, vous regnez sur mon ame!
Ah! ne dis pas ces mots brulante!
Ils m’egarent moi-meme....
The music stitched to this impossible piece, however, had its admirers—even fanatical admirers—so great was the prestige of the author’s name at the time of its appearance. We must not forget that there are, indeed, some beautiful pages in this chaos. The religious ceremony in the fourth act and the Brahmin recitative accompanied by the pizzicati of the bass may be mentioned as an indication of this. The latter passage is not in favor, however; they play it down without conviction and so deprive it of all its strength and majesty.
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I said, at the beginning of this study, that we were ungrateful to Meyerbeer, and this ingratitude is double on the part of France, for he loved her. He only had to say the word to have any theatre in Europe opened to him, yet he preferred to them all the Opera at Paris and even the Opera-Comique where the choruses and orchestra left much to be desired. When he did work for Paris after he had given Margherita d’Anjou and Le Crociato in Italy, he was forced to accommodate himself to French taste just as Rossini and Donizetti were. The latter wrote for the Opera-Comique La Fille du Regiment, a military and patriotic work, and its dashing and glorious Salut a la France has resounded through the whole world. Foreigners do not take so much pains in our day, and France applauds Die Meistersinger which ends with a hymn to German art. Such is progress!
Something must be said of a little known score, Struensee, which was written for a drama which was so weak that it prevented the music gaining the success it deserved. The composer showed himself in this more artistic than in anything else he did. It should have been heard at the Odeon with another piece written by Jules Barbier on the same subject. The overture used to appear in the concerts as did the polonnaise, but like the overture to Guillaume Tell, they have disappeared. These overtures are not negligible. The overture to Guillaume Tell is notable for the unusual invention of the five violoncellos and its storm with its original beginning, to say nothing of its pretty pastoral. The fine depth of tone in the exordium of Struensee and the fugue development in the main theme are also not to be despised. But all that, we are told, is lacking in elevation and depth. Possibly; but it is not always necessary to descend to Hell and go up to Heaven. There is certainly more music in these overtures than in Grieg’s Peer Gynt which has been dinned into our ears so much.
But enough of this. I must stop with the operas, for to consider the rest of his music would necessitate a study of its own and that would take us too far afield. My hope is that these lines may repair an unnecessary injustice and redirect the fastidious who may read them to a great musician whom the general public has never ceased to listen to and applaud.
Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich , edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.