The Old Conservatoire

[This is taken from Camille Saint-Saens' Musical Memories.]

I cannot let the old Conservatoire in the Rue Bergere go without paying it a last farewell, for I loved it deeply as we all love the things of our youth. I loved its antiquity, the utter absence of any modern note, and its atmosphere of other days. I loved that absurd court with the wailing notes of sopranos and tenors, the rattling of pianos, the blasts of trumpets and trombones, the arpeggios of clarinets, all uniting to form that ultra-polyphone which some of our composers have tried to attain—but without success. Above all I loved the memories of my education in music which I obtained in that ridiculous and venerable palace, long since too small for the pupils who thronged there from all parts of the world.

I was fourteen when Stamaty, my piano teacher, introduced me to Benoist, the teacher of the organ, an excellent and charming man, familiarly known as “Father Benoist.” They put me in front of the keyboard, but I was badly frightened, and the sounds I made were so extraordinary that all the pupils shouted with laughter. I was received at the Conservatoire as an “auditor.”

So there I was only admitted to the honor of listening to others. I was extremely painstaking, however, and I never lost a note or one of the teacher’s words. I worked and thought at home, studying hard on Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperirte Klavier. All of the pupils, however, were not so industrious. One day, when they had all failed and Benoist, as a result, had nothing to do, he put me at the organ. This time no one laughed and I at once became a regular pupil. At the end of the year I won the second prize. I would have had the first except for my youth and the inconvenience of having me leave a class where I needed to stay longer.

That same year Madeleine Brohan won the first prize in comedy. She competed with a selection from Misanthrope, and Mlle. Jouassin gave the other part of the dialogue. Mlle. Jouassin’s technique was the better, but Madeleine Brohan was so wonderful in beauty and voice that she carried off the prize. The award made a great uproar. To-day, in such a case, the prize would be divided. Mlle. Jouassin won her prize the following year. After leaving school, she accepted and held for a long time an important place at the Comedie-Francaise.

Benoist was a very ordinary organist, but an admirable teacher. A veritable galaxy of talent came from his class. He had little to say, but as his taste was refined and his judgment sure, nothing he said lacked weight or authority. He collaborated in several ballets for the Opera and that gave him a good deal of work to do. It sounds incredible, but he used to bring his “work” to class and scribble away on his orchestration while his pupils played the organ. This did not prevent his listening and looking after them. He would leave his work and make appropriate comments as though he had no other thought.

In addition to his ballets, Benoist did other little odd jobs for the Opera. As a result one day, without thinking, he gave me the key to a deep secret. In his famous Traite d’Instrumentation Berlioz spoke of his admiration for a passage in Sacchini’s Oedipus a Colone. Two clarinets are heard in descending thirds of real charm just before the words, “Je connus la charmante Eriphyle.” Berlioz was enthusiastic and wrote:

“We might believe that we really see Eriphyle chastely kiss his eyes. It is admirable. And yet,” he adds, “there is no trace of this effect in Sacchini’s score.”

Now Sacchini, for some reason or other which I do not know, did not use clarinets once in the whole score. Benoist was commissioned to add them when the work was revived, as he told me as we were chatting one day.  Berlioz did not know this, and Benoist, who had not read Berlioz’s Traite, knew nothing of the romantic musician’s enthusiastic admiration of his work. These happily turned thirds, although they weren’t Sacchini’s, were, none the less, an excellent innovation.

Benoist was less happy when he was asked to put some life into Bellini’s Romeo by using earsplitting outbursts of drums, cymbals, and brass. During the same noise-loving period Costa, in London, gave Mozart’s Don Juan the same treatment. He let loose throughout the opera the trombones which the author intentionally reserved for the end.  Benoist ought to have refused to do such a barbarous piece of work.  However, it had no effect in preventing the failure of a worthless piece, staged at great expense by the management which had rejected Les Troyens.

I was fifteen when I entered Halevy’s class. I had already completed the study of harmony, counterpoint and fugue under Maleden’s direction. As I have said, his method was that taught at the Ecole Niedermeuer. Faure, Messager, Perilhou, and Gigot were trained there and they taught this method in turn. My class-work consisted in making attempts at vocal and instrumental music and orchestration. My Reverie, La Feuille de Peuplier and many other things first appeared there. They have been entirely forgotten, and rightly, for my work was very uneven.

At the end of his career Halevy was constantly writing opera and opera-comique which added nothing to his fame and which disappeared never to be revived after a respectable number of performances. He was entirely absorbed in his work and, as a result, he neglected his classes a good deal. He came only when he had time. The pupils, however, came just the same and gave each other instruction which was far less indulgent than the master’s, for his greatest fault was an overweening good nature. Even when he was at class he couldn’t protect himself from self-seekers. Singers of all sorts, male and female, came for a hearing.  One day it was Marie Cabel, still youthful and dazzling both in voice and beauty. Other days impossible tenors wasted his time. When the master sent word that he wasn’t coming—this happened often—I used to go to the library, and there, as a matter of fact, I completed my education. The amount of music, ancient and modern, I devoured is beyond belief.

But it wasn’t enough just to read music—I needed to hear it. Of course there was the Societe des Concerts, but it was a Paradise, guarded by an angel with a flaming sword, in the form of a porter named Lescot. It was his duty to prevent the profane defiling the sanctuary. Lescot was fond of me and appreciated my keen desire to hear the orchestra. As a result he made his rounds as slowly as possible in order to put me out only as a last resort. Fortunately for me, Marcelin de Fresne gave me a place in his box, which I was permitted to occupy for several years.

I used to read and study the symphonies before I heard them and I saw grave defects in the Societe’s vaunted execution. No one would stand them now, but then they passed unnoticed. I was naive and lacked discretion, and so I often pointed out these defects. It can be easily imagined what vials of wrath were poured on me.

As far as the public was concerned, the great success of these concerts was due to the incomparable charm of the depth of tone, which was attributed to the hall. The members of the Societe believed this, too, and they would let no other orchestra be heard there. This state of affairs lasted until Anton Rubinstein got permission from the Minister of Fine Arts to give a concert there, accompanied by the Colonne orchestra. The Societe fretted and fumed at this and threatened to give up its series of concerts. But the Societe was overruled and the concert was given. To the general surprise it was seen that another orchestra in the same hall produced an entirely different effect. The depth of tone which had been appreciated so highly, it was found, was due to the famous Societe itself, to the character of the instruments and the execution.

Nevertheless, the hall is excellent, although it is no longer adequate for the presentation of modern compositions. But it is a marvelous place for the numerous concerts given by virtuosi, both singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by an orchestra, and for chamber music.  Finally, the hall where France was introduced to the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose influence has been so profound, is a historic place.

Numerous improvements in the administration of the Conservatoire have been introduced during the last few years. On the other hand, old and honored customs have disappeared and we can but regret their loss. From Auber’s time on there was a pension connected with the Conservatoire.  Here the young singers who came from the provinces at eighteen found board and lodging, a regular life, and a protection from the temptations of a large city, so dangerous to fresh young voices. Bouhy, Lassalle, Capoul, Gailhard and many others who have made the French stage famous came from this pension.

We also used to have dramatic recitals which were excellent both for the performers and the audiences as they gave works which were not in the usual repertoire. In these recitals they gave Mehul’s Joseph, which had disappeared from the stage for a long time. The beautiful choruses sung by the fresh voices of the pupils made such a success and the whole work was so enthusiastically applauded that it was revived at the Opera-Comique and won back a success which it has never lost. We also heard there Gluck’s Orphee long before that masterpiece was revived at the Theatre-Lyrique. Then there was Mehul’s Irato, a curious and charming work which the Opera took up afterwards. And there, too, they gave the last act of Rossini’s Otello. The tempest in that act gave me the idea of the one which rumbles through the second act of Samson.

When the hall was reconstructed, the stage was destroyed so that such performances are impossible. But to make up for this, they installed a concert organ, a necessary adjunct for musical performances.

Finally, in Auber’s day and even in that of Ambroise Thomas, the director was master. No one had dreamed of creating a committee, which, under cover of the director’s responsibility, would strangely diminish his authority. The only benefit from the new system has been the end of the incessant war which the musical critics waged on the director. But that did no harm, either to the director or to the school, for the latter kept on growing to such an extent that it ought to have been enlarged long ago. The committee plan has won and the incident is closed. One may only hope that steps will be taken to make possible an increase in the number of pupils since so many candidates apply each year and so few are chosen.

We have, in recent times, been struck by a perfect mania for reforms, so there is no harm in proposing one for the Conservatoire. Foreign conservatoires have been studied and they want to introduce some of their features here. As a matter of fact, some of the foreign conservatoires are housed in magnificent palaces and their curricula are elaborated with a care worthy of admiration. Whether they turn out better pupils than we do is an open question. It is beyond dispute, however, that many young foreigners come to us for their education.

Some of the reformers are scandalized at the sight of a musician in charge of a school where elocution is taught. They forget that a musician may also be a man of letters—the present director combines these qualifications—and that it is improbable that it will be different in the future. The teachers of elocution have always been the best that could be found. Although M. Faure is a musician, he has known how to bring back the classes in tragedy to their original purpose. For a time they tended towards an objectionable modernism, for they substituted in their competitions modern prose for the classic verse.  And the study of the latter is very profitable.

Not only is there no harm in this union of elocution and music, but it would be useful if singers and composers would take advantage of it to familiarize themselves with the principles of diction, which, in my opinion, are indispensable to both. Instead, they distrust melody.  Declamation is no longer wanted in operas, and the singers make the works incomprehensible by not articulating the words. The composers tend along the same lines, for they give no indication or direction of how they want the words spoken. All this is regrettable and should be reformed.

As you see, I object to the mania for reform and end by suggesting reforms myself. Well, one must be of one’s own time, and there is no escaping the contagion.





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